There's a "new" Atari arcade game, and I can't put it down

There’s a “new” Atari arcade game, and I can’t put it down

Enlarge / A look at an alternate reality where vector displays never died.

Atari’s new 50th anniversary compilation is filled with historical filler, but a new game contained in the package won’t let me go. I’m talking about Vctr Sctra retro-style arcade shooter that fuses the addictive gameplay of classics like Asteroids and Storm with modern game concepts.

In the form of a package, Atari 50: the anniversary collection sets a new record for retro video game compilations. The collection’s “timeline” feature deftly weaves together archival material such as design documents and manuals, explanatory context and quotes contemporaneous with the game’s release, and new video interviews with game creators in a interactive and engaging journey through gaming history.

But while the presentation shines, the games contained within Atari 50 often not. Of course, there are some truly replayable classics on offer here, especially in games from Atari’s glorious arcade era. That said, most of Atari 50The selection of over 100 titles feels like filler that just doesn’t hold up from a modern game design perspective. Dozens of “classic” Atari games—from 3D Tic Tac Toe on the Atari 2600 at 3D missile command on the Jaguar – boil down to mere historical curiosities that most modern gamers would find hard to tolerate for more than a few minutes.

So there is Vctr Sctrone of the few “reinvented” games on Atari 50 which attempt to recreate the feel of a classic Atari title with modern hardware and design touches. It’s a game I’ve been constantly turning to over the past few days for the kind of easy-to-grasp, hard-to-stop high-score hunt that I haven’t experienced the same way since. Geometry Wars.

Emulate dead display technology

A quick glance Vctr Sctr playability.

As its perhaps too cute name suggests, Vctr Sctr (pronounced “vector sector”) is a love letter to the arcade game’s all-too-brief love affair with vector graphics. Unlike raster screens, which assemble an image from sprites arranged in rows of horizontal pixels, vector screens bend an electron beam into discrete lines or curves that compose simple geometric shapes on bright phosphor.

Unlike most arcade games of the 70s and 80s, which were characterized by blocky and pixelated graphics, vector games like Asteroids Where Major Havoc featured crisp, clean lines that animated smoothly in easily scalable and functionally infinite resolutions. But these advantages came at a price – simple lines created “hollow” wireframe characters and objects, and early vector displays could only display a single color (four-color vector sets would come later).

The bright, crisp lines of vector screens were also nearly impossible to recreate on standard-definition CRT televisions of the 70s and 80s. If you wanted the vector experience at home, you had to invest in expensive flops like the Vectrexwhich had built-in vector monitors.

An overview of how Storm watch on a real vector monitor.

Capturing the unique brilliance of classic Atari vector games was a priority for the developers of Atari 50. “We did our best to emulate the look [of a classic vector monitor]”, Digital Eclipse engineer and Vctr Sctr designer Jeremy Williams told Ars. “We really cared a lot about that… Everything is drawn in ‘additive mode’ so it really looks like a vector display as much as possible.”

This quest for vector authenticity includes small touches like emulating the “phosphor effect” which leads to blurry afterimages that linger on the screen for a fraction of a second after a vector line disappears. Williams said he also went to the trouble of calculating the subtle ghostly “bloom” that shimmers around the individual vector monitor lines (and vibrates convincingly with the bass-heavy soundtrack, in Vctr Sctrthe case).

Even issues considered imperfections on vector screens of the time were important to capture for this reimagining, Williams said. “Depending on whether your vector display is really on or not, you can get a bit of movement for all the lines,” he said. “So each line moves a bit, each line flashes independently.”

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