Some games are so bad, they’re good. In the case of the Mega Drive port of Hard Drivin’, Matt Gardner needed a few years to realise that this freebie was like a fine wine: unappreciated in youth, but something that aged beautifully as his palette changed in later life, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
Of all the games I’ve played in the three decades I’ve spent fiddling with my joypad, few have been quite like Hard Drivin’. It may well be one of the most memorable titles I’ve ever had the fortune to own. Not because it’s any good, though – it’s one of the most terrifically crap games to ever grace a console, never mind the Mega Drive.
Upon its release in arcades back in 1989, I’m sure it was a much more positive sight to behold. Hard Drivin’ was the second racing game to render in 3D polygons (Winning Run being the first), offering an experience far removed from the 2D procedural style associated with the fantastic OutRun, Super Hang-On and Pole Position. For the sake of 20p a go, a few minutes of racing might’ve been quite magical at one of the run-down amusement centres in my nearby local seaside resort of Seaton Carew.
But for £30 on the Mega Drive? I certainly would’ve felt short-changed by that. Luckily, I was given Hard Drivin’ for free. Within moments of booting it up, I immediately understood why it was literally worthless.
A plethora of playthings
I inherited Hard Drivin’ from a once-close friend in 1995, just as he was about to take the big step up in the world of gaming – a full two years before I would – by getting a Sony PlayStation, mere weeks after its UK release. He always had the newest gadgets and seemed to live a life of luxury, making me incredibly jealous.
Looking back now, though, it was clear that his hard-working single mum was the reason for this. She ran the local shop around the corner from his house, often clocking long, unsociable hours as he stayed at home and entertained himself. In fact, he regularly made himself (and me) tea after school, as his mum wasn’t home. While the meal was usually just something on toast, it was an admirable skill to have considering we were both only eight or nine years old. He had insane amounts of autonomy, and all the toys to keep him company while his mum worked hard to give him the life she wanted him to have. It worked out well for him too – he’s one of the most talented people I know.
I, on the other hand, was from a standard nuclear family with a stay-at-home mum who always made dinner for my dad, my brothers and me. We were comfortable but certainly far from lavish with spending. My dad, like my friend’s mum, worked hard but had a better job. Birthdays and Christmases were the only time for presents, and I was grateful for them – but like any child, it would’ve always been nice to have more.
So, I rather envied my friend. His bedroom, in the two-up, two-down house he lived in just a few blocks away, was wall-to-wall toys. He got so many gifts so frequently that he quickly became apathetic towards older possessions, which were soon buried under more up-to-date items.
While he never demanded gifts, he always got them, and he was just used to it. He was far from Veruca Salt levels of entitlement, but it was the norm for him to have a shinier piece of plastic in his bedroom every weekend. He was soon surrounded by things that he’d formed no personal ties with. It became clear, when the only space left in his bedroom was a single, narrow path from the door to his bed, that action needed to be taken.
The Great Giveaway of ‘95
My friend’s mum knew things were getting out of hand and, in the summer of 95 – presumably knowing she was getting him that PlayStation and all the trimmings – she asked him to get rid of at least one boxful of goodies to charity, or friends. He quickly filled three; he was halfway through his fourth by the time I arrived.
Among the things I took home included a knock-off Action Man tank, a frankly unplayable Operation: Aliens board game and a couple of Sonic 3 Happy Meal toys. As I was about to leave, he smiled, wished me the best of fun, and started to reach for his Mega Drive games as he continued to fill boxes.
“Wait, you’re throwing out your Mega Drive games?!” I asked.
“Yeah, but only a few,” he replied.
“Any of them going spare?”
He laughed and gazed up at two fully stacked shelves of Mega Drive and SNES games, then started throwing some on the bed. Annoyingly, every single one was something I had: Micro Machines, Desert Strike, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sub-Terrania, Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP II… no luck.
Finally, he pulled down a boxless cartridge, blew the dust from the underside’s chip, rolled his eyes at it, and thrust it into my hand. It was emblazoned with the word “TENGEN”. “That’ll be good fun for five minutes,” he said.
The thing was, that was an absolute lie. It was good for about 25 seconds.
The best games in life aren’t free
I called Hard Drivin’ “Tengen” for about six months, and still occasionally do. It was developed by Atari, but the game was ported to the Mega Drive by the long-defunct Tengen and unlike most other games on the console, the game’s name wasn’t on the front of the cartridge. Instead, the words Hard Drivin’ graced the uppermost half-centimetre of sticker, which folded over the top of the cart. Instead, the publisher’s name was emblazoned on the front, so Tengen was what I called it.
Hard Drivin’ wasn’t just a victim of bad external design. As it was a direct port of an arcade experience developed specifically to take money off people quickly, it only offered a whopping two game modes which lasted for mere minutes at a time. Your choices were simple: drive straight ahead at the first junction for the “speed” course, or take a surprisingly sharp right for the “stunt” track.
By the point that I’d learned this gameplay limitation, I’d also come to terms with its looks, which were gloriously hampered by ageing, late-80s graphics, and the poor processing power of the Mega Drive when compared to its arcade predecessor. It looked bad by Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing standards – a song title that should have acted as a disclaimer on the box art for Hard Drivin’, warning people what they’d get for their cash.
Clocking in at around three frames per second (I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it was closer to two), it was practically unplayable. Other cars on the track often looked like they were floating, or appeared out of nowhere because they were clipping through the loops and jumps of the track. The sound effects, following the relatively decent title music, were tinny and somehow angry, like a wasp in an upturned bedpan (which, coincidentally, would likely have been a better gaming experience).
The speed course was the dullest experience. Nothing made it special. Around half of the “playable” screen was blue sky for the most part, punctuated by the occasional bridge or raised block. Instead, I would spend most of my time “pulling” “rad” “stunts” on the other “fun” “course”, which was “lovingly” “coded” by “cutting-edge” “developers”.
And wow, were those stunts incredible:
- First up was a bridge jump, which you had to take slowly, otherwise you’d crash and die;
- Second up was a loop, which AI articulated lorries handled fine at about 15mph, but you’d somehow mess up, crash and die; and
- Finally, there was a banked turn, like a wider version of the Nürburgring’s Caracciola-Karussell, but infinitely shitter and with a 15ft drop-off directly behind it, off which you’d crash and die.
Reliving the nightmare
One thing that was impressive for the time was the instant replay, which helped you relive every failure. It followed a simple formula:
- You crashed and died, illustrated by your windscreen cracking;
- The camera panned out to show your child’s drawing of a car landing nose first on the floor, replicating the same sound; and
- Your car set on fire, engulfing your very soul in flames before you were dumped straight back in again, forced to relive the stunt and repeat the carnage.
All the while, traffic inexplicably roamed this tenth circle of hell, with no hope of ever escaping. Just like you. You were forced to set lap times and vainly hope you could eek out another couple of sectors by passing under depressing checkpoints. There was no end to the trauma.
Yet in my bored moments, I somehow couldn’t resist going back to Hard Drivin’. Back then, it was hard to hate, or even criticise, games. As I got older, I knew when to draw the line – but until I was 12 or 13, I found myself going back to games just because. Five minutes here, five minutes there. Just enough to remind myself how much better games were in the modern day. Over time, this familiarity didn’t breed contempt – it did quite the opposite.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, my best friend and I – reunited after a couple of years of separation in primary school, during which time I made new mates such as the one who handed me Hard Drivin’ all those years ago – had another one of our gaming nights. He was a child of Nintendo, while I’d held firm with Sony after jumping the sinking Sega ship after the Mega Drive. It was a great opportunity to revisit games and try new ones out on consoles I didn’t own, whether it was the N64, GameCube, or something from the humble 16-bit era.
That particular night, we’d amassed about seven kilos of Easter chocolate, alongside a dozen or so cans of Liko cola – bought from an ice cream van for about less than £2, probably because they were about five years old, imported and probably illegal somehow – and went back in time to relive a few classics.
After the usual sessions on Micro Machines and Super Mario Kart, one cartridge, covered in dust, made its glorious return. Weirdly, Hard Drivin’ had a two-hour run that night, as we cried with laughter by trying to learn its secrets. What happened if you drive into the barn? Chances were that you’d go straight through it, or crash and burst into flames. What about if you hit the open bridge at full speed? You crashed and burst into flames. And if you drove straight into another car? Weirdly, you bounced straight off it. Turns out there were no secrets at all.
Our set-ups for instant replays got ever more elaborate, even though the technology was so limited. We were intent on breaking the game, believing that we were just a few tricks away from disappearing through the floor, or making the car disappear. But no, the game was incredibly well built, all things considered. All the while, the intro theme and instant replay music became heavily embedded in our minds.
Over the course of this mammoth session, Hard Drivin’ became so incredibly endearing. Its main strength was it being so shit – so unbelievably dog egg – yet so lovable. Imagine watching a comedy film about an underdog, where you wait patiently for 90 minutes for him to finally shine, only for him to fail so spectacularly before it cuts to the credits, and you can do nothing but laugh so hard because come on, the world is powered by schadenfreude these days. My friend and I were often at the point of hyperventilating at how overwhelmingly terrible Hard Drivin’ was, yet it’s stayed with me more than 90% of my first-ever Fallout 3 playthrough, or my entire memory of Sonic & Knuckles.
I go back and play Hard Drivin’ around twice a year, for ten minutes max, just to remind myself of how shit it is. At the same time, I find myself trying to beat the times I previously set, which I remember off the top of my head.
I don’t revisit any other games I think are rubbish. Whether they’re highly rated but I find them dull (DmC: Devil May Cry), a bastardisation of something I loved (Sonic the Hedgehog ’06), or a case of expectations being so much higher than a sad reality (Micro Machines World Series, as predicted in my piece on the excellent Micro Machines V3 weeks before its successor’s release), I consign them to a mental blacklist. After all, there are thousands of games I’ve never played but may fall in love with. I’ll grant a second chance to a game if someone I trust challenges me to, but otherwise, I’ve got a pile of shame with too much promise.
Yet Hard Drivin’ takes me back to a time when I had time, and I could spend it laughing at just how terrible an experience a game could be. All I needed was a great friend, a load of knock-off cola and another night with nothing to do other than play games.
Sadly, gone are the days when the biggest worry in my life was going to school the next day, where I might be bullied for the usual shite, or endure a French speaking test in front of my friends. Even without the oft-cited time-sinks of marriage (yet), a house (TBC) or kids (pass), time just isn’t on my side any more.
Ten minutes every six months is manageable, though – even if it’s to simply keep the memories burning bright.
- Basically nothing
- That said, the instant replay was cool at the time
- It’s funny to laugh at with like-minded people
- Shamefully poor graphics courtesy of an underpowered port
- Restrictive game modes, and by modes plural, I mean two modes
- A field of vision that felt shorter than the length of your arm
Good memories don’t need good games, and Hard Drivin’ was the epitome of terrible gaming for me and my friend. While I’m sure it was a pioneer back in the day, it was far from a modern miracle, and Tengen really did its best to rub any remaining shine off it, presumably with low-resolution sandpaper covered in shit. Still, it’s just as powerful a gaming experience as titles I’ve sunk 200+ hours into, and will stick with me for much longer than 95% of games I’ll ever play.