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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 stuffed with historical filler, but one new game contained in the package won’t let me go. I’m talking about Vctr Sctr, a retro-style arcade shooter that melds the addictive gameplay of classics like Asteroids and Tempest with modern gameplay concepts.

As a package, Atari 50: The Anniversary Collection sets a new high-water mark for retro video game compilations. The collection’s “timeline” feature deftly weaves archival materials like design documents and manuals, explanatory context and contemporary quotes from the game’s release, and new video interviews with game creators into an engaging, interactive trip through gaming history.

But while the presentation shines, the games contained within Atari 50 often don’t. Sure, there are a few truly replayable classics on offer here, especially in the games from Atari’s glorious arcade era. That said, the bulk of Atari 50‘s 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 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe on the Atari 2600 to Missile Command 3D on the Jaguar—boil down to mere historical curiosities that most modern players would be hard-pressed to tolerate for longer than a couple of minutes.

Then there’s Vctr Sctr, one of a handful of “reimagined” games on Atari 50 that attempt to re-create the feel of a classic Atari title with modern hardware and design touches. It’s a game I’ve gravitated toward constantly in the last few days for the kind of easy-to-pick-up, hard-to-put-down high-score chase that I haven’t experienced in quite the same way since Geometry Wars.

Emulating a dead display technology

A quick look at Vctr Sctr gameplay.

As the perhaps-too-cute name implies, Vctr Sctr (pronounced “vector sector”) is a love letter to arcade gaming’s all-too-brief love affair with vector graphics. Unlike raster displays, which assemble an image from sprites laid out on lines of horizontal pixels, vector displays bend an electron beam into discrete lines or curves that make up simple geometric shapes on the glowing phosphor.

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In contrast to most arcade games of the ’70s and ’80s—which were characterized by blocky, pixellated graphics—vector games like Missile Command or Major Havoc featured sharp, crisp lines that smoothly animated in easily scalable and functionally infinite resolutions. But those advantages came at a price—the simple lines created “hollow” looking wireframe characters and objects, and early vector displays could only display a single color (four-color vector games would come later).

The glowing, precise lines of vector displays were also nearly impossible to re-create on standard-definition CRT TVs of the ’70s and ’80s. If you wanted the vector experience at home, you had to invest in expensive flops like the Vectrex, which had built-in vector monitors.

A glimpse at how Tempest looks on a real vector monitor.

Capturing the unique glow of Atari’s classic vector games was a priority for the developers of Atari 50. “We tried 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 about that a lot… It’s all drawn in an ‘additive mode’ so it really does look as much like a vector display as we could.”

That quest for vector authenticity includes little touches like emulating the “phosphor effect” that leads to blurry after-images that persist on the display for a split second after a vector line disappears. Williams said he also went to the trouble to calculate the subtle ghostly “bloom” that flickers around individual vector monitor lines (and pulses compellingly with the bass-heavy soundtrack, in Vctr Sctr‘s case).

Even issues that were considered imperfections on vector displays of the day were important to capture for this reimagining, Williams said. “Depending on whether or not your vector display is really dialed in, you can get a little bit of movement for all the lines,” he said. “So every line is kind of moving a little bit, every line is independently flickering.”

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A quick trip through history

More than just the look, Vctr Sctr does a great job capturing and updating what vector games of the early arcade era felt like to play. It starts with an homage to Asteroids, now reimagined as a dual-stick shooter. Crucially, this means you can back off from an oncoming rock in one direction while firing in the opposite direction, an update that simplifies the movement without making the game too simple. The rapid-fire stream of bullets activated by the right analog stick also makes it easier to hit tiny, far-off targets than in the original Asteroids.

After clearing a screen of asteroids, it’s on to Vctr Sctr‘s version of Lunar Lander. While that Atari classic was an incredibly slow-paced exercise in patience and precision, Vctr Sctr‘s version condenses its essence down to a punchy 15 to 30 seconds of controlled analog stick thrust. Despite that time contraction, the core of managing your limited fuel while precisely positioning your ship for a gentle landing remains, now with an enhanced UI to warn you when the speed or position of your approach is off.

Vctr Sctr starts with a dual-stick update to Asteroids.”><em>Vctr Sctr</em> starts with a dual-stick update to <em>Asteroids</em>.” src=”×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=” 2x”></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Vctr Sctr starts with a dual-stick update to Asteroids.

Vctr Sctr‘s third section is its most original, combining the tank-based shooting of Atari’s Battlezone with the over-the-shoulder racing of a game like Vectorbeam’s Speedfreak. The result is the most thrilling portion of the game, featuring tight risk-versus-reward trade-offs between avoiding enemy fire and taking out the fast-approaching tanks for points. The ability to aim your guns at an angle, rather than just straight forward, also adds a nice wrinkle over many similar third-person shoot-em-ups.

The final section of Vctr Sctr is basically a direct re-creation of Tempest, complete with the same shoot-down-the-tunnel perspective. This version of the game loses something without the familiar twistable paddle controller of the arcade version. The analog controls work just fine, though, as does a new shifting camera that keeps your ship helpfully near the bottom of the screen.

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Modern memories

After completing all four sections of Vctr Sctr, you loop around again to a new wave with increased difficulty (more enemies, less fuel, more barriers to avoid, etc.). In between, there are short cut-scene transitions that connect the disparate types of gameplay—the mountains of “Lunar Lander” become the background for “Battlezone”; the track of “Battlezone” becomes a runway for takeoff into “Tempest” narrow tunnels, etc.

Lunar Lander, as seen in Vctr Sctr.”>A fast-paced take on Atari's <em>Lunar Lander</em>, as seen in <em>Vctr Sctr</em>.” src=”×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=” 2x”></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / A fast-paced take on Atari’s Lunar Lander, as seen in Vctr Sctr.

The whole thing is full of little touches that show a real love for the arcade score-chasers of the era, from an extra life at 20,000 points to a score multiplier for starting on later waves to an unexpected “Perfect” bonus for taking out all the enemies in the “Battlezone” section. Background touches like exploding volcanoes in “Lunar Lander” or floating UFOs in “Battlezone” add to the presentation as well.

What really makes Vctr Sctr shine, though, is the pacing. Each section lasts under a minute but somehow captures the core experience of much longer and slower-paced arcade inspirations, complete with tight, modern-feeling analog controls. The result is a game that retains the best features of the classic arcade era—the instant accessibility; the easy-to-read presentation; the addictive, reflex-heavy chase for high scores—without any of the dated design issues or technological limitations of the time.

Tempest, you’ll love Vctr Sctr‘s fourth section.”>If you like <em>Tempest</em>, you’ll love <em>Vctr Sctr</em>‘s fourth section.” src=”×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=” 2x”></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / If you like Tempest, you’ll love Vctr Sctr‘s fourth section.

The five other “reimagined” titles in Atari 50 each have plenty to recommend them, from the multiplayer couch competitions of Quadratank to the arcane puzzles of Swordquest: Airworld to the excellent soundtrack of Yars’ Revenge Enhanced. But Vctr Sctr is the one I can see myself continually returning to in my spare moments.

It’s a perfect brain-break game, an excuse to ignore the outside world for a quick, distracting burst of focused, high-energy chaos. In that way, it might be Atari 50‘s best demonstration of what the classic arcade era was really like.