Interest in the retro gaming scene has really expanded in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of capable mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad and the App Store behind them. As such, retro-minded iOS gamers have a wide range of games to choose from, such as retro-inspired new releases, retro remakes, as well as the actual games of olde brough forth through faithful emulation. It is in the last arena that, early this year, Rantmedia Games decided to toss its hat, sharing word of their upcoming Vectrex Regeneration, a one-stop-shop for fans of the much vaunted, early '80s Vectrex console.

We have been following Rantmedia's progress closely since then, and are pleased to have finally had an opportunity to put their Vectrex emulation / game library through its paces. Vectrex Regeneration [Free], a universal app for the iPad (2 and up) and iPhone (4 and up), is now live in the App Store, and here's the low-down.

First, some needed history. Released in late 1982 by General Consumer Electric (GCE), the Vectrex is a highly unique game system. Unlike every other console of the time, the Vectrex features an integrated CRT display -- but not of the standard, horizontal-scan variety. The Vectrex utilizes a vector monitor, which is similar to an oscilloscope and draws its graphics on the screen in a fashion similar to the display process of a laser light show. It's the only console from gaming's past defined by a complete lack of jaggies.

The Vectrex features a wired controller with an analog stick (one of the first ever brought to market) and accepts games on ROM cartridges, though a single, Asteroids-like game called MineStorm is built into the system. Each game title came with a pack-in plastic screen overlay to add cabinet bling and simulate color on the built-in monochrome display. There was even a light pen and an optional 3D imaging peripheral available for the system, the first ever offered for a console.

Thanks to the video game crash of 1983, brought on by hundreds of extremely low-quality games being poured into the market, the production of the Vectrex was terminated in 1984, leaving the system with just 28 released games in all. Due to its relatively short market run and unique system configuration and game library, the Vectrex is, today, a console prized by many retro gaming collectors. Here ends the history lesson.

In creating Vectrex Regeneration, Rantmedia Games strove to deliver the complete Vectrex experience to iOS gamers -- and what they've delivered is pretty darned close.

At startup, the app drops you into an exquisitely detailed '80s kid's bedroom (some of you may have seen it before...). You can pan about the 3D-rendered room, moving from item to item. Most importantly, on the desk is your Vectrex. Over there on the wall are your game shelves. And over the bed, there, is your leader(chalk)board, and right over there is the achievement corkboard, next to the media shelf, with photos from early app production and videotapes of Vectrex TV ads that can be played on the VCR over in the corner.

After pulling a 3D-rendered game box from your shelf (instructions are there if you'd care for a glance), you can send it to the Vectrex on the desk for a quick play. In that virtual Vectrex runs a Vectrex emulator that renders the games to your iOS screen. And, fortunately, there is probably no other screen anywhere that could better approximate pixel-less vectorscope renderings than an iOS Retina display. Not only is the display crisp and smooth, but there is a nice, affected flicker to the vectors that makes the experience all the more authentic.

As for the aforementioned games -- they aren't just carbon-copy replicas of the original ROM cartridges; they have been modified to hook into Game Center leaderboard and achievement systems, to add a competitive element, absent from the original. And, what games are we talking about here?

Original Titles 

  • Armor Attack
  • Bedlam
  • Berzerk
  • Blitz
  • Cosmic Chasm
  • Fortress of Narzod
  • Heads Up
  • Hyper Chase
  • MineStorm
  • Pole Position
  • Rip-Off
  • Scramble
  • Solar Quest
  • Spike
  • Star Castle
  • Star Ship
  • Starhawk
  • Web Wars
    Indie Titles 

  • Continuum
  • Thrust
  • Vector21
  • War of the Robots

The above list represents the currently available games at launch. The free Vectrex Regeneration download comes bundled with the original release MineStorm, the Asteroids-like game that came built into every Vectrex, as well as the four listed indie titles, the most notable of which is certainly Thrust -- the best version of the game I have encountered. The rest of the listed original titles can be had via the Mega Pack that can be purchased within the app for $6.99. The Mega Pack also includes the iCade connectivity and WiFi remote-iOS-device controller feature packs.

Most people reading this will be unfamiliar with the bulk of the titles listed, and most of these games are nearly 30 years old. So...are they any good? It's not just the obscurity of the Vectrex that holds it in high regard to retro collectors -- the game library is also valued for containing many highly challenging titles that stand apart from those of most other consoles of the period. Vectrex games generally have that old school "simple" formula, but come off as quite unique due to the particular nature of the console.

There are about 10 additional titles in the original Vectrex library that Rantmedia is committed to delivering -- in full -- to those who have purchased the Mega Pack, at no additional cost, through future updates. Additional indie game packs (about 40 indie games exist for the Vectrex, in all) and feature packs will be forthcoming, as well.

So, enough details -- how does it play?

As can be seen in the accompanying video, the standard iPad screen is almost exactly the size of the Vectrex's CRT. When games load up with such smooth visual rendering (especially on a Retina display) through their color overlays, active vector flickering, and even the once-unfortunate, now-requisite audio hum that is ever present on the original console, the experience truly is authentic. And, that's a win. When it comes to the iPhone, however, the significantly smaller display does offer a lesser experience, and it should come as no surprise. Despite the ability to move control buttons around the screen (more on that shortly), the Vectrex experience feels a bit cramped on something smaller than an iPad mini. (But, there's an additional reason to have a copy on your iPhone, which I shall discuss in a moment.)

The system's ability to faithfully run Vectrex games is certainly a core element but so, too, is the control system. And there's a lot to say about controls, here. Let's start with the iCade. Generally speaking, playing Vectrex games through Vectrex Regeneration on the iCade is amazing. And, it's not just the physical stick and buttons (four across, just like the Vectrex), but the overall shape and form factor -- how it physically resembles the Vectrex. I actually score far higher in MineStorm on the iCade than on my actual Vectrex. It feels awesome. iCade support comes as part of the Mega Pack IAP.

Next, we have the standard, on-screen controls. These involve a virtual analog stick and four action buttons. The buttons can be stretched, rotated, and moved around the screen to your liking, and the stick is the sort that lands and centers wherever you press on the screen. There is a stick sensitivity setting in the control settings area, and I found myself adjusting it quite often, unfortunately. Comfortable sensitivity, for me, varied wildly between games such that what was fine in one title was very much not so in another. Adjusting the sensitivity helped things out but, sadly, sensitivity settings are not saved on a per-game basis, so I was making adjustments quite often. I am in hopes that a control sensitivity save feature for each individual title comes in a future update to reduce the required jumps to the settings area. [Update 11/29: I've received word that the developer, in response to this request, has already implemented this feature into the system -- it will be deployed in the first update.]

Finally, there is one or two player remote WiFi control via another iOS device -- say, a couple of iPhones as controllers, connected to a host iPad. This, too, is part of the Mega Pack IAP option, and seems to make for an overall better experience than native on-screen controls. I prefer the fixed-stick mechanic of the remote device controller, but I use the word "seems" because, unfortunately, this initial release of Vectrex Regeneration has a bug that results in diagonal-only remote control in certain games. It's a bug that Rantmedia assures me will be rapidly remedied in an update, however.

While speaking of bugs, I will say that I have noticed a glitch in a couple of the original Vectrex release titles and reported them to the developers, who indicate that they are to do with the 6809 CPU emulation routine and will, also, shortly be remedied in a coming update.

So, here we have a long review full of historical details, a hearty portion of praise, and a number of bugs identified right out of the gate. Houston, do we have a problem? Having spent a significant portion of the past 36 hours with this title, and in an e-mail back and forth with Rantmedia Games, I say the answer is: No.

Vectrex Regeneration emulates a highly obscure vintage platform. As an avid retro gamer, I see and use C64, Atari, Apple II, and Amiga emulators all the time -- they area all based on highly popular CPUs that have been well emulated for decades. The Vectrex is based on the Motorola 6809, a seldom used -- but arguably the most powerful -- 8-bit processor. Vectrex Regeneration wraps that emulation in a jaunty 3D interface, offers most (soon all) of the original game library for those who like the free-download taste, and has trimmed it all with subtle touches that do make a difference. It all comes together to deliver an impressive Vectrex experience, even despite a few rough-start issues that are being presently addressed.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • Fafner

    Star Trek is in there it's just called Star Ship.
    I think that's what it was called overseas anyway

    • http://blakespot.com/ blakespot

      Hah. Interesting -- I was recalling Vectrex Star Trek being the 3-pane display sort, like the offerings on later 8-bits. I've got "Star Trek" cart, overlay, and box for the original Vectrex sitting on the desk here, actually. Good catch.

  • menom

    Great review Blake. Looks a superb app.

    Unfortunately it's not compatible with my iPad 1 which means I won't be adding it to my list of retro apps I play via iCade.

    Odd that a retro title needs a newer iPad to work- wonder if the emulation may be trickier all the others I have (Atari, Midway etc?)

    I seriously hope it's not just because of the 3D room interface they've gone with as, even though it looks good, it's not needed to play an emulated wireframe game.

    (I can't afford to upgrade my iPad btw so will be a longwhile before I get to try this via iCade but I might get it for iPhone - albeit not the same iCade retro experience)

    • Gamer_Kev

      I'm in the same boat, this was one of the most anticipated apps for me this year, I wish they had let us know sooner that the first iPad wasn't supported instead of waiting until release time. Anyway, I'm going to cut the developers some slack wait until I can actually play it before I make any comments on the app store. I had a discussion with one of the developers and they were trying hard to get this to run on the first iPad, this is probably why it didn't come out until last night that it wasn't supported. The way he was talking I got the impression that it's not impossible that we might still see support for the first iPad in the future if they manage to get around the technical issue they were having. The economy these last couple of years hasn't been kind to me, so upgrading to a new iPad is not an easy thing me me either. I thought about grabbing it for my iPod Touch 5, but it was the iCade experience I was really looking forward to.

  • Mindcrime

    I really want to like this but the on-screen joypad makes playing the free game really unpleasant. It seems like the only thumb motion it recognizes is left-right and the responsiveness is all over the place. I don't think I'll be shelling out any money for the megapack just yet. Maybe if a future update makes the on-screen joypad better.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=789334798 Mike Kohary

      That is how the controls on the original game worked: left/right on the stick to turn, one button to thrust forward, another to fire, and another to hyperspace. The emulation is perfect.

  • JindoFox

    OH NO, MOLLY! No voices in Spike. No John Dondzilla indie games. I'm sure both issues will be resolved soon. This is still a worthy release for those of us old enough to remember the original system, but kiddies (those born after 1975 or so) should probably stay away. These games are OLD. I'm going to EBay my old Vectrex system and multicast now that I have a worthy alternative.

  • JindoFox

    Question: how did the developer get the rights to licensed arcade games? Scramble and Pole Position are great to have on here.

    • Russ99

      Great classic arcade game mix! Been waiting a while to play Berzerk on iOS. Controls are a bit tough at first, but my iCade is on the way.

      • http://blakespot.com/ blakespot

        Berzerk is one title that needed the control sensitivity slider pushed to full-tilt.

  • http://www.makasoft.net/ maka

    Were there many games that supported the analog joystick? The app doesn't seem to support it, and iCade is not analog, is it?

  • dancj

    I hope they add the option to buy just one game for a cheap price. I'd be interests in that just for Thrust.

    • http://blakespot.com/ blakespot

      Thrust comes with the initial, free download...

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcoot Dave Marcoot

    worth $6 for me for Rip Off alone. Thrust, Armor Alley and Berzerk make it and instant buy. Only wish i had an iPad with iCade

    • JindoFox

      I like the 8-bitty. No cabinet needed.

      • http://twitter.com/BulkSlash BulkSlash

        Yeah, I've been playing it with the 8-bitty and it works brilliantly. I only came across one game that had some really odd button mappings. Maybe with an update they can improve it. Time for another burn on Pole Position...

  • korkidog

    Do I need to have this installed on my iPod Touch to use it as a virtual controller, or is there another app to do that?? Thanks!!

    • http://blakespot.com/ blakespot

      This app needs to be installed on the remote control device also.

  • Decaf Table

    We don't live in the 80's anymore, why the hell would I want this?

    • LS650

      Did you actually read the article? "the game library is also valued for containing many highly challenging titles that stand apart from those of most other consoles of the period. Vectrex games generally have that old school "simple" formula, but come off as quite unique due to the particular nature of the console. "

Vectrex Reviewed by Blake Patterson on . Rating: 4