Hard Drivin’ is a 1989 arcade game developed and manufactured by Atari Games. It allows the player to drive a sports car on a track that emphasises speed and stunts, and was one of the first driving games with a fully 3D polygonal environment.
Hard Drivin’ provides a first-person view through the windshield, with a panel at the bottom of the screen that shows your speed, engine RPM, gear settings, and other useful information. The cabinet itself featured a steering wheel, a gear lever, and three foot pedals – accelerator, clutch, and brake.
At the start of the game you must choose whether to use automatic or manual transmission, and if the latter is chosen the player must change gears using a clutch pedal. Hard Drivin’ was so realistic that you could even stall the car if you missed a gear shift! You also have to “turn the key” to start the car’s engine, which is probably overdoing it a bit. It’s easy to lose valuable time by forgetting to do this.
The track in Hard Drivin’ is split into two sections – speed and stunt – and you choose which you want to drive on by taking the appropriate turnings. Both are clearly sign-posted in the game. A timer ticks down as you drive and when it runs out it’s game over, so the idea is to drive as quickly as possible, but within the speed limits set by the game. Each part of the course is sign-posted with speed limits and driving faster than these will usually result in the car spinning out of control or coming off the road, or worse: crashing.
When the car crashes – whether that’s into oncoming traffic, or into a static obstacle – the windshield shatters and you are shown a third-person, ten-second instant replay of what just happened. Which was quite revolutionary for the time.
In total, fifteen different arcade cabinets were produced for Hard Drivin’ (eleven cockpit versions and four compact versions, for various markets), but in essence the game was always designed to provide a fairly realistic depiction of driving.
Although Hard Drivin’ did have a force feedback steering wheel it still felt a little disconnected from reality in my opinion. I remember playing it in arcades way back in 1989 and not being too impressed, and I was an experienced driver at the time. While the concept of Hard Drivin’ appealed to me greatly (the ability to drive a sports car on a stunt track without any danger), in practise it didn’t quite feel right to me. But that’s no surprise, really, as it was such an early example of this kind of game.
Playing Hard Drivin’ now: it’s still fun to mess around with, but the countdown timer is pretty harsh and getting anywhere without crashing, or the game abruptly ending, is not easy. In fact: it’s damn hard – especially without analogue controls.
An arcade sequel, called Race Drivin’, was released in 1990, and a home computer-only sequel, called Hard Drivin’ II: Drive Harder, was released for 16-bit home computers in 1991.