Saturday, August 25, 2018

Games 17-18: Gun Fight & Space Invaders

Space Invaders, designed by Taito engineer Tomohiro Nishikado, is the next whale, and it’s the first one made in Japan. Taito had produced a number of arcade games prior to Space Invaders, some of which were distributed in the US by Midway. In turn, a few of Midway’s games from this period were also distributed in Japan by Taito. None of these early Taito games from before Space Invaders are playable anymore, but one’s legacy lives on through its Midway adaptation.

Unplayed: Western Gun

In 1975, Nishikado designed Western Gun, a two-player arcade game about cowboys shooting at each other in the desert. Like all of Taito’s games before Space Invaders, it ran on discrete CPU-less circuitry, and isn’t emulated on MAME or anything else.

Its Midway adaptation Gun Fight, on the other hand, runs on a CPU by Intel, is among the first arcade video games ever to use a CPU (and is often claimed to be the first, but this has been disputed), and is emulated in MAME.

Game 17: Gun Fight

I played a few rounds with a friend. The game has an unusual control scheme:
  • Digital 8-direction joystick for moving the cowboy
  • Analog 2-way joystick for aiming the gun, with a trigger for firing

This mapped pretty well to a modern gamepad, with a D-pad for moving, the right analog stick’s vertical axis for aiming, and a shoulder button for firing. Aiming is a bit fiddly and probably works better with the original 2-way joystick, but this setup works.

The cowboys each occupy one half of the screen, separated by an invisible barrier, and have 70 seconds to try to outscore the other by shooting them. Each round adds more cactus obstacles to the arena, which can block one bullet but then disappear, and eventually a stagecoach starts patrolling the center of the screen, blocking all shots. Bullets can be ricocheted off the top and bottom edges of the screen. Each cowboy gets no more than six shots per round, and if both run out, the round is a draw.

This was a fun game, with fast and immediately accessible action, a good mix of skill and strategy, and amusing visuals and sound. In a way, with two horizontally opposed cowboys on either side of the screen, projectiles flying left and right and bouncing up and down, it’s like a violent Pong.

It makes me wish we could play the original Western Gun. From the scant footage available, we can see that it played differently, and that Gun Fight isn't a straight port. Western Gun's arena seems to be more complex and more free-roaming. In addition to shot-blocking cactuses, there are shot-deflecting rocks. Nishikado felt his version was more fun,  but was impressed with Gun Fight's animation and graphics, and was inspired to develop subsequent games with a programmable CPU too, starting with Space Invaders.

Game 18: Space Invaders

Space Invaders is the earliest game that I would call a genuine classic without reservations. Sure, there were earlier games with entertainment value, but none have the enduring popularity and veneration of Space Invaders. And there have been earlier games that were popular and are still well known, but I don’t think they’re a lot of fun. A lot of early 70’s arcade games have become obscure thanks to their unportability (is that a word?).  They weren’t just bound to the hardware, they were the hardware, with no code that could be ported to run on newer systems. Only Pong and Breakout remain in the collective memory, thanks to being remade and often ported.

If Gun Fight is like a violent Pong, then Space Invaders is like a violent Breakout. There were earlier games about shooting rows of targets, but Space Invaders alone arranges the targets into a grid-like phalanx, has them advance, shoot back, and eventually invade.

There’s a joke in the attract screen that most players probably won’t see playing in MAME. Just as in Gun Fight, where a cowboy shoots the “INSERT COIN” display…

…so does a Space Invader here.

As a singleplayer game – two-player mode simply alternates players – I could play Space Invaders any time, for as long as I wanted. As there’s no ending, my goal was simply to play until I was fairly confident that my performance would not improve.

My best attempt took me to the fourth round. I found my best strategy was to eliminate the invaders one column at a time, taking out the outermost column ASAP, which required shooting through my own barriers. After that, the rest of the columns were a lot easier, until the last few invaders go into panic mode and become fast and tricky to hit. The mystery ship was a target of opportunity, but I’d only try to get it if it was convenient, and after the first round this wasn’t often. I got good enough that I could consistently survive the first round, but each subsequent round starts the invaders off lower to the surface, giving you less time to finish them off before they invade, and less reaction time to dodge their fire.

This is actually the earliest game I’ve played where rounds get incrementally more difficult. It’s not the first time that the game gets incrementally harder over time; Pong accelerates the ball when it’s been in play long enough, and Breakout gets downright unfair once the ball hits the top of the screen by shrinking the already tiny paddle. Gun Fight got more complex in subsequent rounds, but difficulty was up to your opponent. Space Invaders seems to be the game that codified the ubiquitous concept that later levels get harder.

I understand that really good players use tricks I haven’t tried, such as predicting when the mystery ship will appear, and manipulating the pseudo-RNG to maximize its point value. And exploiting a trick; that when the invaders reach the lowest possible row, their shots won’t harm you, and you can pick them off one row at a time. The downside is that a single missed shot means they’ll land and end your game, but it’s probably the only way to survive later rounds. These tricks don’t seem like they’re in the spirit of the game, which really just expects you to plunk in a token and then not occupy the machine for too long.

Space Invaders set the template for shoot’em ups, though it lacks several elements that would be crucial to the genre. Movement is only horizontal, and a bit slow. There are no stages, just the same formation of invaders repeating, forever. And you shoot one bullet at a time, which at times can make it seem like an eternity of waiting for the next shot, even more so when you miss. But the game is carefully balanced around these elements. Space Invaders would be much too easy if you could flood the screen with your own bullets as in later shmups, where the challenge is often in dodging bullets, and firing blindly will whittle down the enemies as long as you can avoid their shots. Here, dodging enemy fire wouldn’t be too much of a challenge, even with your slow movement, except that you really need to make every one of your own shots count. You simply don’t have time to be inefficient, and it’s difficult to focus on the invaders’ positions while also ducking their fire, and you can’t easily zip in and out of a shooting position without very careful timing.

For all Space Invaders did for the industry, I think it may get too much credit. Wikipedia states Space Invaders is the first video game existing as a video game, as opposed to a “digital representation” of something else. Really? What’s Breakout a simulation of, then? How about Gotcha, or the infamous Death Race? Or Computer Space? It also claims that Space Invaders has continuing influence on the first person shooter genre, which I really don’t see. One citation there claims Space Invaders introduced “surviving while shooting everything that moves” as a gameplay concept, but that strikes me as clearly specious considering Computer Space had players shooting at hostile AI targets so much earlier. I think “survive while shooting everything that moves” as a gameplay concept is self-evident and innate to the DNA of arcade video games. It wasn’t introduced by Space Invaders, but has been part of the format since the literal beginning of it.

It’s also been the source of quite a few urban legends. The most widely heard of them are that it caused a 100-yen coin shortage in Japan, and that the accelerating descent of the invaders as you thin their numbers is a CPU timing glitch. The former is probably not true. The latter may or may not have been true in early development, but the final ROM code contains a routine that deliberately counts the remaining invaders and increases their speed at specific thresholds, so it’s clearly not a glitch in the final product.

In spite of some exaggerations and urban legends, Space Invaders is a fine game, and deserves plenty of credit for legitimizing video games. It’s designed well, feels elegant rather than austere in its simplicity, has a distinct and recognizable sci-fi theme and aesthetic, plays fair for the first round or two, invites strategy as well as skill, and numerous famous developers from both the US and Japan have cited Space Invaders as a major influence on their careers.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Game 16: Combat

Buy Combat and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

Read the manual at AtariAge:

Atari has long been a blind spot in my gaming experience. My first exposure to the Atari 2600 system, in fact the first time I even heard the name “Atari,” was in the summer of 1990, at which point the system had been long made irrelevant. One day that summer, a friend showed me a peculiar game about tanks shooting each other. At one point the tanks became invisible. At another point, there were airplanes shooting each other instead of tanks, and at another point three normal sized airplanes fought one very large bomber. It never occurred to me that this was uglier or more primitive than my Nintendo, or that the system was nearly a decade older. It was strange, it was abstract, it was novel, and it was the first time I had any idea that there were video games played on the TV that were not Nintendo.

I hadn’t given Atari much thought for the rest of the century. I soon got a Sega Genesis, and with the big leap forward in graphics, sound, and gameplay sophistication, Atari just seemed intolerably base. The name “Atari” became synonymous with outdatedness. I don’t remember when this was, but at some point I learned of Atari’s original pack-in game, Combat, and connected the dots to that abstract Atari game I saw in 1990. But by then I was beyond caring about such archaic video games.

With emulation blossoming in the 2000’s, and with a passion for video game history emerging thanks to it, I eventually did explore the Atari 2600’s library, and even discovered some games that I really liked. I never replayed Combat, though. Games like Pitfall and Adventure can be played any time it’s convenient. Combat is 2 players only, and needs planning, organization, and having a friend who is willing to put up with games from the 70’s.

I bought the Atari Vault package on Steam, but I played Combat through MAME because I trust it to have greater accuracy, and also because it has extensive customization and built-in recording.

I found that the game looked best at an internal resolution of 352x223, a roughly 14:9 aspect ratio. This will probably be a surprise or even an anathema to anyone into this kind of nitty-gritty detail, it isn’t an authentic resolution or an authentic aspect ratio, but sprite rotation caused distortion at a “correct” 4:3 aspect ratio, with sprites’ apparent dimensions warping with the angle. With the 14:9 aspect ratio, sprites kept their original dimensions at all angles.

To do this in MAME takes a bit of math and fiddling. You have to lie about your screen’s dimensions. In MAMEUI, it’s done here (right click Atari 2600 system->properties):

3:2 works well for me on my 16:9 screen. If your screen is a different aspect ratio, the formula to calculate is:

[Actual screen aspect ratio]×223/264

For me, 16/9 × 223/264 ≅ 1.502, close enough to 3:2.

With this setup, “R” and I played a session, with the intent of trying out all 27 modes built into the cartridge. The modes are explained in the manual, and are arranged into six groups; four groups of Tank games, and two groups of fighter games.


Modes 1-5: Tank

An adaptation of Atari’s Tank arcade game, which hasn’t been emulated, and I haven’t played. Tank has actually had quite a few iterations even before the 2600’s release, and a few since, but this is the earliest to be emulated.

Like the arcade version, all of Combat’s Tank games have two tanks moving around an arena, trying to shoot each other with shells. Hitting your opponent stuns them and scores you a point, and whoever has the most points when time runs out wins. The controls are simpler; the arcade version had dual two-way levers per player for controlling the tank treads independently. Here we have a single 8-direction joystick per player, and the tanks can’t reverse, so only 5 directions are even used. There also no mines.

Mode 1 has an open arena, and shells can be “guided.” When you steer your tank, you steer the shell too. Because there’s nowhere to hide, and the tanks move much too slowly to avoid correctly guided shells, hitting your opponent is often just a matter of who fires first and doesn’t miss. Hitting your opponent once often sets them up to be easily hit again; they are stunned, spin around, and regain control with the turret facing a random direction while your turret still faces them. They have little chance to evade you, or to turn around and return fire. You can score many consecutive hits this way, but eventually, hitting your opponent close to a wall causes them to pop right through it and come out on the other side of the screen, ending the hit chain.

Even with an open arena, the physics are still pretty wonky, with tanks sometimes passing right through the walls on their own, or rapidly sliding across a side of the screen.

Modes 2 and 3 throw a few obstacles into the arena. The manual calls this an “Easy Maze.” Mode 2 still has guided shells, but mode 3 only has straight flying dumbfire shells. This difference led to a very different dynamic in each game. With guided shots, just about any spot on the map is vulnerable to fire from an open vantage point, from where it is easier for the player in the vantage point to guide shots in than it is for the entrenched tank to guide them out. But without guided shots, taking cover forces your opponent to come to you, which gives you an advantage. This made mode 3 less interesting, as the game dynamic had both of us turtling until one got bored and attacked. Your turret always faces the direction you are moving, and rotation is very slow, which means that when you move into a position where you can hit an opponent, you still need to rotate so you can hit them, but they have probably already rotated their turret towards you during your approach, and can fire at you right away. Perhaps this could have been remedied if the tank game had some way of rotating the turret independently of the tank, but that’s just not a feature of this game.

Mode 4 and 5 turn the arena into a maze resembling the one in the arcade version, though still a bit simpler and without a mine-filled sub-arena in the middle. The manual calls this a “Complex Maze.” As with modes 2 and 3, mode 4 has guided shells and mode 5 has dumbfire shells. The dynamics were about the same as before, with unguided shells in mode 5 encouraging a boring camping game. The type of shell made much more of a difference than the maze complexity did.

Modes 6-9: Tank-Pong

This was the best set of games in Combat. All Tank-Pong modes feature unguided shells that ricochet off the walls as they do in Pong. One unexpected detail was that when a shot hits a wall straight on, it bounces back not right back at you, but at an angle slightly to the right of the point of impact. Predicting where your shots will go after more than one bounce is challenging, makes the game more chaotic, and is therefore more fun.

Modes 6 and 7 have the easy and complex maze, respectively. Turtling was a viable tactic in both mazes, because banking shots out of cover is easier than banking them in. Unlike the modes with unguided shells, this didn’t bring gameplay to a halt, because banking shots in is still possible, just tricky, and doesn’t make the attacker as vulnerable as rounding corners does.

Mode 8 returns to the open arena, but this time shots only count if they ricochet off a wall before hitting your opponent. The manual calls this “Billiard Hit.”

Mode 9 has the easy maze with billiard hit rules.

Modes 10-11: Invisible Tank

A kind of frustrating Tank variant where both tanks are invisible, except when firing, getting hit, or bumping into obstacles. I wonder if Command & Conquer cribbed the Stealth Tank from this game. Shots are always guided.

Mode 10 has the open arena, and mode 11 has the easy maze. These were identical to modes 1 and 2, except for the invisibility.

Both of us had trouble keeping tracking of our own tanks. Was the intent to enable you to pull off tricky sneak attacks? It didn’t work for us, because we were never really sure where our own tanks were except when they turned visible. Maybe this could have been an interesting mode for a network game where you can see yourself but not your opponent. The maze mode made it a bit easier to predict where your opponent will go, because there aren’t as many options for them. In both modes, we felt encouraged to be aggressive in pursuing chained series of hits. If you hit your opponent once, and have them lined up for another, you want to try to fire again as soon as possible before they have a chance to disappear.

Modes 12-14: Invisible Tank-Pong

Oh come on, Atari. Invisible Tank-Pong doesn’t count as its own game! This is Tank-Pong with the invisible tank mechanic. If we’re being generous we can count Tank and Tank-Pong as two separate games, but the Invisible variants are just that, variants. As with Tank-Pong, shots are never guided. This was overall more fun than Invisible Tank, but mainly because the shots tend to bounce everywhere and somebody gets hit even if neither of you have any idea where anyone is.

Mode 12 has the easy maze. Modes 13 and 14 have the open arena and easy maze and both require billiard hits to count. These are the same as modes 6, 8, and 9, except for the invisibility.

Interestingly, none of the invisible tank modes use the complex maze. Maybe because the tanks would bump into obstacles constantly, making them visible too much?

Modes 15-20: Bi Plane

“I remember this, it’s Jet Fighter,” said R, “but the jets look more like Red Baron airplanes.”

This is pretty much just the Jet Fighter arcade game, but slower, and the controls are slightly different. The perspective is side-view rather than overhead, so here you push forward to dive, backward to climb, right to speed up and left to slow down. The perspective doesn’t change the game that much. Gravity doesn’t exist, planes never stall, and flying upside down is no different from flying right side up. All that the perspective means that the vertical and horizontal axes on your joystick are switched.

As with Jet Fighter, two planes fly across your screen, which wraps at the edges, and they try to shoot each other with missiles, and score points for hits.

The arcade version of Jet Fighter had clouds obscuring the sky in places, but they were simply physical decals placed over the monitor and not part of the video display. This aspect wasn’t emulated by DICE. Here, the clouds are part of the video display, and so they are emulated. The arcade version could be played solo against a stupid AI opponent, but here this isn’t even an option, and you must have another player, as you must in all Combat games.

The biplanes are quite a bit faster than tanks and are always moving forward, and with no walls there’s no restriction on where they can go.

I also thought the sound effect for the fighters' engine was pretty good, considering what sound hardware they had to work with.

Mode 15 has guided missiles. I’m pretty sure this isn’t historically accurate. We both tended to be pretty aggressive with firing missiles to the general vicinity of each other, knowing they could be steered with precision, even past the screen boundary and onto the other side. But unlike the sluggish tanks, the planes had a decent chance of evading guided missiles.

R noted “these missiles don’t kill, they just score points, so they’re more like paintball rounds. But they’d get in your flaps, and you’d probably die.”

Mode 16 has dumbfire missiles. I’m still pretty sure this isn’t historically accurate; bi-planes might have used them against bombers, blimps, and balloons, but not each other. We would fire these missiles less frequently than the guided ones, at closer ranges, and only when aimed carefully first.

Modes 17 and 18 finally have machine guns. Mode 18 gets rid of the clouds, but this doesn’t really make a difference. Even though the biplanes are slower than jets, they still move fast enough to pass through the small clouds quickly, and they therefore don’t obscure your position or heading long enough to matter. The rapid fire machinegun has a very short range, so dogfights became all about pursuing the opponent’s tail and trying to close in.

Mode 19 has each player control a 2-plane squadron flying in perfect formation – such a perfect formation that if one gets hit, they both spin out together. The planes are armed with guided missiles, and there are no clouds. Firing causes both planes to fire their missiles simultaneously, which also steer in perfect formation. Having a two-shot spread as well as two targets to hit essentially quadruples your chances of scoring a hit with each volley, making this a high scoring game.

Mode 20 has one player control a 3-plane squadron in formation, while another flies a really big bomber. Missiles are dumbfire, and there are no clouds. The bomber just doesn’t stand a chance; the fighters’ combined fire has a very wide spread, while the bomber is a bigger target than all three biplanes combined. The only advantage of the bomber is that it has extra-large shots, and they’re still small enough to slip in between two of the fighters, hitting neither. It's a meager advantage, and does little to make the game less lopsided.

Modes 21-27: Jet Fighter

And here we actually have Jet Fighter. None of the modes feature machine guns. R protested “real jets would not dogfight this close with missiles!”

It didn’t play all that differently from the biplanes. The controls are slightly easier to understand but functionally identical; left and right steer, up and down speed up and slow down. The faster speed meant chained hits were uncommon; after each successful hit, both players lose control for a second, the victor flies in a straight line and the victim spins out and gets knocked in a random direction. Because of the increased speed of the jets, the scoring craft has likely flown too far away from its target to be in any good position to follow up with another hit.

Modes 21-24 are all 1-on-1 rules permutations. Mode 21 has guided missiles and clouds, mode 22 unguided missiles and clouds, mode 23 guided missiles and no clouds, mode 24 unguided missiles and no clouds. The clouds made less of a difference here than they did with biplanes, if that’s even possible. Missile type did make a difference, but not as much as it did with biplanes. The fast jet speed makes guiding the guided missiles harder and evading either type easier. We still fired the guided missiles earlier and more aggressively, and for the same reasons as before.

A lot of these modes feel like filler, even more so than usual. And it’s almost a missed opportunity that there’s no stealth jet mode – unlike invisible tanks, those actually exist!

The last three modes are squadron battles. Mode 25 is 2 vs. 2 with guided missiles and clouds. Mode 26 is 3 vs. 1 (all normal sized) with guided missiles and no clouds. Mode 27 is 2 vs. 2 with unguided missiles and no clouds. Mode 26 obviously invites comparison to mode 20’s fighters vs. bomber dogfight, and even though the solo jet is now a small target, the mode is overall still slanted pretty heavily in favor of the squadron. The wide spread of the squadron’s fire is just a better advantage than the solo fighter’s smaller size, especially with guided missiles.

Overall, the Bi-Plane and Jet Fighter modes, despite taking up nearly half of the game, just weren’t much fun at all. I felt that the arcade version of Jet Fighter was lacking a compelling hook. The 13 modes dedicated to these games provided little variety. Three of the six Bi-Plane modes are made redundant by corresponding Jet Fighter modes, which are slightly more fun because of the better speed and controls but otherwise functionally identical. Of the three others, two (machineguns with and without clouds) are pretty much the same game, and the fighters vs. bomber mode is good for a laugh but that’s about it. Of the seven Jet Fighter modes, two are just cloudless variations of another two, and another two are just dumbfire variants, which makes a bigger difference than clouds but still isn’t a huge difference.

With a modern perspective, it also seems odd to me that Atari would have a “game selection” switch to enumerate between 27 predefined games, rather than provide some mechanism to turn features on and off. This could have been handled through a game configuration menu, or perhaps with additional DIP switches on the console similar to how its arcade machines had DIP switches to control gameplay variables. I imagine that the system and game were developed concurrently, and it wouldn’t have been out of the question to make changes to the console based on the needs of the game. The console did have two DIP switches, but they were used exclusively to control player handicaps. Atari would eventually go way overboard with these inflated game counts, with Atari’s Space Invaders port having a whopping 112 “games” covering every possible combination of four binary gameplay variables and seven singleplayer & multiplayer modes.

I can’t see myself revisiting this any time soon. The lack of any AI opponent really limits the opportunities to play; you must have another player in order to get any enjoyment out of this package, and that’s a major reason why it took me so long to get around to playing it. The Tank-Pong modes were the best of the lot, but there are plenty of Atari arcade multiplayer games I’d rather replay if I had company over who were amenable to archaic video games, including some of the DICE titles we played earlier.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Games 14-15: Spirit of '76

After Breakout, the next whale is Combat, the original pack-in title for Atari’s seminal console released in September 1977. Claiming to be a program of 27 video games, all are really just variants of Atari’s earlier arcade games Tank and Jet Fighter. These titles even appear in the list of games, along with Pong, whose bouncy mechanics play a role in some of the Tank variations.

In between Breakout and Combat, the only Atari game to receive any significant retrospective exposure (by my Mobygames metric) is Night Driver, a racing game made by Atari’s subsidiary Cyan Engineering in 1976. It’s long been thought to be the first racing with a 3D perspective. Wikipedia long described it as “the original first-person racing game,” and only by January 2011 would someone change it to “one of the earliest first-person racing games.” By July 2013, the page finally credited its inspiration Nürburgring 1, with citations.

Unplayed: Nürburgring 1

Scan provided by The Arcade Flyer Archive

Like so many games of the 70’s, information on this game is scarce and sketchy. Another game with no CPU, with a whopping 28 circuit boards and painstakingly manufactured at one unit per week, it’s likely that this will never be emulated. It’s not even a sure thing that there are any operational units left in the world.

If you’ve played Night Driver, I’m sure that flyer looks familiar. Programmer Dave Shepperd claims to have been inspired by a photograph of some 3D racing game that might have been German. It’s also been reported that the inspiration was Night Racer, which had been directly inspired by Nürburgring 1 when its creator visited Düsseldorf. In either case, Nürburgring 1 was certainly a progenitor to Night Driver.

I really can’t say much about how it might have played that can’t be gleaned from the flyer. The screenshot looks like a mockup – nothing at the time, or in years since, could show fonts or lines on a CRT with such clarity, but it seems reasonable that the final product may have had all of the visual elements seen there. The cabinet shows a driving wheel, pedals, and brakes, but no stick shift. The screenshot shows a dashboard, something absent from Night Driver, with discernible speedometer, odometer, and fields marked “Ziel” and “Fehler” – “aim” and “error.” To the right of that appears to be a timer, and something indiscernible further to the right of it.

My attempt to translate the blurb:

New, high quality, future proof

Nürburgring/1 sets new standards for video machines. It is not a game with remote controlled miniatures, but rather an up-close racing experience from the driver's view. This is the first time that a coin-op comes close to the test devices of the automotive and oil companies, the driving simulator with a lifelike perspective streetscape.

A later flyer from 1979 shows a redesigned cabinet without brakes alongside a motorbike variant, and more detail on how the game played.

Scan provided by Flyer Fever

The blurb on the first page is just a slightly abbreviated version of the original flyer, but the second page reveals some tangible gameplay detail, even with my clumsy attempt to translate it.

Amazingly Realistic

Nürburgring puts the driver in a veritable speed rush. It becomes deceptively realistic on a varied simulated racetrack which excites motorsport fans: 4-speed automatic, an engine noise with all tone varieties, the option to cut corners and take the ideal line so that the car does not break out, the squealing noise of drifting tires.

Perfect Dashboard

Speedometer, kilometer counter, timer, error counter. Incorruptible, the electronics notes each wrong reaction, challenges the competition, penalizes crashes with loss of time, rewards good driving with a free ride. A special automatic shutdown considers the drivers' skill. The slow drive of beginners is canceled by the clock after 90 seconds. The fast drive of the more advanced ends with the finish line. The viewer can call splits and follow curves and unexpectedly becomes a co-driver.


Nürburgring are highly complex fully electronic devices developed from scientific simulation technology. They are absolutely maintenance-free due to the exclusive use of long lasting components. Steering and gas are of the highest quality and robustness. The circuit design meets the highest requirements regarding safety and ease of repair. 28 partly identical plug-in cards are easily accessible and arranged according to functional groups. If an error occurs, it can be remedied in two steps by changing the relevant card.

Our service will satisfy you.


Nürburgring devices enjoy the same popularity among youth and adults. Based on their tasteful presentation, they are not only suitable for gambling halls, but also for hotels, restaurants, department stores, dignified reception halls and waiting rooms.

A product of Reiner Foerst EngD GmbH · Development and construction of electronic devices

Further recommended reading, but prepare for a tangled mess of facts, anecdotes, hazy memories, and speculation, as with any literature on an obscure and unplayable video game.

Game 14: Night Driver

By uncertain means, to an uncertain degree, and with uncertain directness, Nürburgring 1 begat Night Driver, and it was released in 1976 to great commercial success. Unlike all of the previous Atari games mentioned so far, Night Driver is CPU based, and has been well emulated by MAME for ages. The display is a monochrome monitor that shows lines of white pylons on the side of the road zipping past you in first person to impressionistically depicting your speed and direction. A simple, static color image overlay of the car’s front adorns the center of the screen. At the top of the screen are a score display, your time remaining, and your fastest speed reached. A speedometer is inconspicuously absent.

Controls exposed by MAME include:
  • Digital gas pedal (i.e. not sensitive to pressure, it’s either idle or floored)
  • Track selector switch settable to Novice, Pro, or Expert
  • 4-gear stick shift
  • Analog steering wheel
  • Start button
  • ‘Motor RPM’ switch whose purpose I couldn’t determine

Unlike Atari’s earlier overhead racing games, Night Driver has no vehicles on the road except for yours. It’s a race against time, and the default settings grant 100 seconds to start, and award bonus time on hitting 350 points. Wikipedia and KLOV both state that it is possible to flip the score counter back to 0 on reaching 1000 points, that it is possible to get bonus time again by hitting 350 points a second time, and that a perfect player could hypothetically play forever by hitting 350 points again and again. Getting 350 points on the default setting seemed to be a reasonable goal.

The strategy that worked best for me was to try to reach top gear as quickly as possible, and then stay at the top gear at all times, with the gas pedal down nearly for the whole duration. I would let up on the gas for a split second on straightaways just before entering turns, making sure to hold it again on entering the turn and keep it held down during and after the curves. With this technique, I never crashed, never lost control of the car, and never had to come down from top gear. But I also never reached a speed above 191, whereas in some previous attempts I exceeded 241 (just not for very long). I suspect this isn’t a winning strategy either, because my best attempt scored 314 points, seemingly miles away from the 350 points needed to “win.” I wonder how it’s even possible to score over 1000 points – do you have to just keep the gas pedal down without ever letting up, and steer with inhuman precision? I can believe that it’s possible to navigate the turns at speeds way above 191; the steering is very sensitive, and there’s no spinning out from oversteering at high speeds, but I’m certain I’ll never be good enough to do that consistently.

Another thing that bothers me; how do you know if the track selection is working? The game gives no feedback when pressing buttons that map to the track selector switch. When are you supposed to press it? Assuming that my operation was correct, I noticed no difference in the track selection. Wikipedia, KLOV, and even MAME all say that the Expert difficulty gives more points and is therefore the easiest to reach 350 points in, but I noticed no difference in points awarded either.

There were also some DIP switches that I didn’t mess around with much:
  • Coinage – Adjust the number of sessions per coin
  • Playing time – Values of 50, 75, 100, and 125 seconds
  • Track set – Normal or reverse, reverse mode noticeably changed the track layout, but I’m not sure precisely how
  • Bonus time – Turn off or on the bonus time award for hitting 350 points
  • Service mode – Turn on to enable some kind of ROM test mode
  • Difficult bonus – The service manual says turning this on makes it harder to reach 350 points, but doesn’t explain how

Lack of closure on some mysteries aside, Night Driver is a pretty impressive accomplishment, to manage a fast pseudo-3D racing perspective at a high frame on a primitive 70’s CPU that was considered entry level even at the time. I can’t say I had that much of a great time playing it, driving games were never my forte.

Before moving on, a quick detour into a counterpart by Midway.

Game 15: Datsun 280 ZZZap

Released by Midway in 1976 and reportedly a licensed clone of Night Racer by Micronetics, which in turn was inspired by Nürburgring 1. That’s the report anyway, but some things bug me about this explanation. Why would Micronetics license a clone, and not just outsource extra production of their own game? How much of a clone was 280 ZZZap anyway, considering that Night Racer was based on TTL circuits, and 280 ZZZap based on a CPU running software? Did it come before or after Night Driver? If Night Racer was also licensed to Atari, why did Midway and Atari accept non-exclusive license deals? And why does Dave Shepperd claim that all he was given to work with was a photograph of some racing game that might have been German?

In any event, what we have that can be seen with one’s own eyes is that there are two racing games playable in MAME with an awful lot of apparent similarity, including a release date of 1976. Everything else we know has been passed through the filter of historians.

Once again, this is a 3D perspective time trial racing game, with display as a monochrome monitor, with white pylons flying past you to simulate the sensation of speed. Scoring high enough in the allotted time awards bonus time to race. A dashboard at the bottom shows your speed, time, and score, and blue cellophane acts as a color overlay. Sound is not emulated.

For this game, controls exposed by MAME include:
  • Analog gas pedal
  • 2-gear stick shift
  • Analog steering wheel
  • Start button

In about 20 minutes of trying, I played a round where I hit the bonus time threshold, never crashed, hit the maximum speed multiple times, and finished with the highest rating of “champion.”

Compared to Night Driver, 280 ZZZap wins in the bells and whistles department. The dashboard is snazzier and more useful than Night Driver’s cardboard cutout hood decal, the guy waving a flag at the beginning is a neat visual touch, the gas pedal is analog instead of digital, the endgame rates your performance, and there's actually a speedometer here. But Night Driver has the more engaging driving engine. 280 ZZZap just doesn’t let you do much except navigate turns by steering hard and slowing down if you have to. The stick shift only has two positions, and the only times I ever had it set it to the low position were for the first few seconds after starting or crashing. The course does not twist and turn as Night Driver's do, and it’s almost impossible to oversteer. In short, 280 ZZZap is simplistic and too easy compared to Night Driver.

In the end, Night Driver is the only game in this family of arcade racers with any enduring popularity. It outperformed 280 ZZZap in the arcades and was ported to the 2600 console, while 280 ZZZap only got ported to the forgotten Bally Astrocade. The progenitors Nürburgring 1 and Night Racer languish in obscurity, possibly never to be played again.

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