Retro Scan of the Week: The Art of the Vectrex Overlay

January 22nd, 2007 by Benj Edwards

Flipper Pinball Vectrex OverlayFor those of you who might not know, the GCE Vectrex (1983) was a unique game system that had a built in black and white vector graphics display. Vector graphics are composed of lines drawn point-to-point on a specially-driven CRT rather than through a bit-mapped pixel graphics method on a raster scan display (like an ordinary TV set). That may be a bit too technical for you, but the least you need to know is that vector graphics are different than usual and, in the case of the Vectrex, consisted of white lines on black backgrounds only.

In order to spice up the system’s monochrome gameplay, each Vectrex game came with its own custom translucent colored overlay that snapped in place over the Vectrex’s built-in monitor. The white vector lines on the monitor underneath shone through and gave the illusion of a color display for certain parts of the screen. The one you see above is for Flipper Pinball. Notice the different regions of the play field which have different colors to add more life and variety to the game.

It should be noted that colored overlays were not a new idea to the Vectrex. Their use in video games spans back to the medium’s very genesis, from the days of Ralph Baer experimenting in his lab at Sanders, and later on the first video game system ever, the Magnavox Odyssey. Also, most early arcade games used black and white displays with colored overlays to keep production costs down, as the components needed to generate and the monitors needed to display colored graphics were expensive at the time.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of overlays — I find them a chintzy substitute for a true color display, and instead prefer to play my Vectrex games without them. Monochrome ain’t so bad.

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5 Responses to “Retro Scan of the Week: The Art of the Vectrex Overlay”

  1. Toasty2k Says:

    I worked at GCE as a Vectrex product engineer and found the overlays to be distracting. My two sons, Beta Testers #1 & #2, niether used the overlays after the first time out of the box either. The overlays were pretty much “spare parts”.

  2. Chrisbones Says:

    Wow! a real Vectrex tech! Hey Toasty2k, if you have any annoying, extra Vectrex parts or accessories lying around, please send them my way! 🙂 (really)

    I love my Vectrex and I agree I can go with or with out the overlays, they are more of a spare part. I have a whole stack of them somewhere. I’m a fan of technology and truly amazed by todays videogame graphics… but I still get giddy seeing my Vectrex system start up. Vectors rule!

  3. kyle Says:

    i always liked mixing overlays with different games.
    it made some a challenge and sometimes i got confused!!!

  4. doug Says:

    All my favorite video games were Vector Graphics…asteroids, tempest,
    battlezone, gravitar, starwars, armor attack!! Fun stuff.

  5. Poitanga Smith Says:

    Wow. It’s great to see some fellow Vectrex Noobs. I only recently acquired mine and I love it! It’s right up there along side my Virtual Boy. Thanks Toasty2k. Your System Rocks!!

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