Runners-Up of 1981

For this year we’ll do a brief overview of the Vectrex console, and take a look at an interesting first entry of a long-running CRPG series.

Scramble |Arcade and Vectrex|

Let me tell you, it’s quite a treat to be able to see the shmup growing up before my eyes. Although I don’t have children, I’m sure that this must be akin to seeing them grow up and moving out before you know what happened. That may be one of the reasons it has been suggested that I never procreate, but I don’t like to conjecture. Let’s take a look at Konami’s foray into the genre and see just how it’s maturing.

The first major evolution in the genre came from Namco’s 1979 game Galaxian. The block of alien ships would never get closer to the player’s ship as in Space Invaders, but ships would detach from the group and suicidally dive toward the player. Besides being the first game with multi-colored sprites, Galaxian was the first game to have a counter at the bottom of the screen showing how many rounds the player cleared. A scrolling starfield gave the impression of forward movement, but each level looked exactly the same. Despite what you see in sci-fi, space actually looks quite boring most of the time. And this is the main drawback of the fixed shooter–that the ship, and thus the player, is locked in one place and never gets to see any new sights.

A good game of Galaxian for me is shooting aliens more often than I shoot between columns.

Galaga‘s starfield moved by far more quickly and so did the enemies. A titlecard made a big deal of progressing to a new level, but there was still the problem of never actually moving anywhere. Williams’ 1980 game Defender was a major breakthrough for shoot-em-ups. It was the first scrolling shooter and horizontal shooter, and the first shooter to have multiple weapons (phasers and bombs) and multiple goals (destroy enemies and rescue folks). It helped ameliorate the fixed shooter’s problem of static-ness by letting the ship roam freely around a map, but the problem it introduced was a lack of developer control over enemy movement. With the ability of the player to roam comes the loss of ability on the developer’s part to control the flow and progression of gameplay, because the player might go left, might go right, and might do neither.

Oooh, the laser beams are so pwetty!

But then, in 1981, Scramble came along and delivered the perfect compromise. By having the level auto-scroll, the developer could guarantee that the landscape would change (even more so than in Defender, which is still limited to a single panorama) and the developer could still meticulously plan enemy movement as if it were a fixed shooter. The game cleverly has a thin screen so as not to give away too soon which enemies are coming up, but this also serves the purpose of making the player initially think this will be a fixed shooter just like Galaga.

Notice how the intro screen is just empty space, but when the player presses Start the landscape pops in and suddenly it’s a whole different game. Initially Scramble was referred to as the “poor man’s Defender,” odd considering it improves upon the formula. Scramble was the first side-scrolling shooter with distinct areas, being divided into six main areas with different enemies and terrain layouts. A necessary consequence of this is that a sort of landscape narrative develops. As you progress you can see yourself getting closer to a foreboding enemy base. The natural hills and valley give way to menacing towers and corridors. Beside this a new gameplay mechanic was added in the constantly diminishing fuel supply, which the player replenishes by destroying reservoir tanks scattered across the landscape.


There are no words to describe how bad I am at this. :(

I mean, even more so than other games.


This video was taken from the Vectrex port of the arcade original. I like it better because it has tighter controls, more realistic bomb physics, and (in my opinion) more pleasant graphics. Forgive me, but I don’t especially care for the arcade’s garish colors. Besides, it’s no secret that I’m in love with vectors. Either way, Scramble is a great– albeit short– slice of innovation. That description can also be used to describe the Vectrex itself.

Distributed by GCE (General Consumer Electronics) beginning in November of 1982, the Vectrex was the first (and as far as I know, only) vector-based console. The Vectrex could only display the vectors in one color so every game came with a plastic overlay. Playing without it imbues a much different aesthetic to the game. Compare the two with Hyperchase below. First, with the overlay:



And now without:


Personally, I like the look without the overlay better. I like the minimalistic approach that vector graphics necessitate, and that’s partially why I chose to review the Vectrex version of Scramble; I find the colors of the arcade original to be overdone and unseemly. But aside from smooth, geometric graphics, what else could the Vectrex do? Well, it was also capable of rudimentary speech synthesis. In 1982 Mattel released a peripheral for the Intellivision called the Intellivoice. Let’s just say that results were mixed. It was an engineering marvel for the time, but because it came first it made the mistakes that others learned from. You had to buy an expensive peripheral just to hear a primitive synthesizer, or you could buy the Vectrex which had a better synth built right in. The difference is clear.


Despite how advanced the Vectrex was, it came at a bad time. It was released shortly before the video game crash of 1983 and was one of that crash’s many casualties. Consequently, the Vectrex’s library is tiny, comprising about 20 games. Being so close to launch, many of these were clones, like Spike in the video above. It’s a real shame that the Vectrex was ill-fated. It was a really cool and unique console. Either way, the Vectrex would not likely have lasted long. As graphics became increasingly complex and detailed throughout the 1980’s the Vectrex’s simple monochrome display simply wouldn’t have cut it. Still, it’s nice to imagine what could have been. Do you remember the scene from “Star Wars” where the rebels are looking at wire-frame schematics of the Death Star and plotting their attack? Now imagine a vector-based Star Wars game on the Vectrex. What would that be like?


Oh, right. It would be exactly like that.


Stampede |Atari VCS| you want a great example of a game with a very simple premise and is a ton of fun, this is it. Created by Bob Whitehead, Stampede is a game of timing and strategy. The player rides a horse that automatically gallops forward–you may steer the horse left or right. The horse runs more quickly than the cattle you’re running after. The object of the game is to capture cows with your lasso and prevent the cattle from falling behind. If three cows go off the left side of the screen, you lose. There are four game modes wherein the cattle run in different patterns and speeds: Sidekick, Pilgrim, Cowpoke, and Wrangler.


Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness |Apple ][|

Oh man, this game. Ultima was a vanguard of the CRPG genre and the first entry in an important, long-running series. Ultima was created by Richard Garriot,who was also the first cosplayer; no joke. Garriot went to a convention dressed as Lord British, the monarch from the Ultima games, and the idea stuck. Although Ultima was not Garriot’s first CRPG (that would be Akalabeth), it was the game that everyone came to know him for. Ultima, just as its predecessor, was inspired by the tabletop RPG “Dungeons & Dragons.” Its setting is high-fantasy, with dragons, castles, goblins, and thatched-roof cottages. There is even a race in the game called the “Bobbits,” one letter removed from “Hobbits.”

Ultima had the technical advantage of being built off Akalabeth’s engine, enabling Garriot and his partner to create the game in less than a year. The overworld map is top-down perspective with tile-based graphics, but the dungeons are first-person–this style is quite distinctive. Unlike other games of the time, Ultima allows the player to customize his/her own character at the start of the game. Ultima was probably the first game to use more than one side of a floppy disk. The game was a huge success, selling 20,000 copies by 1982 (remember, this sales figure would’ve been considered a failure for a console game but for the PC market it was huge) and went on to sell over 50,000 in the long run. You can buy the original Ultima trilogy, as well as the rest of the series, on

<< Galaga                                  Nibbler >>



Leave a Reply, Win Candy! (not really)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s