1975: Atari patents a sit-down “cockpit” arcade cabinet, ushering in a new era of realism for videogames. The design makes Atari’s new game, Hi-Way, a big hit.
Pong fever had the U.S. and the world in its silicon grip throughout 1973, as adults and kids alike were rushing to bars, grocery stores and anywhere else that might have the latest sensation: coin-operated electronic videogames.
But the shine was bound to come off of video table tennis eventually. Atari realized that if it were to continue being the innovation leader in a market that was quickly becoming swamped with imitators, it would have to get away from iterations like Superpong, Quadrapong and Pong Doubles and instead create entirely new types of games.
One of these was Gran Trak 10, the company’s first car-racing game, which it released in March 1974. Driving cars made of tiny dots around a track also made of tiny dots proved popular, but Gran Trak 10’s arcade cabinet design left something to be desired. Although it featured realistic controls (gas and brake pedals, steering wheel and gearshift), the player had to stand up to play it.
A year later, Atari introduced Hi-Way, its first sit-down game. It featured more sophisticated graphics — the cars were still tiny and monochrome, but looked a lot more like cars. More importantly, it featured a cabinet in which the user could sit down, as if he were driving a real car.
Atari engineer Regan Cheng had applied for the design patent on the cabinet on Oct. 20, 1975. Far from simply putting a chair in front of a low-slung arcade monitor, the Hi-Way machine incorporated both seat and screen into a single molded form, heightening the feeling of sitting inside a vehicle.
Blogger Reilly Brennan wrote that the sit-down arcade game heightened the pressure on players in a variety of ways:
The positioning of the sitting player meant that the screen was largely opened up to everyone else in the arcade, making it one of those experiences where you better play well or risk the agony of a public defeat. The cockpit games were always more expensive, too ($.50 to a normal game’s $.25), creating an incremental layer of pressure.
(Half a buck in 1975 had the buying power of two bucks today.)
Hi-Way still had one problem: Although its cabinet was uniquely designed to enhance the realism of the experience, the game itself was still viewed from a third-person viewpoint. You were driving the car, but watching from overhead.
When Atari introduced Night Driver in 1976, that problem was solved. You were looking through the windshield. The graphics still left a lot to be desired — they were just a few small dots suggestive of a road weaving its way toward the viewer — but the standard was set for all future driving games.
Later games like Sega’s motorcycle-racer Hang-On would add even more realism to the experience, building the game’s monitor into a life-size motorcycle that the player sat and leaned on to control the onscreen action.
The “cockpit” arcade game continues to evolve. Bandai Namco released an arcade game in Japan in 2006, called Mobile Suit Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield. Players step inside a replica of a giant robot’s cockpit and play the game on a massive projection screen inside the machine.
Image: Atari’s Hi-Way was groundbreaking not because it was the first steering-wheel-and-pedal game, but because it allowed gamers to sit down while playing.