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The Rise & Fall of Vectors (Part 1)
by Syzygy Magazine

In 1976, an MIT graduate named Larry Rosenthal, who had been attempting to lure various coin-op companies to buy into his new Space Wars video game prototype and his patented vector graphics display, finally landed at Cinematronics, a company based at El Cajon, CA and in the business of manufacturing Pong variations. Rosenthal's demand of a equal split of future Space Wars' profits between himself and the manufacturer, as well as the licensing of his Vectorbeam monitor rights, were scoffed at by all companies in the business...all except Cinematronics, then co-owned by Tom Stroud and Jim Pierce, who decided to give it a shot.

Space Wars itself was based upon a game which had been around for years, initially created by MIT student Steve Russell (and his hacker buddies) as a demostration of the capabilities of the old PDP-1 computer. Whether or not the "Space War" game idea itself was actually copyrighted by Rosenthal is not clear, but there have been murmurs that he actually obtained the copyright of the game from Russell, which would contradict the well-known rumor of the game being public domain. What is known, however, is that Rosenthal possesed the copyright to his vector display, which he called the "Vectorbeam" monitor, and which he licensed to Cinematronics for each Space Wars game produced.

This new vector display was capable of rendering only straight lines between points, no solid or rounded shapes as in the normal raster displays, and even though this limited the detail of the graphics to some degree, the resolution was phenomenal, a bright crisp contrast to the heavily pixelated games of the time. To his credit, Rosenthal's use of the vector display seems to have been proven as a major reason behind the success of Space Wars, as the first coin-operated video game called Computer Space, designed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and produced by Nutting Associates in 1972, had also been based on Russell's "Space War" game. In contrast to Rosenthal's Space Wars, Bushell's Computer Space was a blocky, slow mess, which was more frustrating to play than fun. Space Wars, having the technological advantage of coming five years after Computer Space, was a smooth, fast and beautiful creation, with many options to spice up the head-to-head spaceship battle. Players could choose to make the center of the screen a "Black Hole" which would suck the ships into its core and destroy them. Or players could choose the opposite, to have the center repel the ships with "negative gravity." They could also choose to have an expanded universe, in which the battle would continue outside the screen, players using only their memory as a reference to extrapolate shots and flightpath, intercepting their opponent. A wonderful creation that quickly impacted players across the country.

Space Wars became wildly popular in arcades, rated by game operators as the top earner of the year in 1978. Sales figures of the game are estimated to be in the neighborhood of 30,000 units, and given Rosenthal's deal with Cinematronics, it is safe to assume that he quickly became a very wealthy man, the profits of Space Wars netting him what would appear to be an eight figure sum (Do the math).
The video game business was, and always has been, all about following the leader. If a game, a game feature, or a specific technology became popular (a word synonymous with profitable in the coin-op world), it was certain to beget derivatives. Thus began the fabled and meteoric rise of vector games in the world of coin-operated amusement. And if the folks at Cineamtronics had stopped the Space Wars manufacturing line, and switched off the loud equipment, a dull rumble could have been heard, to the north, at the industry acropolis of Atari.

Space Wars stayed atop the charts for months to come (in fact it was still one of the top ten games in 1980) but Rosenthal soon left Cinematronics to start his own company which, like his display technology, he also called Vectorbeam. Whether or not Pierce and Stroud grew a dislike for the 50-50 profit split with Rosenthal and pushed him out, refusing to repeat the arrangement on his next game, or whether a different situation occured, is unclear. The split off was definitely not amicable, but either which way, Rosenthal used the substantial revenue from Space Wars to start Vectorbeam, which was solely dedicated to producing coin-operated vector games (the only company ever which can claim this).

Vectorbeam also had the right to produce Space Wars, and they did, dropping the "s" and calling it simply Space War, but with the exact same features and gameplay of the original. Other than Space War, Speed Freak, the unique vector driving game, was the only real production game that came from Vectorbeam as it existed under Rosenthal. Speed Freak was the most advanced driving game of its time, and it definitely lived up to its name; your speed increases exponentially as you hold down the throttle in fouth gear, giving good players an amazing ride for a quarter. (The cars which the passed the player's on the road were 3-D and wireframed, a predecessor to the tanks which would later be used in Battlezone by Atari).

Back at Cinematronics, immediately after Rosenthal left in early 1978, Tim Skelly was hired as the sole game designer, beginning work on Starhawk, a first person shooting game. However, when Rosenthal left to form Vectorbeam, he cleaned house, moving all of his developing tools over to Vectorbeam and taking the only copy of the instructions for programming the CPU, which requiried Skelly to effectively start development from scratch and reverse engineer Cinematronics' own CPU board. The result was Starhawk missing the AMOA show of 1978, an omission detrimental to sales at the time. Starhawk, however, made the show in London soon afterwards and was still enough of a success to keep the doors open and, along with the still popular Space Wars, kept Cinematronics' workers employed.

Skelly pressed on and created Sundance, a very unique game but one with numerous manufacturing flaws. The phosphor coating on the inside of the game's monitor was applied incorrectly, flaking off and causing the monitor circuit boards to short out. Additionally, the monitor circuitry itself was very fragile, as they added a gray scale adapter to it, requiring lots of cuts and jumper wires. This resulted in most Sundance machines arriving at their distriubutors DOA , therein immediately returned for a refund.

Dan Sunday, a designer at Vectorbeam along with Rosenthal, had started the development of the game Tailgunner, and also a primitive "rotating rings" game that would later inspire the creation of Star Castle, both to be released by Cinematronics after the buy-out. Yes, that's right. Vectorbeam only lasted about one year (from the fall of 1978 to the fall of 1979) and then Rosenthal sold the factory and the Vectorbeam technology rights to Cinematronics. He then took his substantial wealth (even after the failure of Vectorbeam he was still easily a millionaire) and left the game business for good, never to be heard from again.

One mystery he may have left unanswered forever is the game Scramble. Some say it was produced, and others claim only a flyer and a mock-up cabinet were ever produced. No Scramble has ever been found, and nobody with a definite recollection of ever seeing a Scramble has ever spoke out. It may very well remain a mystery...

The game Barrier, manufactured just after the Vectorbeam buyout by Cinematronics, is also an interesting story. Barrier was a game designed at Cinematronics as an excercise for newly-hired programmer Rob Patton, and was initially named Blitz. Jim Pierce, co-owner of Cinematronics, came up with the gameplay idea, which was curiously identical to the handheld Mattel football electronic game which was very popular at the time. As Skelly remembers, "To make Jim happy, we put it out on test. It did very poorly, to put it nicely, and we stuffed it in the closet."

Bill Cravens, President of Vectorbeam, visited Cinematronics before the buyout, looking for something his company could build and and sell quickly. "Cinematronics sold him Blitz," Skelly says. "And we all laughed our asses off."

However, the laughter died abruptly, as this happened only a matter of weeks before the buyout of Vectorbeam by Cinematronics, which nobody at Cinematronics had apparently forseen. "When Cinematronics took over Vectorbeam they found themselves stuck in Vectorbeam’s position," says Skelly. "They had employees, an assembly line, and nothing to build. So--and here comes the irony--they were forced to endure the fate they had intended for their foes: they had to build Barrier."

Meanwhile, while the rival frat house rubs were going on down in El Cajon, Atari had just unleashed Lunar Lander, its first vector game, which, like Cinematronics' first vector, was based on an older computer game which had been around for a while. It had an interesting control lever for thrust, and the display was virtually identical to what players had seen on the black and white vector monitors of Cinematronics and Vectorbeam. Lunar Lander's production was stopped abruptly, however. In fact, so abruptly that cabinet production was well ahead of the rest of the assembly line, and when Asteroids machines were grossly outselling and earning Lunar Landers, the pre-produced cabinets of Lunar Lander went out with Asteroids in them. Asteroids was the biggest vector game ever, and Atari's biggest coin-operated game ever. If Space War got vector games' proverbial foot in the door of mainstream arcades, Asteroids knocked it off the hinges. Gamers across the nation were entranced by its bright, pulsing graphics and wonderful gameplay.

Back at Cinematronics, Vectorbeam's factory would produce only a very small number of Barrier games. And before its doors were shut forever, Warrior, the world's first one-on-one fighting game, would be manufactured and unknowingly start a family tree which would later blossom in the mid 80's with Karate Champ, and later in the 90's with the blockbuster japanese import Street Fighter. As with Barrier, it would be built under the name 'Vectorbeam a Cinematronics company' and very few were produced. Warrior utilized the best video game cabinet artwork ever, exterior and interior, to make it a wonderous spectical.

Sunday and Rosenthal's Tailgunner would be given finishing touches by Skelly and released at Cinematonics to mediocre results. Likewise, Scott Boden's Solar Quest acheived only modest production. However, things quickly looked up as Star Castle began a run of success for Cinematronics (helped by Asteroids possibly?) selling well and giving players some color to look at. The rings in Star Castle were each a different color, implemented with a multi-colored overlay over a black and white monitor. Along with being a great game, and spicing up the display with its overlay, it was one of (if not the) first video games with an element of artificial intellegence. A small 'fuseball' chased the player around, adjusting to the movement of the player's spaceship, and acting independent of the rest of the actions in the game.

Rip-Off was next. It's gameplay possessed another first. It was the first two-player simultaneous co-operative game. Although games like Space War and Tank had pitted players in head-to-head battle, Rip-Off challenged them to work together, as that was the best way to protect your fuel canisters from being stolen and achieve high scores.

The final game by Skelly, and the final black and white vector game produced by Cinematronics, was Armor Attack. Controlling your tank in a downtown war zone, players had to navigate buildings, battle other tanks, and also deal with attack from the air, an element unique to this bird's eye viewed tank game. Helicopters zoomed onto the screen, attempting to ambush and destory the players tanks. Skelly left Cinematronics before Armor Attack saw production. "Why?" you ask. "Where did he go?" you say. Well, read I ask Tim those very things in an exclusive interview.


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