Two children are shown playing cars in video games.

The History of Cars in Video Games (Part One): Analog & Arcade Games

Can you think of any medium besides video games where escapism and realism seamlessly blend? One where the limits of our tangible world are melted into a sea of the utmost fantastical where anything is possible? What other medium has perfectly captured the imagination of billions, shaped generations, and created an entirely new way we see things, including the world we call home? You’ve likely considered a few answers: books, music, 3D movies, a well-written television show, etc. Anything you can define as “escapism.” However, there’s only one medium where you’re put at the forefront of the experience, controlling the outcome in such a way that induces feelings of excitement, accomplishment, or the illusion of impact by making split-second decisions that turn the tide of the content you’re invested in, and that’s video games.

Video games lend themselves to many scenarios that fit the bill for the entertainment of all flavors. Puzzle, platformer, sports, action, role-playing, and strategy––all these genres serve a purpose, but this is AutoInfluence. At AutoInfluence, we love all things automotive, so we’ll be taking a deep dive into racing games and simulations. To start, let’s take a look at how far back cars go in video games.

The Earliest Days of Interactive Entertainment Had Racing Games (1941 – 1971)

The Very Beginning

Video games are one of the most, if not the most, innovative industries humans have conceived. It’s one thing making pixels on a screen react to your input, but to portray realism is something that once took intense imagination from the end user and is now something we’ve grown accustomed to in our games. But what if we told you that driving games have existed since at least the 1940s?

Interactive driving games have been around since the 1940s, albeit you weren’t looking at a screen in the traditional sense, nor was programming involved––everything was analog, meaning the machine was noisy with all sorts of clicking sounds. The first driving game was a coin-op machine; it was a cabinet that doubled as a glorified flip book. In 1941, the Drive-Mobile machine was introduced by the International Mutoscope Corp and immediately captured a following.

The machine was a large cabinet that was just the one game. The cabinet itself is a bit bigger than your average slot machine to give you an idea of scale. A steering wheel protrudes from the center, and most of the top is a drawing of a map of the United States, with blinking lights indicating which city to imagine yourself driving in on a journey from the East to the West Coast. In the bottom portion of the top half, located above the steering wheel, is a barrel that shows a road, painted-on cars serving as traffic, and on either side of the road is a grassy field. The barrel churns continuously while you use the steering wheel to control a car figurine placed on top of the spindle and avoid traffic. You earned points by “driving” well, and a light under the art illuminated a number that represented your score as you played. Completing the trek from one city to another would earn you points. This was the first use of simulated driving for sheer entertainment.

Two Decades Later

Fast forward a bit, and we see a slightly different execution of what’s fundamentally the same game. In 1962, the Williams Road Racer machine was released. The goal of the game was to keep the car centered on the road and avoid drifting into the desert landscapes on either side. A reaction indicator that used electrical currents to signify how well you managed to keep the car in the play space was nestled on the top portion of the cabinet, and going off the road too much would result in a game over.

The Reaction Indicator starts at 100, and the worse you do, the closer the meter will get to 0, which is the end of the game. Between 0 and 10 on the board says ‘Try Again,’ 10 through 20 says ‘Need Practice,’ 20 through 30 labels you as a ‘Fair Driver,’ and so on. The best possible rating you can get is if the arrow remains between 100 and 90, which the meter refers to as a ‘Perfect Driver.’

Although not utilizing any form of digital data and strictly using analog controls, the addition of electricity to dictate the progress of the game was an advancement and one of the first uses of what’s known as an “electromechanical” machine.

Entering the Seventies

While you might be more familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega created some incredible early arcade games. In 1970, Sega released a new electromechanical driving game called Stunt Car, which played more like a pinball machine. The ultimate goal of the game is to hit the correct balls in the right holes, but you still would have used a steering wheel to control the car model within the machine that physically strikes the balls in the playspace.

An arcade machine from the 1970s we honestly can’t help but admire was the Bally Road Runner machine. This was one of the first arcade machines to give off extra depth through an optical illusion. With a combination of reflective glass and a light source, this system gave off the semblance of a 3D play space but was more akin to a hologram––think of Heads-Up displays in current vehicles, and that’ll give you an idea of what this looks like. This type of machine made Star Trek nerds incredibly excited.

The Era of the Arcade

Enter Yu Suzuki—the penultimate game developer. Yu Suzuki famously worked at Sega and, in his early days at the company, led the development studio (AM2), which at the time focused on expensive, bombastic, and addictive arcade games developed in-house by Sega. Many of these games were well ahead of their time. It was here where Sega would create one of our favorite arcade games––Hang On––utilizing the proprietary software developed specifically for the game.

Hang On had a couple of variations: one saw the player sitting on a chair and turning handlebars to simulate steering a bike, or one where the player sat atop the machine that resembles a bike, and by tilting left or right, they’d control the bike on screen. However, Hang On is just a pit stop because it was one year later, in 1986, when Sega would utilize the same pseudo-3D playfield to create OutRun.

OutRun was unlike any of the other games we’ve spoken about thus far, and why is that? Licensing. You see, Sega famously didn’t ask Ferrari to use its automobile––the Ferrari Testarossa––as the model for the game, which created quite a stir. While the laws surrounding video games were a bit of a gray area, graphics were getting good enough to recognize distinct imitations of objects. Without delving too deep into the drama, Sega’s usage of the Testarossa’s likeness ended happily, with the prolific automotive manufacturer renting out several licenses to Sega in the coming years, including for the successors to the original OutRun.

The goal of OutRun was simple enough: you cruise down highways and other scenic routes at incredibly fast speeds. You, the player, not only steer and accelerate the vehicle, but you also have to change between two gears on the fly—slowing down around corners and speeding up on straight roads. Once you achieve a checkpoint, you see the phrase “Time Extended” on the screen, and this ushers you into the next phase and, by extension, allows you to hold onto those quarters in your pocket for at least a minute longer. OutRun is still available on modern platforms if you wish to try it yourself, including in the Nintendo eShop.

Arcades Live On

Unfortunately, arcades aren’t the hangout spot anymore, and unless you have a retro arcade nearby dedicated to the preservation of old games, the chances are you’re stuck with modern-day arcade chains like Dave & Busters. Or, if you manage to find a vintage arcade machine, like at an amusement park in the summertime, your nostalgia may instantly be crushed by the dirty and grimy cabinet with malfunctioning controllers, coin slots, etc. It truly is special when you find a genuine arcade machine that’s been cared for––especially a driving game.

Old arcade machines are becoming more vintage, sought after, and harder to repair with an ever-decreasing amount of OEM parts like CRT monitors, and the unfortunate truth is that the old, pixelated games don’t appeal to the youth of today. When you walk into a modern arcade, you are mostly going to find mobile games on larger screens, like Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja, Candy Crush, and others. Classic games like Galaga, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong cabinets are nowhere to be found. Not a modern version of OutRun or Hang On in sight. These games are aimed at kids now (though these places do have specifically-aimed-at-adults parts of the restaurant/arcade hybrid, like the overly-expensive beer that makes the nachos taste better than they are).

There are racing games at Dave & Busters, some of which are sequels to other historic racing games, like Daytona USA. Even Nintendo gets a slice of the pie with arcade variants of Mario Kart developed in a partnership with Bandai Namco. However, most game companies aren’t as inclined to make arcade-only games, even spin-offs of their beloved franchises, because they aren’t nearly as profitable as they once were and don’t have as far a reach as a mobile app store or a home game console’s market has. Which is what is going to lead us into the second part of this video game and vehicles deep dive: the introduction of cars in video games in the living room thanks to home game consoles.