Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death Race – The First Video Game Controversy

It is still way too early to see the full list of games that will be featured at the upcoming Houston Arcade Expo set to take place October 8-9, but there are already several games of note listed to be there. One of them caused a huge public uproar when it was released back in 1976, becoming the first socially controversial video game and thus cementing its place in early arcade history. I'd seen pictures of this game before but this year I finally get to check it out in person - Death Race.


First, let me tell you about Death Race's father. In 1975, Exidy created the game “Destruction Derby”. In Destruction Derby you drive a car around the screen chasing drone cars and crashing into them to disable them.

Exidy licensed the game to the Chicago Coin Machine Company who had been a major player in the coin-op gaming industry since the 30's, but was running into financial troubles in the 70's.  Chicago Coin released the game as “Demolition Derby” and not only sold fewer games than expected but, according to Pete Kauffman, founder of Exidy Games, refused to pay Exidy the required royalties. As a result, Exidy pulled Destruction Derby and made some modifications so they could re-release it as a new game to compete with Demolition Derby (their own game!). They changed the drone cars to stick figures, animated them to show them running while they moved around, and changed the crashed drones into cross grave markers. Reportedly the working title of the new game was “Pedestrian”, but it was released in January 1976 under the name “Death Race”. (The following year Chicago Coin sold all its assets to Stern Electronics.)


The commonly accepted story is that Death Race was based on the cult-classic movie Death Race 2000 that was released the year before.

Check out the movie trailer below:

The only problem with that theory is that Death Race was basically just a reskinned version of Destruction Derby which was already around when the movie was released - so it probably isnt exactly true. However, based on the title, the modifications made to the gameplay, and the timing of its release, it seems likely that the game reboot was at least inspired by the movie.


In the game Death Race you (and another player if there is one) use a steering wheel, gas pedal, and gear shift to maneuver a car around a single screen trying to run over “gremlins” (pedestrians). Once you run over a gremlin they shriek and then turn into a grave marker which blocks your path if you run into it. So eventually the graves of all your hapless victims become significant obstacles to your navigation of the screen. You have up to 99 seconds to run over and kill as many gremlins as possible. The following ratings are then assigned to you depending on how many kills you get:

1-3:  Skeleton Chaser
4-10:  Bone Cracker
11-20:  Gremlin Hunter
21 or over:  Expert Driver

If you’re prepared to witness the unprecedented horror that is Death Race then steady yourself and check out the gameplay below: (Updated 11/28/2010 - Death Race was a no-show at the HAAG Arcade Expo, but I did finally get to play it at Funspot in New Hampshire since I first posted this so I replaced the original video I used here with my own):


According to Exidy, the pedestrians you pursued in the game were monsters (gremlins), not people, but that convenient distinction made little difference to the non-gaming public who were horrified at the gruesome brutality of the game.

Word of this horrific game started to spread. It was vilified in magazines such as the National Enquirer, Newsweek, and Midnight. As a result of all the negative press many arcade owners chose to simply avoid the game altogether and early sales suffered.

The National Safety Council called the game “sick and morbid”. The story then spread to television. News stations were receiving complaints from parents that were worried about the evil influence the game was having on their children. For Christ's sake man!  These are our kids we're talking about!   The increasing notoriety of the game actually began to have the opposite effect and Exidy sales increased.

Even some people at other gaming companies were offended - such as Atari's Nolan Bushnell:

"We were really unhappy with that game [Death Race]. We 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."
- Nolan Bushnell

Coverage spilled over onto the Weekend, Today, and Tonight shows on NBC. The controversy eventually culminated in a piece on 60 Minutes that investigated the psychological impact of video games. Anti-Death Race demonstations were held and there were reportedly even cases where protestors pulled the machines out of the arcades and set them on fire (although I'm still looking for documentation of that).

Ultimately, the increased attention to Death Race not only helped Exidy sell more games, but also seemed to help arcade sales in general. In fact, some have attributed the controversy surrounding Death Race with sparking renewed interest in the fledgling arcade industry that had been struggling. Any publicity is good publicity!


In 1987, Death Race gave birth to a son by the same name - Death Race for the NES:

In 1997, Death Race for the NES was attending a gaming conference in Vice City when he accidentally impregnated a prostitute named Playstation. Their bastard son was named Grand Theft Auto. Look how much litte GTA looks like his daddy:

Their 3D cousin Carmegeddon was also born that same year. A lot of folks say he looks more like his movie grandpa Death Race 2000 than his game grandpa Death Race, but they all still sit at the same dinner table at Thanksgiving:

And the family tree just continues to grow. So what am I saying here?  Yes, I'm saying it. Grand Theft Auto IV = Death Race = Destruction Derby. So get over yourself RockStar!


Death Race has made cameo appearances in the movies Jaws 2 (1978) and Midnight Madness (1980).

The guys over at Rogue Synapse created a shareware version of the original Death Race that you can download and check out here:

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter


Fallguy40 said...

Don't forget about Death Race's nephew NARC. I seem to recall some running down people in the car in that one too.

Interesting story.

MadPlanet said...

Yes, the Death Race clan is a very promiscuous one. They've spread their seed all over the place.

MadPlanet said...

...and the follow up question - can you think of any other games (outside of the GTA series) where you run over people with a car? Maybe that should be a question in the forum...

Fallguy40 said...

Twisted Metal had pedestrians running around.

MadPlanet said...

Hey don't forget Resistance. When you were in the jeep you could mow down some Chimera right on that one part right?

MadPlanet said...

Oh man - there is one right under your nose LBP developer - Space Taxi! Don't control those landing jets quite right and you cruise right into a waiting passenger's midsection and watch them derez with a somewhat blase "hey"

Fallguy40 said...

It's funny to read that quote in the story about not wanting to have killing people in games. It's hard to even find a game today where people don't get killed. The FPS genre would have really shocked them back in 1976.

Fallguy40 said...

which is probably why so many FPS games involve killing Nazis because that's more acceptable.

MadPlanet said...

yeah everybody hates Nazis. Except those Neo-Nazis I guess. I assume they are fans.

Fallguy40 said...

Intergalactic Proton Powered Electrical Tentacled Advertising Droids!

Intergalactic Proton Powered Electrical Tentacled Advertising Droids!

Intergalactic Proton Powered Electrical Tentacled Advertising Droids!

Hi! I'm Darth Harrington of Darth Harrington's Intergalactic Proton Powered Electrical Tentacled Advertising Droids Emporium and Moon Base. Due to a garbled subspace transmission, I am currently overstocked on all Intergalactic Proton Powered Electrical Tentacled Advertising Droids, and I am passing the savings onto youuuu!!!!!!!

MadPlanet said...

HA!! Nicely played FG. I guess you saw the spam ad before I deleted it. Damn adbots!

albina N muro said...‎
GEEK TRIVIA. Which Video Game First Inspired Widespread Controversy? Grand Theft Auto. Mortal Kombat. Death Race. augamer