The History of the Vectrex Multi-Cart

You know...I really don't remember when I started making them.  Based on some pictures I have of my desk and workspace, I can tell it was in the early 1990s but I can't tell exactly when.

Vectrex games have always been hard-to-find - even in the days when I used to go out to flea markets and come home with hundreds of Atari and Intellivision cartridges on any given weekend.  Vectrex cartridges just never seemed to be among them.  I did, however, find the ROM images that had been floating around the earliest version of the internet and I wanted to figure out how to play them on a real Vectrex.

Somewhere or another (I really don't remember where) I ran across someone who had built a pretty archaic compilation cartridge that contained several Vectrex games that were changed by pressing a button on the cartridge.  It was fairly complicated (to me) but I really wanted to understand how it worked.  I have no formal training in electronics or programming.  In fact, at the time I was building my videogame collection, I owned a convenience store.  I have, however, always been a tinkerer.  I took everything I owned apart to see what made it tick so this compilation cartridge was not an exception.  I disassembled it and I did what we did "back in the day" - I bought some books.  I started to read about all the components on the circuit board and I quickly realized that the way this person designed this compilation cartridge was overkill.

 Now armed with a little bit of knowledge, I set out to re-design the cartridge in a much simpler way.  I used an EPROM large enough to hold all the games I had the data for, a DIP switch and some resistors.  It was kind of annoying to set the switches every time you wanted to play a game but the cartridge worked and had the entire library on one cartridge.  I realized, even then, that the multi-cart wasn’t a technical marvel or anything but I was proud of it and I started making a few for my friends and to use for trade bait.  It was pretty popular and I even started to sell a few to people who didn’t have anything to trade.  The problem for me was that I was hand-wiring every cartridge onto these Radio Shack prototyping boards that I had to cut to shape by hand and it took forever!  Once again I set-out to find a better way to do it.

I knew that it was possible to design a printed circuit board at home on the PC but I had an Amiga 2000 at the time.  There was one program available for the Amiga for PCB design called Boardmaster so I bought a copy and started messing around with it.  Before too long, I had figured it out and had a design done for my multi-cart.  I found a local PCB manufacturer and had the boards made.  After screwing it up once or twice (inverted images or some such), I finally got back working boards and could now start building Vectrex multi-carts much faster and easier.

Over the years I made little changes to the design for shits and giggles.  At one point I decided it would be cool to have an LED in the cartridge so I added it.  Another time I ran across a supply of these tiny little toggle switches that fit perfectly in the cartridge shell so I redesigned the board again to accommodate this little switch and I used it as a pause switch that would allow the player to pause any game in progress.

After trading/selling the multi-cart for a few years, it started becoming harder and harder for me to find common games I could cannibalize for their shells to house the multi-cart.  Even when I did find them, they were getting more and more expensive.  This was also at a time when the very first homebrew games were starting to show up from John Donzilla.  So even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I set-out to create a replica of the Vectrex cartridge shell.

I don’t remember how I found them, but I found a factory in China that said they could do the job.  The first step was to have a blueprint made of the original which consisted of sending an original shell to a drafting company where they took it and made precise measurements and drafted full-size blueprints of the shells with measurements down to the 1000th of an inch.  I sent the blueprints off to China and after a few months I had an endless supply of EXACT replica cartridge shells to be used for multi-carts and homebrews.

The next step was to get rid of the DIP switch used for game selection.  I knew pretty much nothing about assembly language programming so, once again, I bought a couple books but better still…I enlisted the help of a friend – Fred Taft.  Fred had done some Vectrex disassembly work and really knew his stuff so we spent the next several months writing menu software for the multi-cart and re-designing the PCB again to remove the DIP switch and add the logic chips needed to make the menu software work.  After a fair bit of work, the menu-driven multi-cart was done!

I made these for a couple of years and kind of started to break-away from making them due to other aspects of my life.  That convenience store I owned was gone now and I had opened an independent videogame store instead.  The game store was doing OK, but it required pretty much ALL of my time and whatever was left was spent with my wife and four daughters.  There really wasn’t any time for multi-carts anymore.

When I sold the multi-cart, I had pretty much always sold it for about the same price $50.  After a few years of not making them, and pretty much extricating myself from the online videogame collecting community altogether, friends began telling me tales of my cartridges being sold on eBay for hundreds of dollars.  At one point I believe someone told me that one sold for over $500 because I wasn’t making them anymore and, apparently, people still wanted them.  After hearing this, I decided that I hated the idea of someone paying that kind of money for something I sold for much cheaper so for the next couple of years I would build them in lots and put a lot up on eBay 2-3 times per year to keep prices in-check.

About two years ago I was in a position to start making them more readily and even though they were a lot easier to make than the old hand-wired ones, they were far from perfect.  Even with the professionally-made PCBs, I still had to solder roughly 100 solder points per circuit board and the shell required some minor modifications inside in order for my board to fit securely.  So I fired up the PCB design software again and re-designed the board...again.

This time my plan was to set it up so that all the menu logic chips would be soldered by the PCB manufacturer.  It costs extra to do this but for the amount of time it was going to save me, it would be worth it.  After a couple of weeks, I had the first prototype PCB in my hand.  This new design used all surface mounted chips and the holes were finally done right so that the board would pop right into the shell without any modification at all.  I still had to program and solder-in the 32-pin EPROM, but it saved me a ton of time over the previous design. 

Until about May of 2017, this was the Vectrex multi-cart.  I had thought about updating the library of games a bit on and off over the years but I never really had time to mess with it.  What I had worked pretty well anyway so I just kind of left it at that.  Around that time, though, a friend told me that there was a guy talking in a Swedish Vectrex Facebook group about making copies of my cartridge.  He sent me some screen shots of conversations and the guy had even gone so far as make an exact copy of my PCB design and said he was going to get some made.

I asked to join the Swedish Facebook group and was granted access.  Once a member I posted in there asking this person why he felt the need to do something like this.  He explained that shipping to Sweden was very expensive and he only planned on making a few copies for himself and his close friends.  He said he wouldn’t make them if I had a problem with it and was actually fairly cool about it.  I don’t know if he would want me to give out his real name but he goes by the name “e5frog” in classic gaming circles so I’ll leave it at that.  He and I got to talking privately and it turned-out he was actually a very nice guy to talk to AND he knew his stuff!  He showed me that he had disassembled my menu software, fixed a bug he found and he even added some games to the lineup.  I thought…”this is the guy I need to help me update the cartridge to add more games to it!”

Keep in mind, at this point it had been nearly twenty years since I had done any assembly language programming.  I looked for the source code for my menu software a couple of times over the years and couldn’t even find the last version of it anymore.  While I did eventually locate it, e5frog had already made changes to it so we used his disassembly as the base.  I would throw out a thought and before I could begin to think about how to implement it, e5frog had it in the menu and working.  He also happens to work at a PCB factory (which explains why he was going to be able to just make a couple boards for him and his friends) so he’s very proficient with PCB design software.  He took my design, updated it, made it smaller and made some minor additions that would allow me to double the capacity from the previous version.

Over the next few weeks, e5frog and I (much more him than I) finalized the menu software, the new PCB design and I had some prototypes made for testing.  After a couple of hiccups due to bad chips believe it or not, the prototype was working and here I am with V3.0 of the Vectrex multi-cart – over 25 years after the first one was built!

A lot of what I have written here sounds kind of stupid or less than impressive reading it in 2017.  To put things in perspective a little, my Amiga 2000 computer weighs (yes, present tense...I still have it) probably 15-20 pounds.  The 40 MEGAbyte hard drive I had in it cost me about $600 at the time.  My Raspberry Pi 3 sitting on my desk next to me is faster, has about 100x more memory and is about the size AND WEIGHT of a pack of cigarettes!  They were far different times folks!