Indy 500 and Driving Controller, for a Great Racing Experience
During the early day of the Atari 2600, which is often during the time Atari was the only producer of game, different controllers were made to give a better experience to specific game type. One of them was the Driving controller. Indy 500 is notable to be the only commercial game that uses it and the only one that require it as well. Both the controller and the game came out on September 11, 1977, the same moment as the launch of the Atari 2600.
The Atari Driving Controller
The controller, internally named Atari CX20-01, is like the paddle controllers, a set of two analogue controllers compatible with games such as Breakout. However, the driving controller has a single controller knob can be turned continuously in a 360-degree motion. This allows precise control of the player car in Indy 500, since it is an overhead view driving game.
The driving controller was sold in four ways. 2 pairs were bundled with Indy 500 and its Sears equivalent, Race. It was also sold by itself with two pairs included. The fourth release is the Racing Pak Special Value. Again, 2 pairs of driving controllers were included along with Indy 500 and Slot Racer. There are two things interesting about this package. The first one is that although it is mentioned on the box, Slot Racer cannot use the Driving Controller (which is strange to include a game not compatible with the included controller, but every Atari 2600 came with a normal joystick anyway). The second thing is that both games are packed in their own, separate and complete white box.
Almost a decade after the official discontinuation of the Atari 2600 on January 1, 1992, a programmer known as Thomas Jentzsch hacked a few commercial game in 2002 to allow a driving controller to be used. These games are Asteroids DC, Sprintmaster DC and Omega Race, DC. Sprintmaster is also an overhead racing game like Indy 500, which make it more realistic to use it instead of the standard Atari Controller.
The Pack-in game
Let’s get back to Indy 500. The game is an adaptation of Atari’s discrete logic arcade games Indy 800, released in 1975. Unlike the original game, the home port is a one or two players game. In the original, you could play as up to eight players.
Indy 500 comes with 14 variations, grouped into 4 game type: Race Car, Crash N’ Score, Tag and Ice Race. Like the early Atari 2600 games, if you don’t start the game right away or if the game ends, it will cycle through different colour palette. This was presumably to avoid pixel burn.
In all game type, you move your car in a 360 directional motion and press the button to accelerate. The difficulty switch on the game system will alter the speed of your care. In the “B” position, it will go fast but easier to maneuver. However, on the “A” side, you will go very fast and precise controller action will be required. Crashing on the wall will freeze your car briefly.
In this game type, you can race on two tracks: The Grand Prix (Games 1 and 2) and the Devil’s Elbow Track (Games 3 and 4). In the odd games, you play against a second player and the first to do 25 laps will win the game. Colliding with the other player will cause both to stop moving for a second. In the even games, you race against the clock in a set 60 seconds, trying to perform as many laps as possible.
Crash N’ Score
In this game type, you must crash on the white square to score a point. Crash n’ Score Track I and II Track are the two playfield that is available in this mode. When the game start, the square appears in a random location. Another will take its place as soon as the first one has been crashed into by any players. It is also possible to wrap around the other side of the screen in both tracks. Like in the Race Car game type, there is 2 player variations. In single player, you to get 50 hits wins the game, and a time trial mode that give player 1 60 seconds to do as many hits as possible.
The Tag mode is a two players only game types. It features two tracks unique to this mode named Barrier Chase Track (Game 9) and Motor Hunt Track (Game 10). As soon as the game start, one of the players will be in a blinking states. The player who is not in these states much touch the other player in order to score. The blinking player must avoid his or her opponent. When a collision happens, both player go back to their starting position and the position is switched. The first to score 99 points wins the game. To be honest though, getting 99 points will take a long time, possibly more than 10 minutes.
The Ice Race mode includes its own track, the Ice Sprint Race and the Ice Rally Track. It is notable to be the very first game to feature ice racing or racing in a winter setting. It works the same way as the Race Car mode, with the first player to get 25 laps done before the other or do as many laps as possible in Time Trial mode. The catch here is that since you are racing on ice, you must take slow turn or else you will slip away and crash at the nearby wall constantly.
Although it is unknown how much copy of Indy 500 were sold, the Driving Controller is certainly a controller made for this kind of game, featuring precise controls over the steering. Unlike many early games, Indy 500 never had a second reprint and was the only official game made for the Driving Controller.