Review by Retro
Reviewed: 04/04/01 | Updated: 04/29/03
Great sense of speed + classic memories = A winner
The 80's were just beginning to come into focus and video games had been in existence for only a few years, but they were becoming all the more popular with each passing calendar. The video game industry was like a rock rolling from the top of a hill, gaining speed as it tumbles down the slope. Since video games were at such a young age that they hadn't outgrown diapers yet, there weren't many racing or driving simulators at all. For this reason, gamers were likely to play any driving game that they could get their hands on. Night Driver was one of the very first games of this type.
If there's a such thing as something that is known as one thing while it's actually something else, it's Night Driver. I've seen many a website call it a 'racing game', but it doesn't really have any racing to it. It would be much more appropriate to call it a driving game. The idea of Night Driver is to control a horrid looking racecar and drive as far as you can before time runs out. The skies overhead and the road in front of you are always pitch black, and your car doesn't have any headlights. Without moonlight, stoplights, headlights, or even a dang flashlight, you'd think that it would be impossible to see where you're going in the dead of night. That would be true in real life, but this is a video game, so things can be twisted a bit and still work.
There's not even a reflector in the middle of the road or the North Star in the dark, boring atmosphere to see in order to guide your way. Wait, what's that in front of your ugly ass car that resembles two H's put together, both with one end that sticks up higher than the other? You drive up to them a bit and find out that they're vertical lines that happen to be illuminated. Both sides of the road consist of a lot of these vertical lines. As you floor it with the orange button on your paddle controller, you'll see what Night Driver is all about in less than five seconds. The 'vertical lines' (I usually call them markers) that make up the sides of the road will begin to curve in minor to extreme angles to the left and right, with straight roads from time to time.
Your racecar stays at the bottom of the screen the entire time as you quickly speed through the twists and turns of these roads that are fortunately free of cops and jaywalking pedestrians. The only other signs of life you'll ever see on the road are cars that somewhat resemble hamburgers with eyes that pass by you on the left side of the road every few seconds. While a head-on collision doesn't seem to do any physical damage to your car (it takes a chip out of the other car though!), you will come to an immediate stop in the middle of the road for a few seconds as the skies suddenly come alive with what looks to be lightning. The same thing will happen anytime you come in contact with the side of the road. In that respect, Night Driver isn't realistic at all. It won't allow you to run off the side of the road! Even if you get so frustrated that your eyebrows lower and your face turns red, don't try to run into that stationary tree or house that's a few feet off the road, because you can't.
Night Driver is exactly as it sounds to be. It's an ugly, primitive, and weird driving game. But it has a great redeeming quality. For its time (1980), it was actually a pretty good effort for a driving simulator. It was probably the first driving game that gave gamers a sense of speed. The racecar just stays in place at the bottom of the screen and you can't even tell by looking at it when you're turning, since you can only see its square, non-animated backside at any given time. But with the sight of the hundreds of markers on either side of the road passing you by, along with the honking of oncoming cars and the distant but effective sound of your car's motor, you're really given a sense of speed. Even though I've been playing this game for as long as I've been enjoying video games (my parents owned it before I was even born), every time I play it, I still find myself unconsciously holding my breath as I attempt to avoid the cars and the sides of the road. For a game of this age, that's a unique quality, and there's no doubt whatsoever that Night Driver is one of the fastest games that the Atari 2600 has ever seen.
Many video games have a great foundation and would be great overall titles if it weren't for terrible controls, hideous graphics, or lack of variety. Granted, Night Driver's visuals are basic and dog ugly, apart from the trees and houses that are seen sitting off to the side. The controls seem to have been made for the paddle controllers, but they take awhile to get used to. On many of the sharper turns, your car simply won't turn enough. But in the end, you'll forgive that minor flaw as you learn to turn into a curve a little earlier, or maybe even release the button to slow down a bit (that's hard as hell to do for a speed demon).
One thing that has always been memorable about Night Driver's gameplay is how the screen flashes along with the simultaneous echoing ''boom'' that you hear each time you crash. Not only does it let you know that more practice should be in your future, but it was always great for bringing on tons of trash talking from my brothers and me when we were young. Hell, I think it's the first video game that I ever played that gave me the right to trash talk to my older brothers, because it was the first one that I could ever consistently beat them at. MEMORIES!
Night Driver would be great with just its normal variation, but for good measure, there are eight of them, in all, to choose from. Four of them put 99 seconds on the clock. Once you reach a certain distance in any of the variations, a point will be added to your score. When 99 seconds run out, your game will end and the score will freeze in place. Since the game is only one-player, if you want competition, see how many points you can get in a minute 39 seconds (99 seconds, ya know), and then pass the controller to your challenger as you await to see who is the better driver and who is the most reckless driver. The other four variations are not timed at all, allowing you to take a joyride into the night as far and as long as your patience can carry you. Finally, the difficulty switch can be used for toggling your racecar's top speed, and the variations all differ in how hard the tracks are.
Some people only like new stuff that fits in with what's currently in style. I'm proud to say that I'm not one of those people. I have a never-ending respect for, and I cherish the things of yesteryear, especially the things I grew up with. Night Driver is one of those things. It's downright primitive and out of style as all get out, but it never runs out of what made it special to begin with. I enjoy the sense of speed and catching myself sitting on the edge of my seat without blinking once while I'm staring at the television set playing Night Driver. There are not many games that do that for me. Through the years, several driving/racing games have been made that I would call 'better' than Night Driver, but there's still no other game quite like it.
Every so often, I feel the need for speed tugging at me full force. This is one of the first games I run back to when that sensation takes me over.
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