Wireframe

Driving games are older than you think

By Paul Rose. Posted

What was the first racing game? You probably know this. It was Speed Race (known as both Racer and Wheels in North America), an arcade game released in 1974 by Taito. Designed by a certain Tomohiro Nishikado – he later went on to create a little-known game called Space Invaders – it was housed in a bulky cabinet, controlled using an unnecessarily massive steering wheel. It was played from a top-down perspective, Spy Hunter-style, making it also the first vertically scrolling game.

Except… Speed Race wasn’t the first driving game. In fact it was Gran Trak 10, released earlier the same year by Atari, and played again from an overhead perspective, albeit with the entire static track viewed on-screen throughout. Though its monochrome graphics were extremely basic, the controls and gameplay were later refined by the likes of Super Off Road and Micro Machines.

Indy 500 was Kasco's breakthrough hit in Japan.

But wait! Gran Trak 10 wasn’t the first driving video game either. In fact, Atari had released Space Race in 1973, in which players raced against spaceships, but even then… the first driving video game wasn’t even an arcade game, but appeared on the Magnavox Odyssey. 1972’s Wipeout (no relation to… well… WipEout) had players guiding a dot around the screen, beneath an overlay that had to be slapped onto the TV screen. It was pretty bad, but every genre needs to start somewhere, right?

Well… it didn’t start in 1972, either. If we want to talk about the history of arcade driving games, we can go back to the electromechanical games of the 1960s. Indeed, Nolan Bushnell had been inspired by 1969’s electromechanical contraption Speedway when he asked Atari employees to start work on a video racing game. In fact, it was Speedway – the highest earning game of its day – which ignited the fire in Bushnell to create Atari. He’d worked at an arcade in the late sixties, and watching customers line up to play it had helped him to see the potential in the gaming business.

ZOO MONKEYS

Except… hang on (pun not intended). Speedway wasn’t even an original game. It was a licensed version of Kasco’s Indy 500, released in 1968. Forgotten by history, Kasco was one of the big players of the electromechanical arcade games industry, alongside more enduring brands such as Sega and Namco. One of the company’s first products was a type of coin-operated magic lantern. Users would peer through it and look at the slides. Bizarrely, the company even made a version for caged zoo monkeys to use.

Indy 500 was the company’s breakthrough hit, selling 2000 units in Japan – but Chicago Coin’s version sold five times that in the US. What really set the game apart was that it was played from a first-person perspective. It would be some time before video games managed the same feat, with Sega’s Road Race, released in 1976. It was later rebranded as a Happy Days tie-in for its US release, to capitalise on the popularity of leather-clad fifties greaser, The Fonz. Aside from its groundbreaking first-person view, it even featured some early haptic feedback, causing the handlebar controller to shake violently upon collision with another vehicle. Ayyyyy!

Namco’s Ridge Racer Full Scale, which transformed a Mazda MX-5 into an absurdly OTT joystick.

And yet… Indy 500, or Speedway, or whatever you want to call it, wasn’t the first arcade racing game either, even if you’re counting electromechanical games. In fact, despite being released over 50 years ago… it isn’t even close to being the first arcade racing game. By 1967, people had been playing driving games in the arcade for – wait for it – around 67 years.

Among the bigger examples were the 1954 driving test simulator Auto Test, which used back projection film footage to rate a driver’s performance; 1959’s Mini Drive, in which players steered a toy car along a scrolling roadway; and 1941’s Drive-Mobile, released by the awesomely named International Mutoscope Reel Company.

What’s truly insane is that the American company, which had traded originally in peep show-style films and photo booths, was actually inspired by the electromechanical driving games that had long been found in the British penny arcades of the era. Yes: driving games are a British invention. Drive-Mobile was big and unwieldy, but its upright cabinet wasn’t a million miles from the same configuration many arcade racers could still be found in more than 80 years later.

BELLOWS

We tend to think of the arcade as a relatively new invention – now, sadly, fallen far from its glory days – but the idea of sticking a coin in a slot for an experience you couldn’t get at home, such as What The Butler Saw, or watching a creepy laughing sailor, dates back to the Victorian era.

Indeed, if Queen Victoria had been quick enough to leg it down to her local penny
arcade in the final year of her life, she could’ve had a go on the first bona fide arcade racing game: Yacht Racer, released by London-based Automatic Sports Co. Sitting alongside the company’s other games, Football, Cricket, Golf, Marksman, and Shooting Big Game, Yacht Racer had a decent run of life. Insanely, it used real water, as players pumped bellows to race two miniature yachts around an island. Like several of the company’s games, it was built atop an ornate, cast iron and brass pedestal in the shape of a mermaid.

By 1912, however, the Automatic Sports Co. had converted most of its Yacht Racer units to shooting games. One of these, Artillery Duel, was a two-player affair, in which players shot ball bearings at one another. So there you go. The British Empire’s legacy isn’t all bad.

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