Retro Review: Hard Drivin’

hard drivin copy

People don’t often think of the Genesis as a polygon pusher…mostly because it wasn’t. That didn’t stop some developers from trying to turn it into one though! Enter Hard Drivin’, a port of Atari’s 1988 3D polygon racing game. Ported to the Genesis in 1991, this game was one of the earliest examples of 3D graphics on a home console and given the limitations of the hardware, is surprisingly not a complete and utter disaster. That is not to say the game is good, though. Far from it in fact.

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Few racing games age well and Hard Drivin’ is certainly not an exception. Sporting only one car and a single course that branches off into a racing track and a stunt course, the only feature that really sets this game a part from its contemporaries is its 3D graphics, and unfortunately that is all this game really has going for it. The controls are incredibly sluggish, making it difficult to make turns and avoid oncoming traffic at high speeds. The oncoming traffic can be especially annoying on the stunt course, where cars will come at you even over ramps and through the course’s loop-de-loop. It’s impossible to see the traffic coming in situations like this and is a text book example of bad game design if there ever was one.  If that weren’t bad enough, the stunt course also forces you to approach some areas at speeds that are just too slow. One of the most irritating instances is the ramp, which forces you to hit it at 60 miles per hour. If you approach it too quickly, your car will just crash to the ground and you’ll be forced to start at the last checkpoint, sapping what little exhilaration it could have provided.

The game also moves like molasses. The Genesis was clearly never meant to produce 3D graphics at any kind of decent and playable speed, and all the blast processing in the world is not enough to get this game moving. Even the massive, Sonic 1-esque loop-de-loop in the middle of the track is an absolute bore to drive though because the whole game feels like it’s moving at fifteen miles per hour.

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Really, this is the game’s main problem: its primary selling point comes at the expense of everything else in the game. Yes, it’s pushing 3D graphics on the SEGA Genesis. It’s impressive and the developers who managed to pull it off should be commended. As far as 3D graphics go, this is probably the best example I’ve ever seen on stock Genesis hardware, blowing the pants off of EA’s own awkward efforts. Graphically, this game is pretty amazing given the hardware. Looking at it this way, it’s difficult to really fault the graphics, and anyone looking for an interesting Genesis tech demo will certainly find it here.

Unfortunately, for all the attention that was given to the game’s visuals, little care was put into its audio. The game’s “soundtrack” is nothing more than an awful midi that plays during the game’s start menu. Aside from that, the only other sounds in the game are your car’s screeching tires and roaring engine, which sound pretty typical for a racing game from the time. Without a proper soundtrack the game carries none of the charm that one would should expect from a nineties arcade game, and players are better off just muting the television and playing their own music instead.

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As an entertaining racing game, Hard Drivin’ fails miserably. Its controls are sluggish, the game play is slow, and the course design and traffic too often encourages players to slow down. As an example of early 3D game design and as a Genesis tech demo though, Hard Drivin’ may actually be worth a brief look, if only to see a side of the Genesis few games of the day explored. Hard Drivin’ can be found pretty affordably at most retro game retailers, so if you see it for a few bucks it might be worth picking up, if only to see it in action on a real Genesis. Hard Drivin’ is a bad game that has only gotten worse with age. Genesis owners would have to wait until 1994 to get a good 3D racing title, Virtua Racing. Though even that game needed the SVP chip or a 32X to run properly on the Genesis. Kudos to the developers who pulled Hard Drivin’ off, even if it didn’t work very well in the end.

11 responses to “Retro Review: Hard Drivin’

  1. Saturn Memories says:

    I agree with most of you analysis, but having to reduce your speed through turns and obstacles is something you’re required to do in just about any racing game. It’s not like it’s super unfair either. The game outright tells you what speed you need to be at for each part of the track. Just watch the road signs.

  2. Alex Peal says:

    The turns weren’t what really bugged me, though you do have to approach some of them WAY too slowly. It was the fact that when I drove off a ramp too fast, the game just automatically has you crash into the ground. I have NEVER played a racing game where simply gaining too much air will kill you. Using too much speed going up a ramp and overshooting a landing? Sure. But the way it works in this game is completely at odds with the fact that the game has a friggin loop de loop right afterwards. It’s clearly meant to be an arcade racer, and yet it has sorta-realistic physics when it comes to landings. I should be able hit that ramp at 80 miles per hour and go flying over a substantial chunk of the road ahead of me. I should only be punished if my momentum sends me flying off the track or into an obstacle. The way they make you do it, making you hit it at a set speed and getting a set result is just….boring. A racing game ought to be exciting, you know? Plenty of racing games from the day understood that. Hence why I see speed limits in the stunt track to be an issue.

    I never said it was unfair. My issue with it is it just completely kills that momentum that you would be trying to build up in any other stunt area in any other racing game I’ve played.

  3. Saturn Memories says:

    Yeah, it certainly has arcade elements to it to keep things interesting, but Hard Drivin’ was billed as a driving simulator first and foremost. Atari even employed one of the world’s foremost automotive engineers to help design and test it.

    • Centrale says:

      True, the whole presentation of the game reinforces that it’s meant to be a realistic simulator, and the attract mode text takes time to somberly warn the player to never attempt the stunts depicted in the game. (Although instantaneous explosion would not really be the result of all crashes, thankfully.)

      As for this version of the game, I had a lot of fun with it for a short period in the late 90s when my housemate and I were getting back into gaming and it was the only driving game we had for the Genesis. Having an instant replay feature was pretty rare in the time of this game’s release. Overall it’s quite faithful to the arcade game.

      For some reason slow frame rates haven’t ever bothered me too much… as a kid I spent quite a long time with the Apple II version of Flight Simulator 2.0, which managed about 2 frames per second. After a short adjustment period, it’s as though I can see “through” the refresh rate and play the game at its own speed. But given the option, there are many other driving games on the Genesis with much more silky smooth framerates that I’d go for, though I’ll always have a soft spot for Hard Drivin’. I even admire its ridiculous title.

    • Alex Peal says:

      Haha, yeah. I enjoyed it when it was the only racing game I had for my Nomad. But the above frustrations eventually got to me and…yeah. I’ll always have a soft spot for Sonic 3D Blast myself, as bland as that game was. I’d never played a game like it when I got it back in 96!

  4. Alex Peal says:

    Yeah, I get that. The problem is that intention doesn’t really matter when the end product is boring to play. The problem is that having to hit a ramp at 60 miles per hour simply isn’t very fun, and helps take away what little exhilaration you can get out of this game.

    Having those arcade elements mixed with realistic physics just doesn’t work well for me. As I said before, when I’m going to hit that ramp sitting on a straight-away, I want to HIT that ramp, not slow down to a moderate speed so that I can drive over it.

    In any case, I’ve edited my review to better get this point across. It was only a small issue on a long list of problems, so I didn’t want to spend much time on it. But re-reading it, I realize I didn’t really communicate the problem properly.

  5. Saturn Memories says:

    Ever play Trackmania? If you don’t hit a ramp at exactly the right speed, then the jump doesn’t go particularly well. I think the biggest problem is just the overall sense of speed in the game–there is none.

  6. Alex Peal says:

    No, I haven’t played Trackmania, so I can’t really comment on that. Are there any instances in that game of simple ramps on straight aways that instantly kill you when you hit them too fast?

    Being faster WOULD probably alleviate the issue somewhat for me. As I said, this was just a small problem in a long list of issues. I can’t say I’d LIKE it though.

    Edit: SHIT, this game looks fun. If Hard Drivin’s physics were more like this I’d be WAY more down with it. XD I wonder if it’d run on my ultrabook…

  7. Saturn Memories says:

    You’re not instantly being killed. Your car is coming down at too harsh an angle.

  8. Alex Peal says:

    Yeah, that’s why you instantly die. But you still instantly die. XD Again, I don’t really care about why. My main issue is that it hurts the fun factor, for reasons I’ve already explained.

    In any case, I think I’ve defended my reasoning for not liking slow speeds on the stunt course well enough. Thanks for pointing out the issue, it made my review a bit clearer. Also thanks for pointing me towards Trackmania. It looks like it’s a lot of a fun. I’ll need to check it out some time.

  9. Icedus says:

    You forgot about the best part: the sad jingle that plays during a replay after you crash.

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