Night Driver: An Atari 2600 Classic - LevelSkip - Video Games
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Night Driver: An Atari 2600 Classic

Jennifer Wilber is a teacher and writer. She holds a B.A. in English and an Associate's in Computer Game Design. She is a life-long gamer.

Night Driver for the Atari 2600 is still an awesome game.

Night Driver for the Atari 2600 is still an awesome game.

What Is Night Driver?

Night Driver was an arcade game made in 1976 that was later ported to Atari 2600 two years later. Versions of Night Driver for Commodore 64 and the Apple II also exist. The Atari 2600 version is the most well-known today. The gameplay of Night Driver is exactly what the name implies: driving a car at night. In the Atari 2600 version, you must dodge cars and avoid hitting the edges of the road, lest you be assaulted with bright flashing colors on the screen and explosion noises to simulate a crash. The original arcade version does not feature other cars to avoid, but you still must be careful not to collide with the edge of the road, or you will see a crash simulated by flashing white light on the screen.

Night Driver is notable for being the first “first-person” racing game. It is also commonly believed to be one of the first-ever published video games to display real-time first-person graphics.

To describe Night Driver as a racing game may be a misnomer, however. You are not actually racing anyone in this game. You are simply driving… at night. Hence the name Night Driver.

A flyer advertising the original Night Driver arcade cabinet.

A flyer advertising the original Night Driver arcade cabinet.

Night Driver Original Arcade Version

The original version of Night Driver was only available in arcades. There were two versions of the arcade cabinet: a traditional upright arcade cabinet, and a cockpit cabinet that allowed the player to sit in the driver’s seat and feel like they were really driving.

Because of limitations of arcade technology at the time, the car was not actually drawn on the screen. Instead, the car was just a printed plastic insert that was attached underneath the screen. The fact that the car is driven at night made it easier for the programmers to draw the environment with the limited graphics of the time. Most scenery items, such as trees and buildings were not included in the original arcade version because it is supposed to be completely dark (the Atari 2600 port did include more environmental details, such as trees and houses, however).

The game consisted of driving a car along a road during the nighttime. The main goal was to avoid crashing into the side of the road. The arcade version of Night Driver was controlled by a steering wheel, a single gas pedal, and a four-selection gear shifting lever. It offered a choice of three different difficulties; novice, pro, and expert. The more difficult tracks had sharper turns and more narrow and winding roads as the player progressed through the track. The game length could be set by the machine’s owner to 50, 75, 100, or 125 seconds. After the player scored 300 points, they were awarded bonus time equal to the game time. The score resets to zero at 1000 points, so it is possible to reach 300 points more than once in the same game session. Because extra points can be earned on higher difficulty settings, playing on the expert setting is often the easiest way to achieve extra time on the arcade machine for players who have mastered the game.

The Night Driver Atari 2600 cart, along with the original box and manual.

The Night Driver Atari 2600 cart, along with the original box and manual.

Night Driver on Atari 2600

The most well-known and best loved version of Night Driver is the Atari 2600 port. After the success of the arcade version of this game, Atari 2600 game programmer Rob Fulop ported it to the Atari 2600 in 1978. Night Driver uses the paddle controllers to control the car in the game. The fire button is used to accelerate the vehicle, and the paddle is used to steer. Unlike the arcade version, you cannot shift gears in the Atari 2600 version.

The Atari 2600 port of Night Driver includes 8 different game modes. Some modes are timed, and the player must try to score as much as possible in 90 seconds, while other modes are not timed. This version of Night Driver also includes features not present in the arcade version of the game, including additional vehicles on the road that the player must avoid, as well as houses and trees along the sides of the road.

All 8 game modes for the Atari 2600 version of Night Driver, as shown in the instruction manual.

All 8 game modes for the Atari 2600 version of Night Driver, as shown in the instruction manual.

Night Driver being played in Color TV mode on the Atari 2600.

Night Driver being played in Color TV mode on the Atari 2600.

Differences Between the Atari 2600 Port and the Original Arcade Version

There are some notable differences between the original arcade version of Night Driver and the Atari 2600 port. The Atari 2600 home console version included updated graphics and several changes to the gameplay mechanics.

While the car was not drawn on the screen in the original arcade version of the game, and instead relied on a plastic insert to represent the car, the Atari 2600 version did draw the car on screen. This eliminated any need to use special screen overlays for the home console version.

The Atari 2600 version of Night Driver also features additional cars driving on the road, whereas the original arcade version had only the player’s car present on the road. This presents an additional challenge in the Atari 2600 version.

When you crash into the wall in the arcade version, you see a crash simulated by flashing white and black screens. In the Atari 2600 version, however, the crash is simulated by flashing bright colors if you play in color TV mode. This is well known for giving players headaches.

The Atari 2600 version also included more environmental details than the arcade version. In the arcade version, there weren’t any visible trees or buildings, but in the Atari 2600 version, these details were visible along the side of the road.

The control system is also quite a bit different between the original arcade version and the Atari 2600 port. The arcade version relies on a customized control set up featuring a steering wheel, gas pedal, and gear shifter. The Atari 2600 version, on the other hand, uses a standard paddle controller (not the more popular joystick controller). The car is steered with the paddle and the fire button acts as a control for the gas/acceleration. There is no shifting mechanic in the Atari 2600 version.

Gameplay Footage of the Atari 2600 Version of Night Driver

Other Versions of Night Driver

Aside from the original Atari 2600 ports, there were also two other ports of the original Night Driver, and a rereleased version of the Atari 2600 port. There is also a modern remake scheduled to be released later in 2018 for mobile devices. The other versions of Night Driver are as follows:

  • Commodore 64: Night Driver was later ported to the Commodore 64 1982. This version of the game was called Night Drive.
  • Apple II: There was also another port of Night Driver for the Apple II, written by video game programmer and designer Bill Budge.
  • Xbox 360/PC: The Atari 2600 version of Night Driver was later released on Microsoft's Game Room service for the Xbox 360 home console and Windows-based PCs in 2010.
  • iPhone and Android: There is also a mobile remake of Night Driver in the works. It is scheduled to launch later in 2018 for Apple devices and Android.

Trailer for the 2018 iPhone/Android Version of Night Driver

Recommendations for Playing Night Driver

Because there are brightly colored lights that rapidly flash on the screen every time you hit the side of the road, I recommend playing this game in black and white mode. Though you likely are playing on a color TV, this game is most enjoyable when played on black and white TV mode.

The flashing colors on the screen can cause headaches and may even cause seizures in people who have epilepsy or a history of seizures. If you are concerned about seizures, you may want to skip this game.

Night Driver being played in black and white TV mode on Atari 2600.

Night Driver being played in black and white TV mode on Atari 2600.

My Experiences With Night Driver

Night Driver was and still is one of my favorite games on the Atari 2600. Once you master the game enough to avoid frequent crashes, it is a relaxing game to play at the end of a long, stressful day. This game brings back memories of an earlier time in gaming history. Though it is a simple game, especially by today’s standards, it is still worth revisiting from time to time. Though it wasn’t as popular as other Atari 2600 titles, Night Driver will always be an Atari 2600 classic.

Cover art for the Atari 2600 version of Night Driver. The actual game doesn't look anything like this artwork.

Cover art for the Atari 2600 version of Night Driver. The actual game doesn't look anything like this artwork.

Night Driver: A Classic

Night Driver is a classic game for Atari 2600. Both the Atari 2600 version and the original arcade version are important parts of video game history. Though the gameplay is simple, it was an important game in the history of video games, as it was the first “first person” racing/driving game, as well as one of the first video games to display real-time first-person graphics. Though this game is less well-known than some other Atari 2600 games, it still has enough of a fanbase for a modern mobile remake. Night Driver will always be regarded as a classic.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber