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Night Driver – Atari 2600

Night Driver – Atari 2600

atari 2600 night driverPlatform: Atari 2600

Developer: Atari

Publisher: Warner

Release Date (NA): 1980

Genre: Racing Game

Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed by Space Invader

Night Driver was released back in 1980, when barreling through poorly-light country roads with one hand on the steering wheel and the other around a bottle of Jack was just good, low-key fun. With all these pesky drunk driving laws that have surfaced in the last 30+ years, your best approximation is to grab a cold one and fire up the old Atari 2600, with Night Driver plugged into the cartridge slot.

OK, in all fairness, nothing in this game implies that you’re drunk, but why else are you driving aimlessly around in the pitch black, handling your turns poorly? We can connect the dots, Atari. Anyway, it’s just you, the dark road, and the occasional passing motorist. You’re going for as many points as possible in the 90-second time limit, with points awarded for how much “gone” you can put between where you start and where you are when your time is up.

Every time you careen off the side of the road or into oncoming traffic, your car, apparently invincible, nevertheless needs a few seconds to get back into its groove. This costs precious points, as does taking it too easy around the turns as the clock runs down.


As with all Atari 2600 games, it is important to keep in mind the age of the game, and hardware, in question. The

The print ad featured the mysterious Midnight Driver, notable for his toothy grin and very blue suit.

manual for the game states, “You’re in the driver’s seat and the track is just ahead of you on the television screen,” with enough gravity to imply that a first-person racer was not common this early in video games. They were not — it took crafty programming to paint an effective illusion of road reflectors zooming past you. The illusion is somewhat shattered with excess speed and too many turns, becoming instead a simulation of a dull acid trip. Scenery (well, a house and a tree) scale by the side of the road smoothly.

It’s a shame the programmer seemingly hadn’t ever seen a car before – that bunch of blocks at the bottom of the screen is your mean machine, and oncoming traffic doesn’t look much better. Limitations of the system become apparent when you realize that oncoming vehicles don’t move of their own accord, but sit idly, waiting for you to either pass or crash into them.


Night Driver makes use of the paddle controller. You swivel the knob as you might turn a steering wheel, and the button acts as the gas pedal. The first few runs will have you screaming at the screen with more vigor than you yell at your windshield when late for work during rush hour. You’ll hold the accelerator down and watch helplessly as the car swerves off the side of the road. After recovering, you’ll turn the knob in the opposite direction to correct. It will, sadly, be an over-correction, and you will slam into the other side of the road.

 The learning curve is certainly steep, but the plateau is quick to come. As the innovation of controllers with pressure-sensitive push-buttons was still 30 years to come, moderating your speed, of drastic importance when first starting out, demands a precise hand that taps the button like Morse Code. The slower you tap, the slower you drive. Hold the button down to go as fast as possible, with the understanding that you are likely to smash into either a pylon or an oncoming driver during the first of many hairpin turns.


Make no mistake, if your idea of an antique racing game is, say, the original Gran Turismo (1997, PlayStation), you’re going to have trouble here. Technically, you’re not racing anyone except yourself. Clunky graphics and a controller that more resembles a high-tech weapon than a gamepad will have the average modern gamer scratching his or her head, wondering how kids of the 1970s ever made it out alive.

Night Driver screenshot

What do you see in this picture? Hey, when it’s moving, it looks just like a country road.

What’s more, you aren’t “going” anywhere. You don’t have a mission. However, this is arguably the major basis of the game’s appeal. For no reason that the player is aware of, you are simulating the act of driving on a windy, mostly deserted road in the dead of night. Why are you doing this? If you’ve got an imagination, it might kick in here. Maybe you’re a restless insomniac, maybe you’re out between cow-tipping adventures, maybe you’re speeding away from a hit with only 90 seconds to get away from the hick cops — in which case, throw on some banjo escape music while you play.

Night Driver provides an experience that simply is. A technical achievement at the time, it ain’t pretty now. You’re just out driving. If this is a premise you can do something with, Night Driver is a damn pleasant cruise, with an addictive tendency to keep you up late for one more race to see if you can’t break 50.

Night Driver started out as an arcade game in 1976. Unlike it's 2600 port, it was black-and-white, but featured a gear-shift and steering wheel. Sadly, no houses, trees or oncoming traffic.

Night Driver started out as an arcade game in 1976. Unlike its 2600 port, it was black and white, without oncoming traffic or scenery. It did, however, feature a gear-shift and steering wheel.

Written by Space Invader

Sometime in the early 1980s, in the heart of the Silicon Valley was born one Angelo. No one knew it yet, but he would grow up to become the mighty Space Invader, master of the old technology and writer of the third-person profile.

The Atari 2600 and Xbox 360 vie equally for Space Invader’s heart, but he can’t seem to choose one and settle down. Something is just so appealing to consoles that have names featuring numbers between 300 and 3000.

Little is known about Space Invader’s past, but he is rumored to drive a Buick and is said to have a tremendous singing voice.


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