Collecting The Obscure: A Special Look At The Vectrex Home Video Game System

April 20, 2018

On Sept. 11, 1977, Atari Incorporated released its awaited home video game system aptly named the VCS, which stood for Video Computer System. The system would be historically known as the Atari 2600 and become one of the most popular home video game systems of the golden age of home video gaming. The VCS retailed for $199 and came packaged with two joysticks and the Combat game cartridge. A total of eight other game cartridges were available at launch. The system would go on to sell about 250,000 units in the last quarter of 1977 alone.
Thanks in part to the success of the Atari VCS, it was becoming clear that home video games were one of the latest technological advancements to enter the living room. Not ready to allow Atari to monopolize the market all to itself, a bevy of other manufacturers entered the market with various degrees of success. Magnavox already released the Odyssey and Odyssey 2 machines. Mattel would launch the Intellivision series of video game consoles, and toy maker Coleco would score a breakout hit with its popular Colecovision home video game system. The number of competing video game systems at the time was mindboggling.
Most of the successful video games centered around either completely original concepts or were popular arcade video games that players could now play at home. Unfortunately, computer processing power at the time was limited, so even the most popular well-executed ports of arcades games like “Space Invaders” and “Pac-Man” left a lot to be desired. Just track down a copy of “Pac-Man” for the Atari 2600 and compare it to the arcade game of the same name. It barely even looks the same and plays much worse.
Ironically, a lot of great technological advancements in games were being created and introduced in the arcade, and Atari was at the forefront. One such popular design concept that seemed to be catching on was the use of vector graphics. Atari used vector graphics in a lot of its most popular arcades games. If you ever played “Asteroids,” “Battlezone,” or “Tempest” in the arcade, then you are already familiar with the simple polygon lines that make up simple vector graphics.
It was the concept of vector graphics that caught the attention of both Smith Engineering and Western Technologies in late 1980. Their vision was to create a stand-alone home video game system that functioned on vector graphics technology and had its own built-in monitor. While advertisements at the time would have you believe this design element allowed the television set to be freed up for mom and dad, the actual reason this idea was chosen was that the nine-inch stand-alone monitors were actually acquired at a fire sale price. The system was called the Vectrex and was released in November of 1982 by a licensing deal through General Consumer Electronics, which would become part of Milton Bradley after its purchase of the company in 1983.
The Vectrex was both a state-of-the-art stand-alone home video game system and one that was flawed. It launched with a retail price of $199 and came with one joystick controller and a built-in game called “Mine Storm.” The system stood almost 15 inches tall with its built-in monitor and weighed about 15 pounds. Unfortunately, due to the high cost to produce and manufacture the system, the Vectrex’s display was monochrome and could not display color. Colorized images were created by the use of screen overlays that slipped over the monitor and came packaged with each and every game cartridge. An incredible 3-D Imager was released for the system that resembled something of a primitive virtual reality headset. It retailed for $59.99 and came packaged with the game “3-D Mine Storm.” The 3-D Imager displayed a fairly good 3-D image for the time based on rudimentary technology even for the period. Other interesting accessories included an interactive light pen. The Vectrex was really ahead of its time for the era it was released in, regardless of some of its shortcomings.
Sadly, since the system was released in 1982, the great video game crash of 1983 prompted Milton Bradley to discontinue the product due to weak sales almost less than a year after releasing it. I know many fellow video game collectors who actually scored their system and games at fire sale prices. Systems were available well into 1984, with prices as low as $50 and games being discounted and sold for as little as $4.99 each.
Today, the Vectrex is one of the most valuable video game systems to collect out of the golden age of video gaming. Complete and boxed systems can command anywhere from $500 on up depending on condition, with loose systems in good condition selling for at least $150 or more. Games can be had for as little as $20 all the way to hundreds of dollars each for rare and sought-after ones such as “Pole Position,” which was released late in the system’s life. But the most valuable and sought-after item for the Vectrex is by far the 3-D Imager. If you have one in good condition and in its original box, you can command almost $1,000 for a working unit in today’s market. Loose 3-D Imagers bring about half that, but the few games made for the 3-D Imager that were released command hundreds of dollars each. “3-D Crazy Coaster” and “3-D Narrow Escape” were the only two games released separately for the 3-D Imager. They are highly sought after in today’s market, with collectors wanting complete in-box examples whenever possible.
The Vectrex is a painful reminder that manufacturers need to understand the market conditions into which they are releasing their product. By the middle of 1982, a glut of poor-quality home video games flooded the market. Atari and other video game manufacturers lost millions of dollars and the public turned away from home video games until a little almost-unknown Japanese company named Nintendo revolutionized it with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) in 1985. Ironically, Nintendo would face a surmountable battle to win over retailers who were burnt by video game manufactures like Atari and Milton Bradley, which lost millions due to lax quality standards. The NES would go on to sell 62 million units by the end of its run and reintroduce a new generation to home video games. And that’s the unbelievable history of the home video game market. If you are looking to buy a fun memento from the golden era of home video gaming, you can’t go wrong with the Vectrex.

Shawn Surmick has been an avid collector since the age of 12. He currently resides in his hometown of Boyertown, Pa., and is a passionate collector of antiques and collectibles. His articles focus on various topics affecting the marketplace.


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