The ’80s was an important decade. It was one that witnessed the birth of MTV, Pac-Man, and the Rubik’s Cube. It was an era of some outlandish fashions and strange hairstyles. And, at the same time, it was also a period of significant economic development and international relations. Yes, it does seem like a long time ago—ancient history to some—but there is another good reason we shouldn’t forget the ’80s: vintage arcade games. This being 400-euro-job, vintage driving arcade games in particular.
The first “arcade games” were invented in the 1920s for use in early amusement parks. These early coin-operated machines were the kind, like Zoltar, that sometimes told a player’s fortune (made famous in the movie Big), played music, or allowed you to shoot at targets. While they are a far more primitive from those manufactured today, or even in the late ’70s–’90s—generally acknowledged to be the “golden age” of the arcade—they still performed the same function modern ones do: providing entertainment for a coin or two.
Game controls and gameplay in arcade machines were usually intuitive and easy to understand, and they were addictive because the proverbial “next level” was always just within reach. Many hours of my youth were spent at Arnie’s Place, the arcade in my hometown of Westport, CT. In time, Arnie’s expanded to include a pool hall, an ice cream parlor, Georgie Porgie’s, and even a barbershop for haircuts, but the biggest attraction for me were the arcade games where I spent countless quarters trying to beat that “next level”: gobble as many pills as possible in Pac-Man, knock an Ostrich rider off his perch in Joust, or get to the end of the track without wiping out or crashing in Pole Position.
It was inevitable that the arcade manufacturers, once the technology was available, would turn their attention to making racing or driving games. The first, Atari’s Gran Trak 10, was primitive, but others followed throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Some were memorable, and had great gameplay, others less so, now almost forgotten.
Having played many in my time, here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.
1. In 1986, Sega’s Outrun was considered a breakthrough game. Using the latest computer boards available at the time, units that had made a great leap forward, Outrun was like nothing seen before. Advanced graphics, an available moving driver’s seat and screen (cabinet), user-selectable music, and optional driving routes. On top of that, your “driver” was accompanied by a blond babe in his very own Ferrari Testarossa convertible. Players needed to navigate a coastal landscape within a set time limit in order to advance to other stages of the game. Gamers would choose their next level by forks in the road before each checkpoint…3…2…–ugh, not again!
2. In 1989, Leland’s Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road featured three steering wheels and three accelerator pedals—just get used to literally jostling for position with your friends! This all made for endless fun, well, at least until your quarters ran out. You had to twirl those wheels a couple of times to get around a single corner. With upgrades, you could drive different tracks, and—most importantly—you could hit “Nitro” for a boost of power. It had everything you wanted in a racing game.
3. Atari’s Pole Position from 1982 was one of best-selling video driving games of its era. A studio even made a Saturday morning cartoon based on this 8-bit classic! It was the first realistic racing game to offer the rear view camera angle, inspiring many racing games that followed. The player controls a Formula One car, and has to complete a time trial lap within a certain amount of time to qualify for a race at the Fuji Speedway. Ensuring bragging rights in your home arcade, you could even enter your initials in the high score table if you were one of the top 300 highest-scoring drivers on the machine.
4. Bally Midway’s Spyhunter of 1983 was more than a driving game. The game drew inspiration from the James Bond series of films, and originally was supposed to carry the James Bond license. The object of the game is to drive down roads in your “Interceptor” car, and destroy various enemy vehicles with a variety of onboard weapons like oil slicks, smoke screens, and missiles. This game actually has no end whatsoever, it just gets progressively more difficult.
5. Motorcycle fans weren’t left out of the fun, either, and Sega’s Hang-On from 1985 was one of the best of the two-wheeled bunch. Using a behind-the-motorcycle perspective, the player races down race track within a time limit. There was also an arcade cabinet-style unit available where the player sat on what looked like a real motorcycle. To steer, the player leaned to tilt the bike, which likewise then steered the bike on screen—not advisable after a few drinks.
Arcades like Arnie’s Place always seemed alive with lights from game marquees and screens—and the sounds of bells beckoning for a quarter. Today, arcade games seem far removed from the classic era. They are more complicated and, to me, less fun. With racing games in particular, when the graphics get too real, I feel it almost defeats the purpose of getting out in your own real-life car.
That said, now for your quarters: share some of your favorite memories about how you got in the driver’s seat with classic driving arcade games.