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.
7 Comments Add yours
A couple of things:
-The game was probably released in January of 1976, as that’s when announcements for both the Exidy version and the Chicago Coin version actually came out. They were shown at the MOA in November, but there’s no evidence they hit the scene before then.
-Destruction Derby was in part a collaboration between Exidy and Chicago Coin. This was because Chicago Coin already had a relationship with them, having released one of their pinball video games and an electro-mechanical baseball game they had made. Ken Anderson, a salesman at Chicago Coin, wanted to make Exidy the video game arm of Chicago Coin. CC was disinterested, but they decided to help create the cabinet design for Destruction Derby (since Exidy had never done something so elaborate).
-The situation between Exidy and CC isn’t quite right. Exidy was getting royalties off of the sales, and Chicago Coin was actually selling quite a few (several articles in Replay say that), but they were in the process of going bankrupt. They decided they were not going to actually send the royalty payments to Exidy because they felt the money was better spent on other creditors.
-On top of this, the way the coin-op industry worked back then, different manufacturers had exclusivity with distributors on certain games in parts of the country. Bally would have exclusive pinball rights with one distributor, Williams may have exclusive shuffle alley rights with the same distributor, Chicago Coin may have it for driving games, etc. So Exidy couldn’t sell in to those distributors because Chicago Coin had them locked up with the same game. Exidy needed to change the game if they wanted to sell in to those other distributors. In part this is why they got Paul Jacobs to join the company from Chicago Coin.
-There are a few more changes then just the ROM images in Death Race. I swear to god there was once a video on Youtube that showed Destruction Derby with significant changes, like having no curbs and the cars could wrap around the screen, but the man creating a combined Death Race/Destruction Derby FPGA says he hasn’t found any PCBs with those features. Still I think there’s a bit more to it then just the sprites.
There’s still too many mysteries around this game both because some key players have passed (Pete Kaufman and John Metzler) and because there was a huge shuffle of people at that time. Ivy was following Metzler from Ramtek and the other people who stayed at Exidy from that time became full-time RIGHT afterwards. It’s a sad tale, probably lost in it’s full detail.
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Some neat additional detail there – thank you sir!
Fascinating post. I knew nothing of this game.
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Great Tony, if you need photos of the Cab I have one in excellent condition. I can send you all the photos for the article
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Great information here. Metzler was instrumental for me leaving Ramtek and going to Exidy. Due to the non payment from Chicago Coin, one of the first things i did at Exidy was to convert Destruction Derby to a different game – as the development of a new game would take more time than Exidy had – in its survival.
Regarding the comment above about viewing a game with no curbs and cars wrapping – a failure of one of the logic gates on the PCB would cause that symptom. The vertical lines (curbs) are generated by ANDing to a specific horizontal position. Collision detection was done between the vertical lines and the car images. If the ANDing occurred on the left side it would prevent movement left, and on the right side it would prevent movement to the right. Therefore if the vertical lines were not generated, they would not be visible on the screen, and would not be available to be ANDed with the car images – so would not limit the movement, and the car would wrap.
The conversion of a demolition derby board to a death race board was changes to images in the PROMs and audio circuitry only. In demo derby there were several images of crashed cars. For death race, I changed this to a single image of a cross.
Thanks for popping in here Howell. Would love to talk with you some time – I’ll ping you an email.
For anyone wanting to play a physical Death Race machine, I can say there’s also one at Galloping Ghost in Brookfield, IL