Welcome to “Never Forget”, a retrospective feature of games the industry pretends never existed. Spotlighting the “Let’s figure out what these damn kids want” era of game developing, we’ll take a nostalgic look back at when gaming wasn’t such serious business.
Back in the day, racing games were a much simpler affair. You were given only acceleration and brake buttons, could reach unimaginable speeds within seconds, and crashing merely made you respawn on the course unharmed (or bounce in the other direction). It let kids experience the joys of driving without pesky things like laws of state, or laws of physics.
But Atari thought games like Outrun and Rad Racer weren’t cool enough, and certainly weren’t deserving of an adjective like “rad”. Those games felt nothing like actual driving, they said, and what was up with that whole “2D graphics” thing?
No, what kids really wanted was realism. A Sunday drive simulator, if you will. And it needed to look tubular.
And so Atari’s Hard Drivin’ was touted as the first true-to-life driving simulator available en masse, offering a sense of authenticity and four-wheeled excitement never before seen in racing games.That’s why the track contained a loop-de-loop and a collapsed bridge: American infrastructure.
Most people recognize Hard Drivin’ due to its Genesis port (or one of its dozen other home console ports) but the original arcade release was somethin’ special: The steering wheel had force-feedback, letting you know when you ran over a cow or crashed into a truck, just like in real life. It also had a manual shift stick complete with a clutch for all those kids who wanted to know what its like to stall their engine. Best of all: if you drove into the grass, you were teleported back onto the street. It’s no wonder 90s kids are the best drivers.
If it doesn’t sound thrilling, that’s because it really isn’t. But that’s now; surely it was fun at the time, right? The arcade version in particular received quite a few good reviews from all the magazines that don’t exist anymore, and seeing polygons in motion was breathtaking at first glance for many.
Heck, Hard Drivin’ is also one of the first games to feature instant replay, allowing gamers to watch their crashes from an aerial view, complete with vehicular explosions to help the kids realize that their Outrun habits cause death. Top that off with several Drivin’ sequels, and it’s looking a bit more impressive.
The biggest reason we can never forget Hard Drivin’, though, is because it was the first game to emphasize graphics over refined playability. Long before we argued that Shoot Shoot Game 2012 is more impressive on the Xbox 360 because it has sun glare effects, or that the PS3’s 1080p prowess is unprecedented even though like three games actually support the resolution, Hard Drivin’ was there to convince its generation that those childish things called “sprites” are just gross to look at. It told us that solid-colored polygons and single-digit framerates were of the future. That going 0 to 60 in two seconds is boring compared to the realistic alternative of going 0-60 in never.
So the next time someone tries to argue that graphics mean quality, or that realism in games was never truly possible before today, remember that Hard Drivin’ was there first. Give them your best displeased squint and say, “Dude, you ain’t Drivin’ Hard enough.”
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