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Remembering classic games: Night Driver (1976)

Call of Duty and Gran Turismo both exist because of this simple Seventies sim. Possibly

Published: 21 Jun 2024

At what point does retro become antique? Night Driver is one of the earliest driving video games of any description, built using similar technology to blocky ‘tennis’ game Pong. Don’t let the reasonably detailed bonnet and cockpit on the bottom portion of the screen fool you, that was a vinyl decal applied to the glass of the monitor.

The game was available in a standard upright arcade cabinet or a moulded fibreglass sitdown machine finished in a deeply Seventies coarse metallic flake. At the time it no doubt screamed ‘futuristic’, whereas now it screams ‘approaching pensionable age’.

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Even the ingenious title of Night Driver is clearly inspired by the limitations of the Seventies arcade hardware. If the game has to have a predominantly black screen, why not hand wave that away by setting the whole thing at night? We’ll concede that an endless parade of white rectangles in an abyss of darkness does stretch the definition of ‘graphics’ to near breaking point, but you have to bear in mind that this video game is older than Star Wars. And just look at the haircuts in that.

In its own way, Night Driver was just as revolutionary as Star Wars as well. This was one of the first games to truly popularise a first person perspective, meaning that Call of Duty owes as much of a debt to it as Gran Turismo does.

The game’s dirty secret, though, is that Atari’s Dave Shepperd admitted it was directly inspired by a photo he’d seen of another game, either Night Racer or Nürburgring 1, that used the exact same technique to represent forward motion, right down to the white rectangles.

Atari’s dominating presence in the nascent video game market means that Night Driver ended up the more widely recognised and celebrated title. Even in video games, history is written by the winners...

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