Datsun 280Z: Birth of the Licensed Video Game Car

Beginning of an Era: The Primitive Roots of Gaming

Visualize peeling back the concept of a car driving video game to its most basic form. Instead of the typical road with your vehicle projected on it, in 1977’s 280 ZZZAP, a black background is adorned with vertical white lines that make up the track, while your car simply appears as a sticker on the screen. This was the first and only video game to feature an automotive licence.

Prior to delving into 280 ZZZAP, it’s fundamental to be aware of the video gaming realm in the seventies. This sort of amusement had not been available for buyers prior to this decade. The Magnavox Odyssey residence console came out in 1972 and Pong made its way into arcades too that same year. Instantly afterwards, advances in this sphere became more marked.

In 1976, a surge in popularity of the first-person driving video game transpired. During that year’s Amusement & Music Operators Association Exhibition, two exceptionally alike experiences were available. Atari introduced Night Driver, while Midway presented Nite Racer. It is widely assumed that both these games were extensively influenced by the German release known as Nürburgring 1 which was released earlier that same year.

Play Meter magazine discussed the Atari and Midway games of the time, noting that “the most intriguing aspect of video night racing games is that they provide a sense of depth, thus introducing a third dimension to video games.”

Somewhere in the timeline between presenting the game at a conference in November 1976 and its unveiling the following year, Midway’s parent-company, Bally, was able to broker a licensing agreement with Datsun (now Nissan) for the usage of the 280Z in the game. As a result, the title shifted from Nite Racer to the even more exhilarating 280 ZZZAP.

We attempted to contact Nissan to inquire about the deal between Bally and Datsun. Unfortunately, they were unable to give us any insight.

Datsun 280-ZZZap by Midway Games (A Bally Product)

280 ZZZAP is as straightforward as a driving title can get. Atop the arcade cabinet sits a steering wheel, a high-low gearshift, and a single pedal for controlling acceleration – apparently in the game’s world, this car doesn’t need brakes! Lower down on the screen there’s a decal of the iconic 280Z nose, with a painted sky scene taking up the top portion. Players drive through vertical poles which denote the road ahead – the further one goes, the more points they will accumulate. Text notifications that appear on-screen advise the recommended speed when navigating corners; hit the walls and you’ll be greeted with BOOM, BANG, or ZAP!

Whilst 280 ZZZAP encouraged the automobile in arcades, the 1977 ZZAP Edition street car conspicuously promoted the game on the roads. Restricted to a mere 1,000 cars, it had a Sun Burst Yellow body with vibrant orange, red and black line artwork embellishing the side sills and bonnet. Black accents were also featured on the top and tail end. At the back, window louvering was installed on the hatch. The powertrain endured from the usual coupe with a 2.8-liter straight-six generating 170 horsepower.

Midway organized a competition wherein it was possible to secure a 280Z, coupled with rewards including a colorful RCA television. A blog devoted to vintage arcades asserted that somebody from Rhode Island lucked out and won the automobile.

The highly acclaimed 280 ZZZAP wasn’t only a traditional arcade game. In 1978, an edition came out for the Bally Astrocade home console. Contrary to its original, this version was adorned with more than just black and white — it featured a red motor vehicle boasting a lovely purple bonnet and a ravishing magenta colour sky.

Had it not been for Datsun, some other vehicle manufacturer would’ve likely taken the initiative in sponsoring a video game. Nonetheless, it was needed that one business enterprise took the lead and stepped forward. If it had not been Datsun’s pioneering action, we wouldn’t be able to drive Nissan, Toyota, and Ferrari vehicles in games like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo.

If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a 280 ZZZAP arcade machine, why not take a turn behind the steering wheel for a quarter! Sure, playing the game electronically (as in the video below) brings its own enjoyment but it’s obviously missing the visual components like the car artwork, dynamic sky, or pseudo wood-panelled instrument trim.

Arcade Longplay - 280-ZZZAP (1976)

Source: DanLovesPinballsnGames via YouTube

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