High-DPI displays revive Vectorbeam heritage

Vectorbeam displays--think Asteroids and Tempest--drew perfect lines from point to point. As a result, these games never looked right when emulated on low-res raster displays. With the latest high-DPI gadgets, however, the pixels are so small that the vectorbeam effect may be convincingly mimicked. Here's Kyle Orland on Vectrex Regeneration, a new app that goes to astonishing lengths to get the illusion just right:

Creating an authentic experience also means replicating some of the Vectrex's less desirable features. Because the Vectrex's oscillating electron beam can only be in one place at one time, there's a noticeable flicker as you watch the system actually draw each frame of the scene at a rate slightly slower than the human eye can process. This flickering is a key component of the authentic Vectrex experience for fans of the original system, but it might be frustrating (not to mention seizure-inducing) to a modern audience without the benefit of nostalgia.


    1. The very first video game, Spacewar!, used a dot display. The PDP-1 computer had a graphics system that would put a dot on the screen at a specified X-Y location. You’d give it a list of dot positions and it would draw them repeatedly. Not exactly vectors, but close.

      Some folks have deciphered the original code, and it’s weirder than you can imagine, as is to be expected for code that runs on a 60 year old computer…

      Some nice person has put a lot of the documentation for that system online. Heck, you can even play Spacewar! on a real PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum.

    2. Those were two of my favorites, especially the X-Wing full cockpit model. Also asteroids, where the little spaceship left an oddly satisfying light trail “tracer” as it moved across the screen.

  1. I’m a little surprised that vector-nostalgia didn’t enjoy at least a brief resurgence during the waning days of CRTs…

    Architecturally, a bitmapped CRT isn’t so very different from a vector one(you might run into chromatic oddness because of the arperture grille/shadow mask on a color unit); but vector tech prevailed in the early days because RAM was so expensive that an actual framebuffer was hyperexpensive crazy talk. Once that problem was solved, we moved to the conceptually and practically convenient pixel outputs; but it wasn’t until the rise of the LCD and the fall of the CRT that the possibility of ‘true'(as opposed to vector-based-but-rasterized-for-display, like SVG and fonts) vector graphics disappeared, since LCDs have an actual array of actual physical pixels that aligns much more closely and inflexibly to the conceptual array of pixels provided by the computer.

    I’d have expected mod kits for a few of the more common CRT monitors or TVs that did a little creative abuse of the horizontal and vertical beam controls to get vector output to spring up once the sell-off of the CRT category made the things cheap enough to play with.

    1. There are several reasons that that didn’t happen.

      The most important is that it’s a lot harder to build the hardware for a big vector display than for a big raster display. The deflection yoke coils must be wound with a few turns of fat wire, and the deflection amplifiers need to move many amperes of current through those coils. Winding deflection coils is tricky, as they wrap around the tube neck and funnel. I would be surprised if more than three companies ever did that successfully.

      Given the exotic hardware, there would have to be a compelling business case to spend that money on it. By the waning days of CRTs, RAM was so cheap that raster CRT displays were limited by the tube’s electron beam width rather than RAM storage space. So there was no value proposition for a vector display.

  2. Hell yeah.

    I remember firing up Asteroids for the first tome on my 2600… talk about disappointment. Back to the arcade I went, since back then you still could.

    I still wasted a few evenings flipping the 2600 Asteroids but it just wasn’t the same literally or figuratively.

    1. Reminds me of old food ads where the people look like they are about to burst a blood vessel out of shear ecstasy.

  3. I actually loved vector games for the speed at which they moved, which back in the day was faster and more precise than the other games out there. Tempest is an excellent example. Also, it continues to remind me, on a game theory level, that what we enjoy in a game can be very simple- and adding a lot of extra visual realism and renders isn’t always adding to the experience.

    One of my favorite little flash games is “n”, and I have lost weeks of my life there. It’s a simple, clean, almost gray scale UI, and doesn’t need more.

  4. I wanted one of these so very much when they came out. Years later, I found a system at a hamfest for $25, with all the games and a full set of the colored overlays. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy it…forever losing my opportunity to be INCREDIBLY FUCKING HAPPY like the folks in the ad.

  5. “you watch the system actually draw each frame of the scene at a rate slightly slower than the human eye can process.”

    I gather what they are trying to say but that’s not the right way to say it.

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