What is it with cars and killing people that gets the mainstream media so upset? Decades before series like Grand Theft Auto and Carmageddon were earning tut tuts and disapproving looks, an arcade game called Death Race ended up squarely in the sights of TV networks, newspapers and magazines.
Taking more than a few cues (and letters in its name) from classic 1975 movie Death Race 2000, Death Race was a two-player arcade title, released in 1976, in which you had to drive a car around running over little gremlins. Once you did, a tombstone would pop up.
Or at least, they were supposed to be gremlins. The graphics were so primitive at the time that what the developers called gremlins looked a lot like humans, since all that could be rendered was a blocky stick figure.
Which didn't look too great. Neither did the giant grim reaper on the flyer, or the skeletons all over the arcade cabinet. In a world and time where video games were seen as colourful blocks and children's toys, this was a very adult game, and the relatively conservative media of 1976 didn't like it one bit.
Combine all that with the fact it got out that the game's working title had been Pedestrian, making the "gremlin's" similarity to humans seem all the more transparent, and you've got the makings of gaming's first ever mainstream media controversy.
There was a story on 60 Minutes looking at the dangers of the game's psychological impact. The National Safety Council said Death Race was "sick and morbid". These concerns, and the first ever protests over the content of a video game, prompted further coverage in outlets like the National Enquirer and the NBC's Weekend Show.
And how did all this buzz affect sales of the game? Have a guess. A former employee of developers Exidy says "The end result was that Exidy sales doubled or quadrupled," following Death Race's controversial exposure, while former Exidy president Pete Kauffman says ""It seemed like the more controversy…the more our sales increased."
Exidy have been bust for a long, long time, but the Death Race brand has long outlasted it. It was re-released on the NES over 20 years later, and again on PC in the late 90s. As for the original arcade game, owing to both the controversy and its relative rarity (only around 1000 units were ever sold), working cabinets can these days sell for thousands of dollars.
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