Midway (and the labels that ended up under that banner, including Atari Games and Williams) put out some iconic arcade games during their time in the business. And many of them are celebrated in the three Midway Arcade Treasures compilations for Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube and PSP! So let’s delve into these pieces of history and have some fun!
There are a few games over the years that have purported to be a “driving simulation” rather than a “racing game”, and the first I was aware of was Atari Games’ Hard Drivin’ from 1989. This always struck me as a thoroughly interesting game back when it was first released, and looking back on it through a historical lens, it continues to be a fascinating title that is well worth exploring — even if it puts up a bit of a fight.
Hard Drivin’s most notable claim to fame is that it was one of the first driving games to make use of 3D polygonal graphics rather than the scaling sprites and “vanishing point” roads (or top-down maps) that had typically been seen in the genre up until that point. It wasn’t the first — Namco’s Winning Run pipped it to that title by about two months — but it’s certainly well known for its innovations.
But it’s interesting for other reasons, too, most notably its overall structure. While at its core it’s still a checkpoints-and-timers sort of racer much like many of those games that had come before, there was a distinctly different feel to Hard Drivin’s gameplay. It didn’t feel like you were part of a race; rather, it felt more like you were some sort of test driver putting a new car through its paces. And this feeling was only furthered by the fact that this was one of the few driving games at the time where you had to deal with oncoming traffic.
In Hard Drivin’, you begin each session on the starting line, as you might expect. Shortly after starting your car (which you had to do manually by actually turning a key rather than pressing a Start button on the original arcade cabinet) and getting rolling, you’re presented with something interesting: a choice. A sign ahead of you invites you to proceed straight on for “SPEED TRACK”, or to turn right for “STUNT TRACK”. And, sure enough, after cresting an initial hill, you’ll find yourself at a junction.
The Speed track, reached by simply heading straight, is exactly what its name suggests: it’s built for speed. Well, kind of; not long after starting your journey down this road you’ll discover another interesting thing about Hard Drivin’ — this isn’t a traditional arcade-style “hold down the accelerator and only brake when absolutely necessary” sort of game.
Nope; each of Hard Drivin’s corners features a speed limit sign, and they mean business — exceeding that speed is an almost guaranteed means of finding yourself spinning off the road or, at the very least, struggling to maintain control of your car. And while the Speed track certainly emphasises relatively speedy corners — many of them can be taken at around “90mph” according to the in-game speedo, though the actual sensation of speed created by the visuals is nowhere near that — there are plenty you’ll need to hit the brakes for.
The Stunt track, meanwhile, is the main attraction for most players. This is a more technical course that demands you pay even closer attention to the speed limits, because while doing so you’ll need to jump a gap in a bridge, drive through a loop-the-loop and successfully make it around a banked corner — as well as successfully navigating the more “normal” bits of road, which are just as hazardous.
As a rather cool means of emphasising the way in which the game makes use of polygonal 3D graphics, the tracks are designed in such a way that they weave around one another; while driving on the Speed track, for example, you’ll pass under the bridge you jump on the Stunt track, and at various points you’ll see recognisable landmarks from different angles according to which route you’re taking.
Hard Drivin’ was an early game to make use of true analogue controls and force feedback. Slamming the steering wheel from side to side will do you no good here; rounding a corner is a matter of gently and carefully keeping the car under control, because this thing handles like it has vegetable oil all over its tyres. The slightest nudge of the steering wheel results in a screeching, skidding noise — even if you’re not actually skidding — so you’ll need to get used to this quickly and not be deterred.
Interestingly, this brings up an interesting point: Hard Drivin’ is one of the few arcade games to get a home-only sequel that was a significant improvement on its predecessor. Hard Drivin’ II: Drive Harder…, which was released for 16-bit home computers in 1990 by Domark, significantly improved the car’s handling by making it less prone to skidding out; while the fact this game was confined to home micros meant that it lost a bit of the original arcade hardware’s appeal, it was a significantly more playable game as a result.
But I digress. Twitchy handling aside, Hard Drivin’ remains a satisfying driving game to this day, simply because it feels like taming a wild beast. Whether you pick the Speed or Stunt tracks to challenge, the game might feel initially daunting — but as you get to grips with how to keep things under control, it becomes a real pleasure to drive.
Soon, you might even manage a complete lap without running out of time — pretty tricky on the default settings in the Midway Arcade Treasures compilation — and from there, you can take aim for the course record set by the mysterious “Phantom Photon”. Beat this and you challenge the Phantom in a one-on-one race around the stunt track, with your reward for victory being that your race becomes the new Phantom — yes, it’s one of the first ever examples of a “ghost racer” in a video game.
Only one problem; while racing the Phantom, you are not allowed to crash at all, so good luck with that.
For some people, Hard Drivin’ can be tough to go back to — particularly given the existence of its superior follow-ups such as the aforementioned Hard Drivin’ II for home computers and Race Drivin’ in the arcades — but it remains a significant historical milestone in the development of a gaming genre we still all enjoy today. As such, it’s worthy of at the very least your respect — perhaps even one day you’ll learn to love it. Me, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it.
Screenshots from the Xbox version of Midway Arcade Treasures.