The Game: Get behind the wheel for a late-night drive – at high speeds! The only visual clues about the road ahead are the reflectors zooming past. Avoid going off the road and go the distance. (Midway, 1976)
Memories: In the wake of Nolan Bushnell’s gambit to topple the exclusive arcade distribution system (see the Phosphor Dot Fossils entry for Tank!), a clever move that would turn modern antitrust lawyers into a pack of baying wolves, direct copying of other companies’ arcade code and circuitry was off the table. Now the competition merely duplicated Atari‘s game concepts rather than every line of code.
In the wake of Night Driver, other three-dimensional driving games popped up. Midway‘s entry was the first-ever video game “product placement,” putting the name of now-defunct ’70s auto maker Datsun on the cabinet of a game whose original title was Midnight Racer.
Datsun gained free advertising in the arcade; it’s worth remembering that, at the time, Datsun was one of the most widely-advertised Japanese auto brands in America, and in 1976 Datsun was just coming down from its peak of public exposure. (Not even a decade later, the Datsun brand would be discontinued, subsumed into the product line of Datsun’s corporate owner, Nissan.) With that advertising campaign at full strength, Datsun 280 ZZZap! probably gained a little bit of cachet in the arcade, probably more than it would’ve had with a name that was barely removed from Night Driver itself.
Then again, Datsun 280 ZZZap! isn’t still being exploited to this day, having gone the way of Datsun itself, while retro compilations including Night Driver can still be purchased for modern consoles.
Datsun 280 ZZZap! was one of several early Midway arcade games designed by the team of Jamie Fenton and Dave Nutting, using a derivative of the video and audio hardware Nutting had created while working on Gun Fight. Many Midway games from this period had a similar look.