Hard Drivin'

Hard Drivin'

Retro Coin Op Synopsis

The most realistic driving game of its time, Atari’s Hard Drivin’ let you do things you would never dream of doing to your own car. In fact, even if some of the game’s stunts were physically possible, you’d never be able to test them out on any track in the world. They just don’t build giant loops in the middle of most highways.

Aside from the high-danger roadwork, every aspect of Hard Drivin’ was as authentic as it could be—force feedback steering, a four-speed shifter (with reverse as well), an animated instrument panel, clutch, brake, gas pedal…you even had to turn a key to get the thing started. The world around you was also created with an eye toward realism. While the blocky polygon graphics weren’t quite as lively as the real world, they did offer gamers an opportunity to interact with a completely 3-D environment (the cows even let out a surprised “MOO!” if you ran into them).

Only two car options were available—standard or automatic transmission—but the game compensated by giving you a choice of course. At the first fork in the road, a right turn took you onto the “stunt track,” while the straight road led to the “speed track.” The latter course delivered a rather straightforward race. As the clock ticked down, you banked around turns and sped over dips and small ramps, trying to make it to the next checkpoint for extra time. It was fast, it was fun, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be done on any abandoned highway if you didn’t care about your safety and were willing to disobey several traffic laws.

The stunt track, however, was a completely different experience. After that right turn, a sharp dip let you know this was no ordinary Sunday drive. As the course continued, you took your car over a half-open drawbridge, through a complete vertical loop, up and down large ramps and around a high banked curve, eventually meeting up with the speed track near the course’s finish line.

Both courses had their perils, many of which were caused by the other vehicles on the road—trucks, cars, etc. A crash cost you precious time, but it also made for an entertaining diversion on the game’s “instant replay” feature.

Once a course was completed, the game kept going, offering you the chance to take both the speed and stunt tracks in the same game. But Hard Drivin’ was more than an endless loop. Prominently displayed at the bottom of your instrument panel was a “time to beat.” If you finished a lap under that limit, then once your regular game was over, the machine offered you a bonus “Championship Lap.” In this high-tension race, a phantom pace car challenged you one-on-one for the title.

In one of the game’s most compelling features, the phantom car’s speed and path were actually a recorded replay of the last person to set the record. If you beat that time, the next player would be racing against a phantom recording of your record-breaking run. This was more than a set of initials on a high score list—the Hard Drivin’ champion actually became a part of the game.

Hard Drivin’ attracted gamers of all ages, both those too young to drive and those who wished they were allowed to drive so recklessly. Atari had another hit on its impressive resume, and for an encore, the company released Race Drivin’ in 1990.

The redesigned game still allowed players to race the Hard Drivin’ tracks, but two more courses were also available. “Autocross” was a test of real driving skills, emphasizing finesse over raw speed. Players raced around a no-frills speed track, chasing a pace car (again, a recording of the player’s best lap) around the curves.

“Super Stunt” laughed Hard Drivin’s stunt course right off the raceway. By the end of this one, players were begging for simple loops and open drawbridges. The Super Stunt Track sent your car up a winding, narrow mountain road, then took you barreling down toward an extremely high banked curve, an inverted jump, a corkscrew loop, a ridiculously tall and steep ramp, and finally a complete pipe. If Hard Drivin’ was unrealistic, Race Drivin’s Super Stunt Track was sheer insanity.

The retooled game also offered more vehicle options, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Hard Drivin’s sports car was still available (with either transmission), but Race Drivin’ also included a sleek speedster and a convertible roadster.

Another new feature, “Buddy Race,” allowed players to compete with each other directly. Well, virtually directly. As one player sped along the track, the machine recorded the car’s every move. When it was the “buddy” racer’s turn, the first player’s car again appeared as a phantom pace vehicle, daring the second player to follow in its exhaust.

Driving games became more realistic as the 90’s wore on, as later polygon-based games like Virtua Racer and Daytona USA upped the ante in graphics, sound and gameplay. But for all their technical showmanship, these games only try to recreate reality (and with tremendous success, we should point out). Hard Drivin’ and Race Drivin’ offered a different perspective—not how the pros drive, but how the pros would never, ever, ever drive. It wasn’t quite reality, but it was a welcome break from the drudgery of commuter traffic.

Arcade Machine Release History

1989 - Hard Drivin'
1990 - Race Drivin'

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