VEC9, a new arcade cabinet that looks like it was made in '80s, is a loving tribute to the feverish, nihilistic creativity that guided both Soviet and American military planning at the Cold War's peak.
You play one of the pilots of the VEC9 program who's awakened 30 years after going into deep freeze and, mistaking the fall of communism for an American military triumph over the Soviet Union, set out to get revenge. As the Soviets' high-tech last laugh, your job is to pilot a spaceship armed with a chain gun and laser cannon over America, descending to attack its major population centers.
As one of its co-creators Todd Bailey explains, that story is not too far from reality. "You read about Star Wars programs in the '80s, and you're like no, they really tried to do this," he said. "At least a couple times that we know about. The Russians sent a laser into orbit and, oops, it crashed, but they tried."
If some aspects of the technology are a little sci-fi, the rest of it's not all that fictional—the Soviets really did create a dead man's switch that would unleash its nuclear stockpile on NATO countries if the Soviet Union ever fell, and it's rumored to still be active today.
"Beyond the cryogenics part," co-creator Andrew Reitano said, "this thing could have existed in 1984. We definitely had stockpiles and satellite technology, and it's still just as dangerous now."
On a less fraught level, VEC9 is also a love letter to the now-obsolete technology that powered those kind of Reagan-era nightmare scenarios. The project got its start in early 2012 when Reitano, an electrical engineer, drunkenly bought a vector monitor from an old Asteroids game on Craigslist. An experiment to see if he could just get it to display graphics soon blossomed into a mission with Bailey (an embedded systems engineer) and Michael Dooley (a software engineer) to build a game around it.
Eventually the monitor became the centerpiece for a collection of gloriously anachronistic hardware, including a blurry monochrome screen that offers in-flight data and green-toned video of enemy pilots (really friends of the team) meeting their fates at the end of the player's chain gun, as well as big, chunky illuminated buttons and an even bigger, chunkier controller that was actually built for an M1A1 Abrams tank.
"The whole thing is really fucking brutal," Bailey explains. "We wanted to make something that was heavy and not fun. If you're playing it right, by the time you get to blowing up your last American city you'll be tired."
The brutalist cabinet provides VEC9 with a convincing mise-en-scene, but it also subtly underlines the ways in which the team have pushed its components beyond what they were originally designed for. Vector monitors weren't built to display 3D graphics, and trying to get this basic element of modern gaming out of technology from the earliest days of video games was a challenge. (There are differing schools of thought regarding whether '80s games like Star Wars and Battlezone technically had "true" 3D graphics, or just close-enough emulations of it. For the record, Bailey says Star Wars had the technological capability to do full 3D, but took some shortcuts.)
"We blew up a few transistors," Reitano laughs. But the combination of the skeletal, laserlike graphics of something like Asteroids doing fully immersive 3D play feels like stepping into a weird alternate present where '80s technology was actually capable of all the things '80s sci-fi movies said it could do.
VEC9 wasn't made just as an aesthetic challenge, or as a jokey but also deathly serious reminder that humankind's most suicidally ambitious experiment in warfare was (and still is) powered by gear that now seems laughably underpowered. In the end, the trio just wanted to create the kind of experiences that they remember from hanging out in arcades, back before they knew what mutually assured destruction even was.
"There's a new school view that 'these aren't video games, they're pieces of art,'" Bailey explains. "We're like, no, they're video games. Ultimately we want this to be something where a kid gets mad at it and kicks the shit out of it."
VEC9 will be available to play at Logan Arcade starting November 7.
Update: This story has been updated to clarify that there is some disagreement over whether 80s games had the capability to do full 3D graphics.