Video games have always run the gauntlet with mainstream media one way or another. Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat are just two recent examples where commentators have sought to point fingers at the depiction of graphic violence on screens, supposedly corrupting the youth game-playing population of the world.
But probably the earliest example of videogame controversy was Death Race, the subject of this week’s article.
Exidy (short for ‘Excellence In Dynamics’) started out life in 1973 located in the heart of Silicon Valley, CA – first setting up shop in Palo Alto and later in Sunnyvale (also home to Atari). As a small outfit producing Pong clones during their first few years, their impact on the market was fairly limited at the time. Most of their games were distributed and played throughout the West Coast of America.
In 1975, things started turning around for the fledgling firm. Their new game Destruction Derby, was unlike any other driving game released up to that point. Players completed in an arena against other cars, in a last man standing smash-em-up against each other.
Such were the limitations of their own relatively small production facilities, that Exidy decided to licence the game to Chicago Coin – so great was the demand for their new game.
Releasing the game as Demolition Derby, Chicago Coin in turn promptly cleaned up, leaving Exidy somewhat frustrated at the situation they found themselves in – they’d written a hit game, but were unable to fulfil the resulting demand – the revenues they received for Destruction Derby via the licence agreement were significantly less than had they been able to manufacture on a larger scale. Further compounding the frustration, Chicago Coin were in financial trouble, and were quickly unable to pay the licence fees agreed with Exidy.
A move to new facilities allowed Exidy to beef up their ability to produce cabinets en-masse; but with no revenue coming in from Destruction Derby, and being unable to release their own version of the game, they took a left field approach.
Recruiting engineer Howell Ivy, Exidy set about modifying the Destruction Derby game to create a new title using similar gameplay mechanics. The resulting game would be called Death Race 98, later shortened to Death Race.
Reverse engineering Destruction Derby was no easy task. Ivy recalls the work he had to do in an interview with Retro Gamer magazine in 2014:
It’s very had to change the gameplay when a game is done in hard logic but to just change the images, that’s not so hard. It was a very early use of PROMs…and I realised I could change the cars to people. When they get run over, well, I can’t have a dead body, but how about just a cross? That’s how Death Race was born.
The changes made to Destruction Derby were broadly visual. Instead of smashing into other cars, players drove a car around an arena armed with the task of mowing down what were referred to as ‘gremlins’. These gremlins, looking like stick men, would scatter randomly around the screen and when hit, would leave a cross where they fell, and in the process, let out a loud shriek. The more gremlins taken down, the more points scored.
It was a simple but effective change that breathed new life into the format. Exidy’s Executive Vice President at the time Paul Jacobs recounts that the game was considered as something of a stop gap. Death Race was not regarded as a potential hit by the company, and the initial run of cabinets is put at around 1,000.
There is no doubt that the game was inspired in some part by the film released around the same time, Death Race 2000, where running over pedestrians is hammed up and glorified to the max. Perhaps aware of the potential comparisons, Exidy designed exotic artwork for the cabinet and re-emphasised the fact that the victims were gremlins and not humans. The game, they said, was based on fantasy and not reality.
Even so, there is no doubt that comparisons with the film would be made, and it was only a matter of time before this would be videogame’s first “video nasty”. The founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell recalls the game:
We were really unhappy with that game [Death Race]. We [Atari] had an internal rule that we wouldn’t allow violence against people. You could blow up a tank or you could blow up a flying saucer, but you couldn’t blow up people. We felt that that was not good form, and we adhered to that all during my tenure.
It was only a matter of time before Death Race attracted the attention of mainstream media in the US. An Associated Press reporter in Seattle ran a story about the game, after coming across it in a local mall:
Exidy’s Paul Jacobs found himself in the centre of a media storm. The AP article was being picked up across America, re-run and re-hashed in several high profile news outlets, including the New York Times, who pointed out that even the National Safety Council had an opinion on the game’s potential impact. Behavioural psychologist Gerald Driessen of the NSC, noted that 9,000 pedestrians had been killed on US roads in the previous 12 months. He expressed his concerns about the game’s ability to allow players to actively partake in the mowing down of stick figures in pursuit of points:.
On TV, violence is passive . . . In this game a player takes the first step to creating violence. The player is no longer just a spectator. He’s an actor in the process . . . I”m sure most people playing this game do not jump in their car and drive at pedestrians . . . But one in a thousand? One in a million? And I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It’ll be pretty gory.
If only Driessen had a crystal ball – one can perhaps imagine his response to the level of violence found in today’s video games….
Here’s a great video of a news segment released at the height of Death Race‘s media scrum. In it we see Paul Jacobs defending the game, and a few opposing views from other commentators and players:
The net result of the media interest was more orders for the game, and more importantly for Exidy, free publicity for their fledgling arcade company. Jacobs recalls:
We were not at all ashamed to talk about “Death Race” … The net result was that we handled the whole thing very well and the publicity was good for the industry …. As for the game, the media attention made it more popular than we ever imagined it would be … We built over ten times the number of machines in the original release.
In the here and now, Death Race is actually a really fun game to play. Although difficult to find (and not emulated in MAME), there are a few examples out there in the wild, including one that I’ve played at the American Classic Arcade Museum in New Hampshire.
If you can, try to check it out. Here’s some gameplay footage:
Thanks for reading this week. See you next time.
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