One of the most collectible retro systems is the Vectrex, originally distributed by General Consumer Electronics (GCE) in 1982. What makes the Vectrex unique among all home videogame consoles, past and present, is its built-in vector graphics monitor that produces sharp, beautiful monochrome images reminiscent of arcade favorites such as Atari’s Asteroids. For this reason and more, a working Vectrex unit will command a fairly steep price these days relative to other consoles of the era. It is rare to see one sold on eBay for less than $100, and prices for boxed models can go upwards of $200. If you’re serious about collecting vintage videogames, the Vectrex is a must-have addition and can be the centerpiece of your collection. There are many considerations to attend to, however, before you take the plunge. I’ll go over the symptoms of malfunctioning units, model variations, desirable extras, reasonable prices you can expect to pay, general buying and selling strategies, and how to expand your collection.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG
The first consideration is whether the console itself, especially the vector monitor, is working properly. If the unit is described as working, the monitor is probably operating as it should. However, be aware of a few common problems that the seller may or may not disclose. These include
- no image
- no sound
- off-center image
- distorted vectors
Sellers will usually disclose whether the Vectrex suffers from the first two maladies. The monitor may not display an image if the wires sending power to the monitor have been disconnected, or if an IC has come loose from its socket. Sometimes the only thing on the screen is one bright dot. Stay away from any unit with no image or sound unless you’re good at fixing electronics and can buy the unit for less than $50. A dim screen may mean that the brightness knob is turned too low. The knob is at the back of the unit, which some resellers may not notice. Turned too high, the knob creates a kind of sunburst pattern on the screen. If the monitor does display an image, the image may be off-center, as if everything has shifted down and to the left. Of the five Vectrex units that I have owned, only one exhibited distorted vectors. Unfortunately, this is usually not an issue that most sellers can identify, as it takes a trained eye that knows what the vector images are supposed to look like. The unit will still be playable, but the distorted images will likely prove annoying for many. The unit can be calibrated to correct this problem, but doing so requires opening the unit and adjusting a couple of internal pots. Take care when working inside the Vectrex case; like a CRT television, the monitor can give you a bad shock if you touch the wrong component.
Vectrex units are known for making a loud buzzing noise while in operation. This noise is called the “Vectrex buzz” and is normal. Apparently, the noise is caused by the audio cable drawing interference from the CRT.
The other component to consider is the controller. The Vectrex controller features an analog joystick and four action buttons. The condition of the controller is important because a fully-functional controller is worth about the same as a Vectrex console without a controller! The joystick is designed to center itself, although many no longer do so. Two internal springs in the joystick mechanism center the stick, and one or both are prone to breaking. You can tell if this has happened if the photo of the controller shows the joystick flopped over to one side. Fixing this problem is moderately difficult, and I would avoid tasking yourself with this responsibility when buying your first Vectrex, which you want to fire up and play right away, after all. It is a good idea to ask sellers if the joystick centers itself and also if the buttons seem to be working. Because the Vectrex comes with a built-in game, MineStorm (a truly excellent Asteroids clone), the seller will be able to test the functionality of the controller. Button 2 is “Escape” (hyperspace), Button 3 is “Thrust,” and Button 4 is “Fire,” while Button 1 is unused.
GCE manufactured the Vectrex at two locations: Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both the main console and the controller have these origin markings. Controllers made in one location are fully compatible with main units made in the other location, so you can mix and match if you need to. I’ve noticed subtle variations of the screen image based on the origin of the unit, with Hong Kong units exhibiting a slightly “wider” character font than the Taiwan models.
Once Milton Bradley took over the distribution of the Vectrex in 1983, Milton Bradley-branded versions of the Vectrex appeared. These were primarily distributed outside of the U.S. If you are planning to buy a Milton Bradley Vectrex, make sure that the power plug from the Vectrex will fit your wall socket. The printed graphics on the main unit and the controller use a different font from and are more colorful than the GCE models. Some Milton Bradley games have different titles from the GCE versions, but the game is the same. One example is Milton Bradley’s Star Ship, which is the same game as GCE’s Star Trek.
Bandai released a version of the Vectrex for the Japanese market. It is extremely rare to find one of these in the U.S., and they command prices upward of $500 complete in the box.
One variation of the Vectrex was not produced as a consumer product but as an arcade unit. This is the Mini-Cade, manufactured by a company from the Boston area known only as ESI. The Mini-Cade was essentially a regular Vectrex unit housed in a small cabinet that was meant to sit atop the counters of bars and restaurants. It has a mechanism for accepting coins that allows the control pad to function for 90 seconds per quarter. The Vectrex FAQ claims that only two are known to have survived in collectors’ hands. Given the rarity of the Mini-Cade, it is difficult to speculate on its value.
While this section does not usually mention games, one variation of a Vectrex game is so rare that it merits an exception: the Mr. Boston-branded version of the game Clean Sweep. The liquor manufacturer Mr. Boston sponsored a version of its game with its logo on the box, overlay, and cartridge. In gameplay, this version replaced the vacuum cleaner with a tophat, a symbol of the Mr. Boston company. Only three known complete-in-box examples of this game have been found. One of them was put up for sale by Atari2600.com in January 2013 for $8,900 and sold for an undisclosed amount.
Sometimes a seller will have the extras that originally came with the Vectrex. A common but important one is the overlay for MineStorm. The overlays are sheets of colored acetate that fit over the Vectrex screen to give a semblance of “color” to the game being played. Their printed graphics are decidedly retro and are part of what give the Vectrex its charm. With a few exceptions, each game comes with its own unique overlay. The MineStorm overlay is collectible because it only came bundled with the Vectrex unit itself. Examples in good condition (few or no scratches) can fetch as much as $20 at auction, so consider any one included with your console a nice bonus.
The original box is a highly desirable extra and adds a lot of value to any Vectrex lot. The box comes with two pieces of styrofoam that go over the top and bottom of the unit. A box and styrofoam in good condition is worth at least $50 and maybe more, depending on how desperate the buyer is to have a “complete” system.
Other notable extras include the Vectrex manual, the MineStorm manual, and a “Passport” catalog.
From time to time, you will see a Vectrex unit listed for sale that includes an official dust cover or carrying case. These official extras are very valuable because they could only be obtained by ordering directly from the company. The official dust cover is silver in color, while the carrying case is a light gray. Both feature the official Vectrex logo. Each one sells for between $100-$150 at auction, so keep an eye out for these rarities.
For a quick guide to Vectrex pricing, see sidebar.
- Factor in the cost of shipping. The Vectrex is heavy. By itself, without any extras or packing, it weighs over 14 pounds. You should expect to pay around $20 for shipping.
- Make sure that the unit is packed properly. Some of mine were packed very well with sturdy boxes and foam peanuts, while another was put into a box with a few sheets of newspaper (it still worked!). Insist on proper packing, especially if you are paying a lot for shipping.
- Don’t fall for listings with exorbitant Buy It Now prices. Because the Vectrex is becoming more collectible, some sellers are asking for $200-$300 for an untested bare console and controller. This is about double what you should be paying.
- On eBay, be patient if the listing is auction-only, particularly if there are any “question marks” about the unit. For the past year, Vectrex units have appeared quite regularly on eBay, and it’s not uncommon to see an average of one or two listed per day. You can afford to wait for a quality unit at a good price.
- On eBay, be impulsive if the unit has no “question marks” and has a “Buy It Now” option. Quality units at reasonable price points with a “Buy It Now” option will disappear within an hour, usually sooner. If you do use Buy It Now, be sure that the unit is described as working, and you will be able to rely on eBay’s Buyer Protection policy in case the unit is malfunctioning.
SELLING A VECTREX
If you are in the market to sell your fully-functional Vectrex, you should be able to ask for and get the low range of the prices listed in the sidebar without any problem. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Be aware of the concerns that a prospective buyer might have (see “What Can Go Wrong” above), and address these in your listing.
- Take photos of the unit in action, and also include a photo of the controller and of serial number on the back of the unit.
- Unless you need the money quickly, I would run an auction without a Buy It Now option with a minimum bid in the low range of value just to test the market. You might get lucky, and there is no risk for you.
- Be sure that you have an adequate box and packing materials for shipping; if you need to buy proper packing material such as foam peanuts, include the cost in the price of the auction. Consider insurance.
If you have the funds, you might consider buying a mixed lot of Vectrex items just to resell parts of it. For example, you can often find consoles bundled with an assortment of complete in box games. These games are very easy to resell, so you could obtain a console at very low cost if you were willing to parcel out the lot. I’ve sold dozens of Vectrex games on eBay, and their proceeds have paid for a console or other item in the lot that I wanted to keep for my collection.
EXPANDING YOUR COLLECTION
Vectrex is a good platform to collect for because even the most valuable games and peripherals appear on eBay regularly and at prices that aren’t at the insane levels of those for more popular platforms such as the Atari 2600.
That said, Vectrex games are generally more expensive than games for other consoles, but they are still affordable, even complete in box. Only a few are considered to be on the rare end, and even these show up fairly regularly on eBay: Polar Rescue, Pole Position, and Star Castle. Each one of these complete in the box will fetch at least $75 or more at auction, so if you encounter a Buy It Now lot with any of these games in it, you may need to act quickly. Other games complete in the box usually go for $15-$35 apiece.
Two peripherals are available for the Vectrex, both of which plug into one of the controller ports: the Light Pen and the 3-D Imager. The Light Pen allows you to input directly onto the Vectrex screen and is used with programs such as Art Master (originally bundled with the Light Pen), AnimAction, and Melody Master. Complete in the box, all of these titles command a premium over the non-Light Pen titles, with Art Master frequently selling for over $100 (including the Light Pen) and the other two selling for between $60-$70. The 3-D Imager is much more scarce than the Light Pen, but it still does turn up on eBay multiple times over a year. I have seen at least a half dozen listed in the past year alone. However, complete in box, the 3-D Imager is truly rare and will sell for at least $800. It is considered one of the “holy grails” of early videogame hardware that was actually brought to market. The 3-D Imager comes with the 3D MineStorm game, and the other two 3D games, 3D Crazy Coaster and 3D Narrow Escape, sell for around $100 apiece, complete in the box. If you buy either of these 3D games, be sure that you also get the color wheel that goes inside the 3D Imager; the games are useless without it.
An active homebrew community for the Vectrex means that you can count on new games being produced. One of the best known is Protector/YASI, and an exciting newer release is Vector Pilot. Prices range from $12.50 to about $75 for a new homebrew game. If you want a different controller for your Vectrex, check out the selection of modded gamepads and arcade sticks from RecycledGamer.
Those not interested in a complete in box collection can invest in a multicart and/or reproduction overlays. Multicarts come in multiple versions selling for between $40-$200. The least expensive examples use physical dip switches to select the game, and these are readily available online. Others such as Sean Kelly’s popular multicart have menu-driven selection via software, but these are rarer and not produced on a regular basis. Flash drive-based multicarts have a devoted following, but examples such as the VecFlash are no longer in production and are difficult to find.
The Vectrex community has access to many useful websites dedicated to the venerable system. Focusing on the buying and selling aspect of the Vectrex experience, I have tried not to repeat much of the information already available from these resources. However, if you want to learn more about the history of the Vectrex, or if you need a “how to” on fixing a controller, these and other websites will serve your needs.