DEVELOPER: Atari (port by Sterling Silver Software)
RELEASE DATE: 12/21/90 – (JP), 1990 – (US), 12/91 – (EU)
Three years before Virtua Racing puttered to the arcades, Hard Drivin‘ enveloped its drivers in primitive 3D polygons. No small feat for 1989! The game’s ambition went beyond its visuals too. The cabinet’s steering wheel was equipped with force feedback, its car physics were more realistic than other driving games of the time, and it pioneered the “instant replay” within the arcade driving genre.
Save for a lowered framerate and graphical downgrade, the Genesis port is very similar to the arcade. You control an “expensive sports car” (labeled as such by the game itself) from a first-person perspective across a single course. The course has two tracks: a speed track where you can test your driving/speeding skills, and a stunt track that features a bridge jump, a 360 degree loop, and a banked turn. You’re given a minute and forty-five seconds to complete a track, though time is added when you go through checkpoints and upon completion. After you finish one track, if you have any time left, you can drive through the other. When your time is up, the game is over.
The speed track is the easier of the two. Stay on course, follow the speed limits (until you get the hang of the vehicle), take in the 3D barnyards and convenience stores, and you’ll finish with time to spare. The stunt track is where those advanced car physics really shine. If you don’t keep it at 60 miles per hour as you leap across the bridge, you will crash upon landing. If you don’t hit the loop going 60 or more, you might roll backwards. Drone cars litter the road as well, and if you hit them at a decent speed, you’ll crash and lose time.
Automatic transmission is smooth cruisin’ with very little challenge, while Manual involves an awkward control scheme that makes for emphatically hard drivin’. To shift up or down, you press ‘C’ and ‘Up’ or ‘Down’ on the D-pad at the same time, while (in theory) accelerating with ‘A’ and/or braking with ‘B.’ I’m sure this would come naturally to your fingers if you practiced long enough, but it feels needlessly cumbersome, especially when compared to the simple ‘Up/Down’ shifting found in games like Super Monaco GP.
The “instant replay” is shown from a third-person perspective and is only activated when you crash hard into another car or the ground. The camera pans out to show your car in the split-seconds before your mistake and ends in the inevitable explosion. Today, instant replays can be found in every sports and racing game, but for the time, this was an ingenious idea that lessened the blow of one’s poor driving skills. Sure, you lose time, but at least you get a funny video out of it.
If you clear the stunt track in a minute and forty or less, you’re challenged to the Phantom Photon, a ghost that’s a lot better than you at controlling an expensive sports car. If you beat the Photon at his own “death-drives-a-stick” shenanigans, your car will take its place and you or your friends will be able to challenge your racing abilities via a brand new ghost car. The game doesn’t have any save option, though, so once the game is turned off, your performance will be lost forever.
The two tracks included with Hard Drivin‘ are enjoyable, but once you’ve taken them on and bested the Phantom Photon, there’s not a lot to do. I suppose you could bump the game up to a higher difficulty or try and get good with a stick shift, but Sterling Silver Software really should have added a few extra console-exclusive tracks.
Despite Hard Drivin‘s clear innovations and despite the fact that I appreciate the content that is there, I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone purchase this for more than a dollar. Why? I beat the game in less than fifteen minutes without too much trouble. And while those fifteen minutes were a surreal trip into a chunky pixelated world of ages past, they were still just fifteen minutes. If only I could have driven you harder, Hard Drivin‘. If only.