Over the past several weeks, I have examined what I call the “pre-history” of Atari’s 1976 3-D, first-person driving classic Night Driver, tracing its origins from what is believed to be the original (Reiner Foerst’s Nurburgring) to Digital Games/Micronetics’ Night Racer to Bally/Midway’s Midnite Racer/280 Zzzap. While these games may have preceded it, Atari’s version of the game, Night Driver is far and away the best remembered
In 1976, Atari was the undisputed king of coin-op video game hill (at least in the US – in Japan, Sega and Taito were the top domestic manufacturers). Bally/Midway was a distant second and the rest of the American manufacturers were farther back still. Night Driver wasn’t Atari’s first driving game. That honor goes to 1974’s Gran Trak 10. Nor was it Atari’s first “sit-down” driving game (that would be 1975’s Hi-Way). It wasn’t even Atari’s first microprocessor driving game (Indy 4) By the time of Night Driver, in fact, Atari (and its sister company Kee) had already produced 10 arcade driving games - and that number only includes auto driving games, not games where you drove other vehicles.
One thing that was relatively new to Atari in 1976 was the microprocessor. In April, Atari had released its first microprocessor based games: Quiz Show (based on the Signetics 2650) and Tank 8 (base on the Motorola 6800). One thing that microprocessors required was dedicated programmers and in 1975, Atari’s coin-op division began hiring them. The first was Tom Hogg in 1975 (who worked on Tank 8). The second was Dave Shepperd in February, 1976. Shepperd would go on to design Night Driver. It was not, however, his first game for Atari.
Shepperd had been bitten by the programming bug when he got a look at Nutting’s Computer Space. Enthralled by the game, he decided to try programming on his own and bought an Altair 8800. Released in 1975 by an Albuquerque, New Mexico company called MITS, the Altair was one of the first “personal computers” available to the general public. Calling the Altair a personal computer might be a bit of a stretch. It was really more of a hobbyist’s kit than a practical consumer product. The machine had no monitor, no storage device, and no manual. The only input device was a set of 8 toggle switches that could be used to enter data a bit at a time while output consisted of a series of LEDs on the front of the machine. If you wanted anything else, you had to build it yourself - and teach yourself how (and if you turned the thing off, you lost all your work and had to start again). Like many of the other computer enthusiasts of the time, Shepperd was up to the challenge (or maybe he just had no other choice). After creating a video subsystem that allowed him to connect the Altair to a monitor and adding a keyboard he’d found in a dumpster, Shepperd began programming games for the primitive system. Flyball was his first project at Atari.
[Dave Shepperd] The curious thing about [Flyball] was that I was assigned to do it and I knew almost nothing about baseball and neither did anyone else connected with the project…Long after the game had been out of production, I heard from our marketing department that a bar someplace had been torn up during a fight over the game. I never did learn all the facts, but I believe the fight started because one player thought the game had cheated him. As I pondered how the game might cheat, I sheepishly realized that there was indeed at least one rather serious bug in the game. Whenever a batter was walked, I advanced all the base-runners on base, even if there was an open base between them. Walking in the third base runner with nobody on second could be called “cheating”. I wondered if an undeserved run had caused one player to “win” which had an adverse effect on world peace.
Not long after Flyball, Shepperd started working on Night Driver. Shepperd recalls the genesis of the game as follows.
[Dave Shepperd] I was given a piece of paper with a picture of a game cabinet that had a small portion of the screen visible. I don't recall if it was an actual flyer for the game or simply a Xerox of the front page of the flyer. I recall it being German or maybe I was just told it was a German game. I never saw the game play nor did I know what scoring was used on that game, only that there were a few little white squares showing. With that germ of an idea, out popped Night Driver. I have fond memories of spending time watching the white lines in the street and fence posts whiz by my car as I drove to and from work trying to work out in my mind's eye what kind of math I can use to make little squares on a TV kind of do the same thing.<arcade-history.com/?n=night-driver-upright-model&page=detail&id=26054>
If the flyer Shepperd saw was in German, it was almost certainly for Reiner Foerst's Nurburgring. Atari historian Marty Goldberg, however, reports that Shepperd was actually shown a flyer for Night Racer, which Atari had licensed from Micronetics. Wherever he go the idea, Shepperd was unaware of all but the barest bones of the concept (this may have been a deliberate attempt by Atari to protect themselves from patent infringement claims – though given that they had a license for the game, this seems unlikely).
Of course, the barest bones was pretty much all there was to the game. In terms of graphics, Night Driver was far more primitive than games like LeMans and Gran Trak. The only computer-generated imagery consisted of two lines of sparse white rectangles representing posts delineating the sides of an imaginary road (the image of the nose of a car that appeared on the screen was merely a sticker). The conceit was that you were driving at night, and hence no landmarks were visible. But Atari put those rectangles to good use. Night Driver was a classic example of making a lot out of very little. Though the graphics may have been simple, the game’s 3-D, first-person perspective created a “you are there” illusion that added immeasurably to its realism. This was especially true of the sit-down version that Atari released in April, 1977 (though the upright actually sold far more units). At the time, Atari still had a number of sit-down cabinets left over from 1975’s Hi-Way and decided to use them for a sit-down version of Night Driver. So how does Night Driver compare to its predecessors (Nurburgring, Night Racer, and 280 Zzzap)? Not having played all the games in their coin-op format, it’s hard to tell. In terms of basic gameplay and graphics, the games were very similar. It’s the trappings that distinguish them. Nurburgring appears to have had better sound, though that is really a guess. 280 Zzzap appears to have had more impressive bells and whistles – including its pseudo “dashboard”, the flag-waving referee, and the fluorescent, mirrored-in background graphics (Atari’s version used a stick-on decal to represent the player’s car, though it may have had smoother gameplay). Comparing Night Driver to Night Racer is even more difficult since I could find little in the way of a detailed description of the latter and no YouTube video of gameplay (the game is also quite rare). Looking at the flyers for Night Racer, however, it appears to have been a notch below Night Driver in terms of graphics and, while it had a sit-down cabinet, Atari’s looks much sleeker. In terms of popularity, of course, it was no contest. Nurburgring and Night Racer saw no real success in the US market. 280 Zzzap was listed at the #10 game of 1977 by RePlay and #9 by Play Meter. That same year, Night Driver ranked #6 on both charts. But that fact alone doesn’t tell the full story. After its initial popularity 280 Zzzap quickly faded from the scene (though it did earn an “honorable mention” in RePlay’s 1978 year-end summary). Not so Night Driver. Play Meter listed it as the #9 game of 1978 and the #11 game of 1979 and the game appeared RePlay’s monthly charts as late as January, 1981. Why the difference? While Night Driver may have had smoother gameplay (or may not – I haven’t played the other games), the main factor may have been the simple fact that Night Driver was made by Atari. Another likely factor was that Atari also produced a very popular Atari 2600 version of the game (ported by Rob Fulop and probably the version most people remember today). In any event, for those who were gaming in the late 1970s, Night Driver stands out as one of the more seminal driving games of the era (even if it wasn’t the first of its kind).
 While the last two were released at the same time as Night Driver, they were apparently in development earlier.