Atari had experimented with head-on racing games back in 1976 with Night Driver, but it took a licensed game from Namco (designers of Pac-Man and Dig Dug, among others) to really put the company at the head of the racing pack.
With its scaling graphics, realistic sounds and Formula 1 speed, Pole Position became the biggest hit of 1983 and one of the most memorable games of the arcade’s golden years.
In essence, Pole Position was a standard checkpoint racer, but it was the game that set that standard in the first place. The game started out with a qualifying lap on the Fuji Speedway, forcing players to burn rubber through bends and straightaways in a race against the clock.
The controls were simple enough for even non-drivers to understand – a steering wheel, a two-speed shifter (Low and High) and a gas pedal (the sit-down cabinet added a separate brake pedal). It took a bit of finesse to find the balance between speed and control, trying not to smash into the large billboards at the side of the road, but with a little practice, even novices could qualify for the big race.
After the qualifying lap, the Gran Prix began. Your car was assigned a place at the starting line – anywhere from eighth to first (the coveted “pole position”) – based on how quickly you’d finished the qualifying lap.
Once the light turned green, the eight cars sped off, each trying to pass the others for a clear road to glory and racing immortality.
As long as you kept making it back to the starting line with time to spare, your car could keep on racing, trying to complete three or four laps (depending on the machine’s setting).
There were no special tricks to Pole Position, no secret shortcuts or car-to-car weapons, but none were needed. For video game lovers, a realistic racing experience was enough.
Atari released Pole Position II the following year, allowing players to race on four different tracks – Test, Fuji, Suzuka and Seaside.
That same year, a Pole Position cartoon debuted on CBS’ Saturday morning lineup, adding an action/adventure storyline to the game’s racing thrills.
The cartoon was short-lived, but Pole Position’s legacy lives on in the dozens of racing simulators that have followed in its Formula 1 wake.