In which the black ox with the blue star (the best ox) out of Super Ox Wars recommends games we’ve been enjoying lately.
One of my first ever trips to the US (to go and visit Human Engineered Software, who were distributing some of my Commodore games at the time) coincided with the launch of a new game system. I’d read about this prior to my visit, and so I was determined that when I was visiting I was going to get hold of one of these new toys and bring it back to Blighty. That proved trickier than I’d initially thought, as the new system was in demand and finding a place that had some in stock proved difficult. I walked many miles all over San Francisco trying to find a shop that had any in, and perseverence eventually paid off and I lugged my prize back to my motel room and prepared for an evening of gaming.
The system in question was called the Vectrex, and it was unusual for a couple of reasons: for one, it had its own screen, whereas all other game systems of that time required that you plug them into the telly for display. And secondly, it had a different kind of screen, one that gamers had seen before, in the arcades, displaying games like Asteroids and Tempest: a vector display. Back in those days graphics in game systems tended to look pretty chunky, due to memory constraints and the low resolution of raster displays. Games made with vector displays looked very sharp and clean by contrast. Objects in such games were made up of lines (“vectors”) that were pure lines, not made out of a bunch of blocks like on a raster display. There were no visible pixels at all – in a way vector displays were the “Retina” displays of their day, and the idea of having such a display in a home system was pretty appealing.
The Vectrex itself was a nice little portable unit, looking quite a lot like the Macintosh that would appear a couple of years later. It was handy to set up and use, just plug it in and start playing without having to faff about with hooking it up to a telly and tuning in the RF signal. Easy to take with you round a mate’s house too (I remember there being a slight flight delay on my trip home from the US and I busted out my Vectrex that was in my hand baggage, plugged it into a wall socket in the departure lounge, and amused myself and some of my fellow passengers with games of Mine Storm, Scramble, Berzerk and Star Trek while we waited).
For a while the future looked good for the little system – gamers liked it, it received good reviews, and in a few months it became available in the UK too; one of my brothers liked mine so much he bought his own, and I was able to buy more games for mine without having to import them from the US. I went to the Summer CES in 1983 and saw on the Vectrex stand all manner of intriguing extras they were planning to release for the system – a light pen, a funky headset thing that used a spinning filter thing to transform the Vectrex’s monochrome display into colour with stereoscopic 3D, and even a keyboard to transform the system into a BASIC home computer.
(Man, I wish I’d had a video camera with me at that show, or at least have taken a bunch of pictures, because i didn’t know it but I was seeing the last peak of the videogame boom before the oncoming Crash of ’83. That show was full of stuff that was never released, shovel-loads of VCS games, computer-keyboard-addons for game systems, all sorts of stuff that in later years would be only dimly remembered or outright lost).
Then the crash happened and the Vectrex was one of the casualties. For a while as shops cleared out their inventories you could pick up brand new systems for £30 each and the games for a few quid; then it vanished, lost and gone forever, and over the years the systems that remained and still worked became increasingly cherished by collectors (I still have two). A Vectrex in good nick commands quite a decent price on ebay these days.
Of course things being what they are, systems are no longer lost and gone forever thanks to emulation, and for a few years now it’s been possible to play the system in emulation on a PC. And just now there’s a new Vectrex emulation out for iOS.
Emulation on iOS can be a bit of a mixed bag. For one thing it’s rarer than it could be, due to Apple not liking stuff which can run arbitrary ROMS, and it not being practical usually for a developer to license the rights to sell an emulator complete with all its software. The platform is more than capable of decent emulation, but there are significant difficulties in simulating controls which were decidedly physical back in the day on devices that use a multitouch screen for input. Sometimes you can get great emulation but let down by less than great controls (the Atari collection is a bit like that; although the controls have been improved from the initial release they are still a bit of a dog’s breakfast), and sometimes you get lucky and the controls don’t actually suck (the Activision collection is quite playable and worth having).
So when I heard about the new Vectrex emulation in development I was interested but worried about the controls. I always worry about iOS controls. So I was relieved to discover when the app was released that the controls are pretty good. Not perfect – that’s not a criticism of the app, just an acknowledgement of the fact that you are never going to get perfect controls on an emulation of a system that used buttons and joysticks. But what they’ve done is really pretty good, and all the games are playable and fun even using just the touch screen. (The analog stick is emulated by the left touch, and centres where the touch lands; the visible image of the touch location can be turned off, as God and Nature intended. The four fire buttons can be scaled and rotated so as to be positioned as you want under the other hand. It’s always going to be a compromise compared to a proper stick and buttons (and you can have those, if you want, too) but it works well enough that you should be able to make it comfortable to play the games reasonably well on just your bare iOS device).
The simulation of the actual vector display is very good too. They’ve even left in authentic-looking amounts of vector flicker and some of the weird background noises that display used to make (which may sound like a bad thing, but actually adds to the charm and realism of the emulation). The Vectrex was a monochrome system, and each game came with a coloured plastic overlay that you’d clip in front of the screen, which defined play areas and added come colour to the scene – these overlays are faithfully reproduced too. As is the option to just go ahead and play in (brighter) monochrome with the overlay off, as many of us real system users did, having misplaced the overlays or not being arsed to put them on when changing games.
For full-on authenticity though you’ll be happy if you’ve got an iCade. If you look at the image of the Vectrex system I posted earlier you can see the iCade next to the original system, and you can see it has the same screen orientation and even pretty much the same joystick and button layout. Although the joystick on the original Veccie was analog, most games just treated it like a digital stick anyway, so most of the games are playable on the iCade in just about as authentic a way as physically possible. It really is a pleasure to play on the iCade, and with the bigger screen and arcade controls could even be considered to be better than the original in some cases.
The UI is very posh, and consists of a 3D rendering of a kid’s bedroom from the 80s. Your Vectrex sits on a desk in the corner, and you can pan around to see your game collection on a shelf. Choose a cart from your collection and you can rotate the box and examine it closely. It’s all very nicely done and makes a posh and pretty front end to the emulation.
The game is fond of showering you with lots of little micro-achievements (I farted once while playing and was mildly surprised not to get a “First Wind Broken” achievement at the end of my game) and as you get them a corkboard in your virtual bedroom fills up with little badges for them all.
There’s a blackboard in the bedroom which shows you the current online leaderboard for whatever game you’ve been playing. Yes, that really is me being best in the world at Star Ship. I’m high on a good few of the leaderboards, come on and beat me!
There are photos and videos to look at too; the emulation frontend is really very well done, and it adds an extra, modern dimension to these old games to be able to post on global leaderboards. I can’t imagine how awesome that idea would have seemed to 1980s me. We take so much for granted these days .
What of the games themselves? After all great emulation, decent controls and a posh frontend all count for bugger all if the games are a pile of wank, and many old games don’t stand the test of time too well. But fortunately by and large the Vectrex games were a pretty decent lot, and given that they are, after all, early 80s games, they remain surprisingly fun to play today, particularly with the addition of online leaderboards. 80s games are all about score, after all.
Out of the chunk of the official library released so far (more games are forthcoming soon, apparently) the only two I don’t play much are the American football one (it makes no more sense to me rendered as tiny Os and Xes than it does on telly with real people) and the soccer one (which actually wasn’t that bad when I tried it, just it’s not really my thing). Some of my favourites:
- Mine Storm (this game was built in to every Vectrex, and is the free game you can play when you download the app). This is a cool and challenging Asteroids-style game. You start with passive mines that just drift about and on later levels progress to mines that shoot back at you, homing mines, and combinations thereof.
- Fortress of Narzod. This is a really fun bottom shooter in which you shoot at baddies who advance down a twisting corridor. You can bounce your shots off the walls and have to be careful not to bounce your own shots back and shoot yourself. After three levels there’s a fireball-hurling boss to kill. Gets satisfyingly fast and challenging as you go on.
- Scramble. Not a game you’d think would translate to vector very well, but in fact this conversion is extremely good and plays very much like its coinop ancestor.
- Pole Position. Again, a game you’d think wouldn’t suit translation to vector, and indeed it does look a bit sparse compared to more colourful raster versions, but it actually plays really well and feels nicer to control than some of the raster versions I’ve played.
- Rip Off. An interesting game in that you have infinite lives and simply have to prevent enemies from stealing a stash of pods in the middle of the screen. Smashing your ship to kill a bad guy is just as important a strategy as shooting them. Games are short and frantic.
- Solar Quest. I believe I’ve mentioned this as being one of the games that inspired Minotaur Rescue, and if you’ve played that you’ll see why when you play this, in which you shoot baddies which release “enemy pilots” (little asterisks) which you can either shoot or rescue before they fall into the sun (sound familiar?).
- Star Castle. A near perfect recreation of a classic vector coinop, at which I am rubbish as I tend to get blasted as soon as the middle cannon is exposed. I suspect I need to work more with the screen wrap to develop a good technique.
- Star Ship. This was released as Star Trek in the US version I had. First-person space shooter incorporating elements of Tail Gunner (shields you can use to bounce incoming enemy shots back off the screen) and Star Raiders (a star base to refuel at, a warp tunnel to use).
- Web Wars. A peculiar game in which you have to fly down a web collecting space insects by licking them with your tongue while avoiding and shooting enemy shots. Sounds odd, and is, but look at the lovely perspective changing web and think of the great version of Tempest they could have done if they’d had the license.
Most of the other released games are well worth a look too, and between them all there’s certainly enough gameplay to justify the investment (you get Mine Storm for free and unlock the rest with a single IAP). Also free are four homebrew games, the best of which is probably a pretty decent implementation of old 8-bit classic “Thrust”.
The price to buy all the games is a fiver, and whereas some might think “a fiver, that’s expensive” when it comes to iOS games, I think it’s a good thing, and I would like to see more developers moving away from the ultra-low price point. 69p does more harm than good in my opinion. For a game priced at 69p to succeed it has to sell absolute bucketloads (which most games don’t, so developers either give up after realising they’d be better off playing the lottery, or start messing about with niggly bits of IAP to try and gouge back their development costs that way). I’d much rather developers be more upfront about it, and charge at least the price of a pint for their work; it’d mean sustainable game development would actually be possible without hanging out for the miracle of “going viral” (and would beneficially impact game design too, since developers wouldn’t necessarily have to feel that they absolutely must design for maximal popularity above all else). Also if you charge a fiver for a game it’s a much more reasonable thing to expect a few updates during its life. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make updates for 69p games that you’ll never get paid for again.
But I digress. Is Vectrex worth a fiver? Given the nice front end, great presentation, leaderboard integration and a nice collection of games, yes of course it is. If you’ve any enthusiasm for or interest in older game systems then having this beautifully presented collection on your iOS devices (it’s Universal, as all apps should be) is well worth the slightly less than the cost of a vindaloo (without even the rice and pappadoms, never mind the lager) they are asking. Good on them for setting a decent price point I reckon.
It’s not perfect though. There are a few bugs and gotchas in this initial release – it doesn’t run on original iPad 1s and it’s a bit slow and dim on my iPhone 4. It looks and works great on my iPad 3 and mini though, so you should be good on anything rated similar to the iPad 2 or above. There’s a slight emulation glitch which means that sometimes, when playing Mine Storm, the vector display will go a bit funny for a few seconds. One of the developers told me this is a 6809 emulation bug which has since been fixed and there’ll be an update along shortly to fix it. It’s not game breaking usually anyway – if it happens in game to you just sit tight and after a few seconds it’ll go back to normal.
They also say they are working on improving performance, so there’s a chance it’ll become viable on the older iOS versions in due course.
There’s some more games from the original library soon to be released (and you’ll get them for free if you’ve already bought the current game collection), and who knows, maybe they’ll release emulations of some of those funky peripherals I mentioned. I’d quite like to see that if they did because I’ve never actually seen the colour imager thingy, which was released but is pretty rare.
If I were to have a wishlist, I guess I’d ask for a couple of things: it might be nice to be able to set autofire on some of the buttons. To make a game playable on the touchscreen I strongly believe it’s necessary to de-complicate controls as much as possible (which is why many of my games don’t even need a fire button). Every time you have to lift your finger and tap to make a now shot, there’s the chance your finger will wander away from the landing zone for that button. I just think autofire on some games’ fire button might make them feel and play more nicely on the touchscreen.
I don’t know how the vector generation code is broken out inside the emulation, but it might be nice if it were possible to choose some alternate vector styles not possible on the original hardware (good though the emulation actually is). It’d be fun to play the old games in some new funky modern style .
So yeah, highly recommended, modulo the few glitches I’ve mentioned (which will be fixed soon anyway). And now i think I feel a game of Fortress of Narzod coming on.
(In fact I wouldn’t mind doing a modern remake of Fortress of Narzod one day. I reckon it’d quite suit my style)…
The app is a free download from here:
That gets you Mine Storm and the homebrew games and you pay a fiver to get all the rest, including a few more from the original lineup yet to be released.