VEC9 creators (left to right): Andrew Reitano, Mike Dooley, Todd Bailey
Less than 24 hours before its splashy debut party at Logan Arcade last month, VEC9 caught fire. Literally. The arcade game's three creators were busy showing it off to the arcade bar's enthusiastic staff when a crusty wire shorted and blew a transformer, setting some of the internal machinery ablaze.
It was an acute moment of bad luck for Todd Bailey, Andrew Reitano, and Mike Dooley, the trio of New Yorkers who'd just stuffed the massive machine into a U-Haul and drove 15 hours to VEC9's adopted home in Logan Square. "The staff had just complimented us with like, 'Wow, we can't believe this thing is a real game,' and the fucking thing catches on fire. And we were like, 'Fuck!'" said Bailey.
It's possible that this was some form of karmic revenge by the city of Chicago—after all, you destroy the entire place with Soviet weaponry in the game's second level. But a minor electrical fire didn't really surprise anyone involved.
Plenty of contemporary video games wallow in nostalgia and emulate the minimalistic charm of Pac-Man or the original Super Mario Bros., but VEC9 is actually retro. Not only does the machine play like the kind of stripped-down space shooter you'd toss quarters into in 1983, but the hardware is a Frankenstein's monster of defunct components and spare parts cobbled together during a three-year period by a trio of engineers with no professional game-manufacturing experience.
VEC9's key component is a rickety brand of technology not seen in arcade games in a generation: a vector monitor. If that doesn't ring a bell, it's probably because so-called "raster" graphics have become so ubiquitous in 2015 that we think of them generically as . . . graphics. Raster renders colorful visuals formed by grids of pixels called bitmaps, and it's how nearly every digital image is displayed in 2015. That wasn't always the case. Thirty-five years ago, vector displays were everywhere: laser shows, head-up displays in fighter planes; they're prominently featured in the movieWarGames. Arcades were once split between games using vector and raster graphics, but the latter won the display wars by the mid-80s: they were faster, more colorful, and unlike vector, capable of displaying 3-D animation. When the technology became cheaper, manufacturers pulled the plug on vectors. Atari's third Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, released in 1985, marked the last time a major arcade game used them.
Yet a tiny but fervent following for vector tech remains. The images it produces are distinctive because they're drawn like an electronic Etch A Sketch—a series of straight, incredibly bright lines of light on a black background. For games, that meant a lot of simple geometric objects floating in dark space, like in the moody space-noir adaptations of Star Wars. According to Jim Zespy, owner of Logan Arcade and a collector of old vector games, the incredible brightness of the displays and the elegant shapes they produce are still startling to see today. "The tech is so cool," said Zespy. "The way the phosphors work—you can dial the monitors up and get tracers and it makes it psychedelic and cool and also very bright. To me a vector game still looks futuristic. When people see them now, they're like, 'What is that? Why does it look so cool?'"
The three men behind VEC9 are accidental game creators—hobbyists whose goofy side project in a Long Island garage snowballed into something bigger. They pepper their conversations with profanity, and many of their stories about the creation of VEC9 involve the consumption of alcohol. In truth, they never had a grand plan to build a commercial arcade game and bring it to Chicago. "The shit just blossomed out of control," said Bailey.
It all began one night in 2012 after Reitano drunkenly stumbled on a Craigslist ad hawking an old vector monitor as part of a mothballed Asteroids machine. "You wouldn't believe how cool this display was," said Reitano. "This old dude didn't even know what he had. For $50, I was like, 'Hell yeah.'" Not that he quite knew what to do with it—Reitano left it in the backseat of his car for weeks. "I think a mouse could have been living in it. Who knows?"
Eventually Reitano—along with Bailey and Dooley—began tinkering with the salvaged Asteroids screen. It did not go well at first. "We'd blow it up, repair it, blow it up again and repair it again," said Reitano. They kept experimenting and finding old parts and creating tools until they discovered the right alchemy. "We had to kind of bend some of the programs that existed to our will to make these lines all over the screen," said Reitano. Once they finally got rough images to appear on the vector monitor, they used it to display a video project. But they couldn't stop there. "It was like, well, now we gotta make a fucking video game," said Bailey.
By 2014, they'd programmed enough bright white lines that they had something resembling an early prototype: it was a simple affair in which players piloted a ship across a geometric grid and shot at enemy fighters. The story that Reitano and crew dreamed up was based on an obscure relic from 1984 called Raid Over Moscow. In the world of the game, dismantlement of America's nuclear arsenal leads to Russian aggression, and the user plays as an American pilot taking on the Kremlin to prevent a series of Soviet nuclear attacks on U.S. soil. VEC9 is something of a reverse take on Raid Over Moscow: it's 2014 and the user plays as a cosmonaut named Yuri, a cold-war-era fighter awakened after decades of cryogenic sleep in a Soviet space station orbiting the earth. Yuri learns that the USSR is gone and assumes it's because America has annihilated it. "So as this old cosmonaut fighter pilot, you're coming down to fuck up America and destroy capitalism," said Bailey.
VEC9's physical form wasn't so fully fleshed out yet, which became a problem in August 2014. Forty-eight hours before they were supposed to show off their new toy at IWIVI Fest—a lo-fi music and art festival in Brooklyn—VEC9 was still little more than a mass of wires and circuitry controlled by an old PlayStation 2 controller. They worked on it virtually nonstop for the next two days while on-site. ("I remember we were super strung out and still fixing stuff and this guy comes by and he's like, 'Oh man, your game isn't even done yet. That's real punk rock,'" Reitano said. "And I'm like, 'Fuck you, man!'")
Bailey constructed a wooden cabinet to house it ("I was going crazy with this circular saw and was just covered in fucking sawdust") while desperately trying to fix a malfunction in the circuitry. "It didn't fucking work at all," said Bailey. "But I had this serious MacGyver moment where I had a wire in my pocket and I hooked it on in two places and the game made this 'beep beep' sound and it fucking worked!"
VEC9 received so much positive feedback at IWIVI Fest that the team decided to get more serious about turning it into a legit arcade game. Like the employees of the body shop on Pimp My Ride, they kept adding gadgets and upgrades over time—sometimes found in the least likely places. "We were in Florida for work stuff and found this fucking M1 Abrams tank controller at an Army surplus store and we were like 'Say we won't buy it, say we won't buy it!'" Bailey laughed.
More artifacts followed: a second screen salvaged from an old ATM machine, a ticket machine meant to print out the player's score at the end of the game (since removed), physical buttons that flash in sync with the action onscreen, and toggle switches you'd see in the cockpit of an airplane. While I talked to him in Logan Arcade's back room, Bailey pointed to a small instrument attached to the top of VEC9 cabinet. "Dude, you see this thing? That's an air horn. Andy bought that when he was drunk."
They added to the game engine and software as well. Yuri now gets to annihilate four major American cities—San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. The only way to bypass the defenses of the nation's capital? Use a nuclear weapon—which requires the player to flip toggle switches in the right sequence while the horn's blaring.
"We did some ridiculous stuff," said Bailey. "At some point we said it would be really cool if there was a visual where you flew to the earth from space. But instead of just fucking putting a picture of earth, which would have been the easy and simple thing to do, I come over and these fucking jokers (Reitano and Dooley) have written this new damn engine to linearly interpolate the ships so they can take you from point A to point B and then like pitch and yaw, roll, and plot waypoints for you to automatically to fly to. So not necessary."
Bailey, Dooley, and Reitano never stopped working on VEC9, but reached a point earlier this year where it made sense to put it in an arcade. They discussed different spots in New York City as possibilities, but Zespy got to them first. He'd seen the prototype via YouTube video and came away impressed. "I'm already the crazy cat lady of video games, but to see . . . that they made the first vector game in 30 years? I mean, that's fucking cool," Zespy said. "So I wrote them a vector love letter, like: 'This is something that needs to exist. Where's it at? Can I buy it?"
It didn't take the team long to agree to bring the game to Chicago, especially since Bailey, a onetime Chicago resident, shared mutual friends with Zespy.
"This guy knows vector arcade games. He's obviously friendly with trying to make new arcade stuff happen, and we had never found another place like that," Bailey said. "And we were like, well, then, Chicago is the place for it."
On the first Saturday night of November, dozens of enthusiasts and curious onlookers gathered at Logan Arcade to celebrate the official launch of VEC9. Smoke billowed around the machine, but this time it wasn't from an internal fire—that morning they'd managed to replace a fried component with a spare part from Zespy's graveyard of old machines in the bowels of the arcade bar—but from a fog machine pumping smoke around the room for dramatic effect. Zespy spoke into a microphone and introduced VEC9 and its three ecstatic creators. A billowy curtain concealing the arcade dropped to the floor. The onlookers, some who'd traveled hours to see the first new vector arcade game in 30 years, clapped at the sight.
VEC9 cuts an imposing figure on the hardwood floor of Logan Arcade. It's all metal and hard edges—a massive beast that looks like it was smuggled out of a secret cold-war-era Soviet military base. The vector screen flashes with bright white light. The secondary ATM machine glows sickly green. Colored buttons with Cyrillic text and strange symbols light up. It looks more like a museum piece than a quarter-eating toy, but its creators insist it's meant to be no different than the clunky relics that line the walls of Logan Arcade.
"It's not meant to be an art piece," Bailey said. "We don't want people to say 'Look at my art.' We want a kid to fucking smack the game because he lost. We want pizza on it. We want it to really get played."
In February 2018, this article was updated to use the phrase ‘arcade bar’ in place of the word originally used.