In 1971 Dr Reiner Foerst began work on a simulator that would revolutionize the Arcade industry and give us the first steps towards the racing simulations we know and love, because while many credit Atari’s Night Driver as the first racing game to give us a first-person perspective, it actually wasn’t, because Dr Foerst was a long way ahead of the game.
Initially used as a method to raise finance for his professional simulators that still exist today, Foerst produced an arcade cabinet named Nürburgring that was shown to the public at the German IMA show in Spring, 1976. It was there that someone picked up a flyer that found it’s way to Atari, who then cloned Nurburgring 1 to produce what we know today as Night Driver.
It’s very easy to overlook what a breakthrough this was, especially because it seems so natural today, but nobody had put the player inside the cockpit before and even for decades afterwards developers continued to make top-down racing titles like Codemasters’ Grand Prix Simulator (1987) and Ivan Stewart’s Super Off-Road (1989) because at the time it was the easier option.
Initially using light bulbs that would turn on and off to differentiate the road from everything else, the release of Pong in 1972 convinced Foerst that using a computer TV display for graphical output would be a better solution and by 1975 the first working prototype was complete and installed in Giessen, Germany, close to the university where the student population made the machine extremely profitable.
The simulation featured reasonable physics over a flattened section of the famed Nürburgring, collision detection, and advanced audio that through an analogue sawtooth waveform generator would adjust loudness with revs and would become muffled when the gas pedal was released. Users would be able to use sound to sense when shifting gears was required, would be able to hear engine braking, crashes, and even the air whizzing by.
Limited sales began, word began to spread, and the machine was displayed to the public in 1976 at that fateful event as Nürburgring 1, so named due to the sequels already in-production. The secret was out, and after initially looking to work with other companies and being approached for licensing by Atari Foerst found himself ignored, deals torn up before his eyes, and ultimately became forgotten in the world of gaming because by the end of 1976 Atari had cloned his machine in a CPU-driven and ultimately cheaper Arcade machine than his own. Mass manufacturing, cheaper components and a larger commercial reach meant that Atari could quite easily get away with labeling Night Driver as an “Atari first” despite the fact that Dr Foerst had beaten them at their own game.
Regardless, Foerst continued, selling in smaller locations and releasing sequels that changed vehicles, improved visuals and sounds, and in 1980 did get some recognition in Coin-op circles for being the inventor of racing simulations as he pioneered moving simulators that would roll or rotate to give the sensation of G-forces, and with just his third release of Nürburgring in 1982 had developed a full color version that would rival anything else in the Arcades. He still owns a number of patents that cement his status as the father of racing simulations.
It’s estimated that only 1000 Nürburgring simulators were ever made, and of course this number is insignificant when compared to the sales Atari saw from Night Driver both in the arcade and on the home market. It is perhaps amusing that the Atari 2600 release had limited features and didn’t even include a first-person view or the ability to change gears until the Commodore C-64 release in 1982, because while many may look back at Night Driver as the first home simulator, I’d disagree…
Road Race released in 1981 for the Commodore Vic-20 and was itself a clone of the Nürburgring 1 and Night Driver arcade releases. The importance of this title is that it was released for a home computer system and retained the simulation aspects of the arcade versions it was cloned from, so while many may have incorrectly credited Night Driver as the first racing simulation when Nürburgring 1 deserved that accolade, it’s perhaps fitting that another cloned title that failed to pay licensing fees to Atari in the same way they’d failed to with Foerst, could be considered the first racing simulator for the home market, taking that title away from Atari.