I spent some time in the Lab last week playing on the Vectrex. I know that we have had previous posts on the 1980s arcade system, but I wanted to explore one particular association that arose for me as I played.
When I was younger, growing up in the 90s, my family had a PC. My gaming was done to an extent on that PC; I had several of the game complements to Disney movies, including 101 Dalmatians and Pocahontas, but I also had games like Math Blaster and one particular game that I believe influenced my life course: Storybook Weaver. I am not sure how many people got into this program, but for those who are not familiar, here is the image from the opening sequence:
If you click on the picture, it will take you to the Wikipedia page for the program. I spent hours playing SW, making tales in the simple, kid-friendly user interface. Some of them were horror stories, other were about princesses and wizards. Whatever was available in their image banks was the seeming limit of what I could do, but even then, I had text to help guide a reader if the still image on the page seemed confusing.
Enter AnimAction for the Vectrex, a game created a decade before Storybook Weaver, but one that shares certain similarities with it and that contains certain drawbacks and successes that SW would never achieve. On the one hand, AnimAction allows for one to create one’s own avatars/icons/word art/etc. The created icons can contain up to 29 lines. And in fact, I took advantage and tried to create an image of a book, a ball cap, and an eyebrow (see below). This was my first desire – to create new images aside from the ones in the image library that came with the cartridge. I recognized this as a response to not having that option before in a game that allowed me to create my own story. Yes, the control and excitement of creating the story is a prize in and of itself – one that AnimAction and Storybook Weaver share – but putting your own images on the page has an irresistible draw. (Pun intended, I think?) What I found, with AnimAction, was that I didn’t even get so far as to putting together a multiple-scene story or animation. I was so excited to be able to create icons of my own to use later that I lost focus on the longer project. I wonder the extent to which my interest in the icon creation process is speaking to a larger desire for more control over my electronics and digital expression in a culture that seems to want to tell me the systems, icons, and characters to use.
But I suppose I should get to my other hand. Prior to AnimAction, I couldn’t say what the last game was that required me to read the manual before even clicking a button or using the tools of the game. The Vectrex’s four-button panel and light pen were mystifying without direction. Perhaps this is why the Vectrex did not do so well in the consumer market, being pulled from production only two years after its release. But from my own experience, I have a difficult time believing this; once I had reviewed the information on creating icons that was in the AnimAction booklet, I was able to create new icons with relative ease. My only limitations were generated from myself: not knowing proportions or how to create the illusion of a curved line using only straight ones. I would be interested to look at the PCs created and released around the same time, as well as additional gaming systems, in order to see the other features of electronics that were being sold and were becoming popular to a degree. I would also be interested to compare the media response and advertising used in the Vectrex creation and release with those of other electronics at the time. Doing so may help see what the consumer was looking for at the time and might illuminate the fate of the Vectrex.