Remembering When Racing Video Games Looked Like This

If you were anything like me, you couldn’t wait to reach driving age, get your license and hit the road. Though many of us spent our formative years in cars, it was as passengers, since we weren’t legally allowed to drive one until we got a learner’s permit. Yet, thanks to the home video game craze in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my generation got to do some rudimentary electronically simulated driving and racing before we even learned how to drive real cars.

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When my son came up from the basement with a box of my old video games the other day, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a nostalgic ride down the Atari race track.

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Though these games seem quite primitive by today’s standards, and they could never simulate a real driving or racing experience, for a 12-year-old kid in 1979, they were way better than Pong games and they would provide inspiration for future on- and off-road automotive exploits. I had an Atari 2600 game console, as did many of my friends. (The more financially well-off in my age group had the upscale Intellivision, which was more expensive and had somewhat better graphics, but if memory serves, offered fewer games). We were always saving our money to buy the next great racing games made for the 2600. As it turned out, some lived up to their hype, others, not so much.

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Night Driver was one of the earliest car racing games (my game cartridge is dated 1978) for the 2600 and was very basic. Its forward thinking feature was its point of view. Though a tiny car was at the base of the screen, the perspective was fairly close to being from the driver’s seat. Night Driver used the paddle controllers and as the name stated, it simulated what it was like to drive at night with only the reflection of your headlights on the roadside markers to light your way. Stay on the road and avoid oncoming cars and you’d be rewarded with a higher score. There were four tracks with or without timers, for a total of eight variations in the cartridge. It was simple and fun, and about two weeks ago, driving home at night on Route 80 through miles of Pennsylvania construction, an eerily similar reminder of Night Driver could be seen through the windshield.

Street Racer was the next Atari car race game I bought. I recall it being a letdown, despite having 27 variations of games that included Street Racer, Slalom, Dodgem, Jet Shooter, Number Cruncher and Scoop Ball. Via a direct overhead view of essentially stick-figure cars (Street Racer), in the first four games listed above, you dodged oncoming items, with little more than the shapes of them changing from game to game. In Number Cruncher, you did the opposite to gain points and in Scoop Ball you avoided some shapes and ran over others. The good news was that up to four people could play—the bad news was they probably rarely wanted to.

Grand Prix was released by Activision in 1982. It had much better graphics than the earlier Atari efforts discussed here. It was a straightforward left-to-right racer game, where the car could accelerate and move up or down on the track and brake to avoid other cars, oil slicks or cross bridges. The manual explained that steering got more responsive as speed increased. There were four game variations for its one layer that were supposed to depict Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch (1 Bridge), Le Mans (2 Bridges) and Monaco (3 Bridges). Oddly, however, there were no turns, as that type of game wasn’t designed for them. It was still a fun game to play in its day, however.

Pole Position by Namco debuted in 1982 or 1983, depending upon the source—my game says 1983 on it. It was very popular, had very good graphics for its time, and the point of view was from just behind the (Formula 1) car, much like Night Driver’s. The car could shift to a higher gear and brake, there were lots of curves and passing, and crashing or driving off the course were always possibilities. After earning one of eight starting positions via a qualifying run, your car was entered in the big race, during which, some of the opposing cars would actually drift into your lane to obstruct your car as you try to pass them.

Enduro was released by Activision in 1983 and was my favorite 2600 racing game by far, despite being one-player. That game soaked up many hours of teenage idle time and homework time. It was similar to Pole Position in layout, but this game went several steps further. You raced from dawn, through the day and through the night with the sky and scenery lighting changing with the time of day. At night, only the taillights of each car were visible. You had to avoid oil slicks and accidents while trekking through the desert, snow-covered mountains and fog, all while trying to pass enough cars to make the cut for the next day’s race. Steering became more lethargic in the snow and ice, visibility was limited in the fog and the race got more difficult with each day. There was a trophy awarded after completing five consecutive days (game time not real time) of racing. Back when the game was new, you were instructed to take a photo of the TV screen with the trophy on it and send it in to Activision so you could become a “Roadbuster” and receive your “Roadbuster” emblem.

I never did step up to the Atari 5200 or 7800 systems (there may have been others), but I did buy a Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-1980s, which was a large step forward in graphics and gameplay. And, of course, there have been many more advanced consoles and games from various manufacturers since, but it was the Atari 2600 that started it all for me.

I know, it’s not the original 2600 console, which looks like a small piece of furniture with its plastic wood-grained front, but mine expired in the early 1980s. I bought this Atari Jr. a few years later.

I’ve shared some of my experiences with the car racing games I’ve owned. I’m sure you have many more regarding these games and others that weren’t discussed like Indy 500—Atari, Slot Racers–Atari, Dodge ‘Em—Atari and Dragster—Activision. So let’s hear your stories of growing up with driving and racing video games that date back to the Atari 2600 era.

Please bear in mind that the photos are of 32- to 38-year-old video games installed in a 31-year-old console, and photographed on a TV screen, so the quality is a bit less than desired.

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