(Note: I am moving articles from the old JC site to this one. We begin with an interview with Alex Nicholson, developer of Spike’s Circus and Logo for the Vectrex. This interview originally ran on April 19th, 2006.)
The Vectrex is an 8-bit video game console that was released in 1982. It had its own monitor, so finally Mom and Dad could fear the Russians on the evening news in peace while you pretended to be a space ship, a vacuum cleaner, or even more unlikely, someone racing in the Tour de France. CGE stopped making Vectrex units in 1984.
Alex Nicholson is a retro programmer from the United Kingdom and has released Logo for the Vectrex…in 2006! Alex’s release includes a physical cartridge, an overlay, printed instructions and a perfectly designed box.
In fact, there are a small number of developers creating fantastic new software for this decades-old piece of hardware. As one of the leaders of the new generation of modern-day Vectrex games, we here at JC interviewed Alex to ask how the release went and what’s in store for the future.
Alex’s website, which features info on all his in-development wares, is located at www.vectorzoa.com.
JC: How did you come to be interested in the Vectrex? Did you have one when the system was new?
AN: Heh, it’s a classic story. I always wanted one but never got one. They were always very expensive and I was eight or nine when they were out. I made do with my 2600, but I never forgot them. One day I was chatting with my girlfriend about childhood and I mentioned I had always wanted a Big Trak toy (also from MB). So what do I know, but she goes and gets me one for Xmas from eBay. It was really cool. So it took me a while to figure it out but eventually I realised eBay could get me other things I had always wanted, so 3 months later in March 2005, I bid for my first ever Vectrex.
JC: Bringing a programming language to the Vectrex is certainly not an easy task. Logo is a very interesting choice, and I would say a clever one for the Vec because the same group of people who enjoy the nostalgia of the Vectrex were probably learning Logo in school while growing up. What inspired you to choose Logo?
AN: Thanks, actually that was my line of thinking, but it seems Logo and home computers in general were less popular in America than in UK. So whilst we may have grown up with BBC Micros etc., especially in our schools here in UK, Logo didn’t do so well across the pond. Let’s hope it does now :). I wanted to do something different for my first release, it’s hard to follow Protector, so I knew it had to be a departure from the norm. I wrote a few games, and spent a fair amount of time working on an RTS, but I didn’t think it was a good launch title. Eventually in February I decided to write an large and ambitious game and this would require an icon based command interpreter. I decided to approach it in stages and by prototyping this environment as part of Logo, I was able to test the UI concept and produce something a little unusual at the same time. (Yes, that does mean Logo is just a milestone to something else.)
I wrote Logo in such a way that it’s not limited by my own creative vision. I’m hoping the users will produce some really cool stuff in it; I’ve had a few pictures for my art competition already, and it’s stuff I hadn’t thought of, so that’s made me really happy. It means I satisfied my goal to transfer the creative onus to the user! :)
JC: Were there any unique challenges in development?
AN: I learn something with every game I write. I’m still a novice. I enjoyed optimising the code, increasing the number of glyphs I could draw. Logo held a particular challenge in that it requires RAM to hold both the user program and also the output draw screen. The RAM was only ever used previously in Animaction. I used a PCB developed by John Maccallan (repro 3D imager hero) and he was with me step by step helping me with development hardware. Regarding the RAM, the Vectrex has to draw everything 30 times a second, so when you write a Logo program to draw a square I need to record those vector lines and bang them onto the screen over and over again. Actually, it was easy to draw the final result, (Turtle Lightspeed On) the hard bit was slowing it down so it (the turtle) added one line at a time. Messing with the beamdrift parameter also shows some of what’s going on inside, as the Vectrex needs to be recalibrated every dozen lines or so, regardless of what the user wants the turtle to do.
JC: Did you learn Assembly programming for this, or were you already well-versed?
AN: As I said, I bought my first Vectrex in March 2005, so a few months after that I bought a book on writing an assembler for the Dragon Microcomputer in BASIC (it has the same processor). I studied this and it taught me the fundamentals of Assembly (using the registers, etc.), and then I was able to follow the fantastic programming tutorial by Chris Salomon (thank you Chris). I used the Vectrex PC emulators for a while, and I thought things were going OK, until one day I managed to put my code a real Vectrex… boy was that a shock, it looked terrible. The Vectrex is old-school (analogue components and stuff) and there’s no substitute for programming on the real thing, so now I don’t use emulators.
JC: The overlay for Logo is really sharp, and placing the glyphs on it is a stroke of genius. Are you planning on including overlays for your future releases? And for our readers who are wholly unfamiliar with overlays, how on earth did you take it from concept to finished product?
AN: Thanks, I wanted to produce a complete package; as a collector myself it was important to produce something people would actually want on their shelves.
I think Logo benefits from an overlay- it’s kinda a quick reference guide, and the colour green is just a nice bonus. Most of the classic games don’t really need them. I have some more ideas on how to really use the colour concept an overlay provides, and, you know, actually use the colours as part of the game. I talked to guys who had made overlays and I had some ideas that might improve the process; eventually I made them myself to test my theories. I’m pleased to say that my methods have been an influence on the forthcoming release of Color Clash from Revival Studios, in fact, CC improves on my overlays. I’m confident that everyone will agree CC has the most fantastic overlay ever produced.
The boxes were by far the biggest hassle, each one was hand made, this is why it’s a limited release! I couldn’t handle making any more. I’m not sure what will happen in the future; if I need to make any more by hand, I can’t see me making more than 20 or so for any future games. There have been some developments this year, though, that may change that. We’ll have to see what options become available.
The manual was also a challenge-on one hand I wanted to give users a chance to learn and use Logo, but on the other hand I didn’t want to drown them in information. In the end I settled for 16 pages with a bigger download PDF for those who want it.
If anybody wants to make their own overlay/box though, I can tell you all you need is a regular inkjet printer. I made everything using that, with a bit of effort. I think the nature of the offering depends on the game- some might have boxes and overlays, some might not. I’ll assess each individual case.
JC: To move that many Logo packages must have been exhilarating and exhausting. For instance, just producing and assembling the boxes must have taken a significant amount of time. Was there anything you learned from the process that you think will help as you ship your next game?
AN: Yes, the boxes took as much effort as writing the code. I know it’s a sad conclusion but I learnt I wouldn’t make 80 or so boxes by hand again. Overlays are pretty easy though, I’m confident releases can include those and they really finish the presentation nicely. It’s nice that people appreciate them though, it *almost* makes cutting and sticking them worth it! ;)
JC: Is Spike’s Circus the next game you think you will release? How would you describe its gameplay? It looks like Art of War, a real-time strategy game, is also in development — we would love any nuggets of information about any of your future wares that you might wish to drop!
AN: I think Spike’s Circus probably will be the next one. It received favourable reviews when I demoed it a RetroGamDag in the Netherlands. I need to settle on the options. It has scrolling support already, but I actually find it more enjoyable without the scrolling. I just need to decide what to include and what not to. Spike’s Circus has a funny little plot: it’s 20 years on and Spike is settled with Molly and owns a circus; he actually employs his old nemesis Spud as the Lion Tamer. Spike has to make Spud redundant, as Lions (and caged animals in general) aren’t so popular nowadays. Spud gets mad and takes his revenge by kidnapping Molly. His plan is to humiliate Spike and that’s where the game starts. (Spud will actually sing this plotline on Vecvox as part of the intro.)
I’ve also just started working on an old-school game called Star Sling. We’re kinda spoilt nowadays with massive 32KB Roms to play with. I want to try to write a game with the original cost restrictions. Scramblewas only 4K so I’ll try to fit it in 4K, maybe 8K at the absolute max. It will focus on playability and two player head to head. (If I can capture the intensity of Nebula Commander I’ll be delighted.) SS will probably be come out soon. I want to keep the production costs low too, so I can distribute it really cheaply.
Something I think that is underutilised on the Vectrex is the analogue joystick, only Hyperchase used it out of the original games. Both of these and AoW all use the analogue stick. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with it. (although the reason noone uses it is because it is VERY heavy on processor cycles)
JC: What Vectrex games — both original releases and those of the new batch — do you enjoy the most? Is there any kind of genre that you prefer over another?
AN: Mine Storm is of course everyones favourite of the originals. I likeScramble too, it’s just good fun. Shame it repeats so soon, but that’s the 4K limit getting in the way. Maybe one day I might do a Scrambleextended version. Unless someone releases Vectrex R-Type first!
For homebrews, I love Thrust by Ville Krumlinde, I think its just a perfect conversion, closely followed by Protector by Alex Herbert. I really rateNebula Commander by Craig Aker too, I think it’s the finest 2 player game by a long way. When you’re playing you forget to blink!
I like stuff that’s original and different, I remember the joy of the original Lemmings on the Amiga, if I ever experience that feeling of originality again I’d be delighted. March 2006 featured announcements of four releases, I don’t think the Vectrex has ever been so busy, long may it continue.
I think the one to watch with be George Pelonis’s 3D Star Fury, George has been at this a while and coding for the 3D imager is REALLY hard. I’ve had a dabble programming for it and the timing is so critical. If George pulls it off (and it all sounds promising) I think it will be the dawn of a new era. Maybe be a new epoch to follow Protector!