Hard Drivin' is an arcade game that invites players to test drive a high-powered sports car on stunt and speed courses. The game featured the first 3D polygon driving environment via a simulator cabinet, rendered with a custom architecture. The force feedback, car physics simulator, game design and most game programming were done by Max Behensky.
Hard Drivin' was released in 1988, when arcade driving games were implemented with scaled 2-D sprites and when solid polygon graphics (as opposed to wireframe) in games of any kind were rare. (Pole Position and Out Run are classic examples of driving games using scaled 2-D sprites.)
The gameplay resembles a driving game, featuring a car similar in appearance to the Ferrari Testarossa. The screen shows a first person perspective from inside the car, through the windshield. To separate it from other driving titles of that era, stunt loops and other road hazards were added. The game generally consists of 1 or 2 laps around the stunt track. In certain modes, if the player scored in the top 10, the player races against the computer controlled car, Phantom Photon. In this race, it was possible to race the wrong way around the course and beat the Phantom Photon across the start-finish line. The game challenges the players in a daredevil fashion and broke away from traditional racing games like Out Run or Pole Position. Stunts, a racing game produced later, has similar visuals, controls and tracks. It was also one of the first games to allow for more than three initials on the high-score board; which enterprising drivers could use to their advantage to construct sentences during the course of game-play.
It also features a realistic manual transmission mode and force feedback steering wheel, in which the driver would have to properly operate the car as they would in real life.
A notable feature of the game is the "instant replay" display that is presented after a crash, which sets Hard Drivin' apart from most driving games of its time, which after a crash would just put the player back on the road, stopped, and let them accelerate again. Before resuming play after a crash, Hard Drivin' would run an approximately ten second animation, captioned "Instant Replay", which showed a wide aerial view of the movements of the player's car and surrounding vehicles leading up to the crash, with the player's car always centered on the screen. During the replay, the player could not change the action on screen, but the replay could be aborted to immediately get back to active gameplay. The replay would continue for about two or three seconds after the crash, showing a polygon-rendered fireball and the movement of the car, including any spinning, flipping, or bouncing off the struck obstacle. The replays add to the appeal of the game and actually add a motivation to crash in spectacular ways in order to see them played out from the aerial view.
Besides collisions, a non-survivable landing after going airborne (even if the car landed right-side up), or even going too far off-road, could cause a crash which would be replayed like any other crash, with the car even exploding into the same orange fireball. The game tracks the player's progress around the track by invisible waypoints (denoted by flags on the course map showing the player's progress when the game ends due to time running out), and after a crash, the car is placed back on the track at the last waypoint passed; this sometimes is a significant distance back from the point of collision. (One of the waypoints on each track was the marked checkpoint about halfway around, which when passed granted the player extra time.)
Hard Drivin's approach to collisions or unrealistic events—putting the car back on the road at a standstill—was the norm for driving games until later games such as Cruisin' USA and its successors introduced intentionally artificial physics to force a car to always stay near the road and land right-side up pointing forward.
After going off-road, the player has ten seconds to return to the road, or else he will be stopped and returned to the road, at a standstill, at the last waypoint passed (just like when a crash occurs, but without an instant replay).
- One of the buildings along the speed course, a small camouflage-painted building, if approached from behind (a non-trivial task, given the off-road time limit) has a sign above its normally-unseen door that says "The Hut".
- If the driver made a hard left turn at the start of the game, a 'secret' track was available. The track was a long straight road leading to a very short circular track (a skid pad test track) around a tower.
- If the driver slowed down and stopped in front of one of the buildings, a 'keyhole' appeared on the building's door.
- Running into a cow will cause a "moo" sound to be played. (In the Sega Genesis port at least), there is exactly one cow, next to the red barn between the initial speed track straightaway and the stunt track turn-off, and if viewed from the side it can be seen to be fake with a rectangular brace behind it propping it up; nonetheless it will moo if driven into or through.)
- After getting a sufficienty high score, in the top 10, a bonus, full-course race against the Phantom Photon was made on the Stunt track; however, the physics of the game allowed the player to drive anywhere during this final race with no 10-second off-road penalty.