If the flyer Shepperd saw was in German, it was almost certainly for Reiner Foerst's Nurburgring. Atari historian Marty Goldberg, however, reports that Shepperd was actually shown a flyer for Night Racer, which Atari had licensed from Micronetics. Wherever he go the idea, Shepperd was unaware of all but the barest bones of the concept (this may have been a deliberate attempt by Atari to protect themselves from patent infringement claims – though given that they had a license for the game, this seems unlikely).
Of course, the barest bones was pretty much all there was to the game. In terms of graphics, Night Driver was far more primitive than games like LeMans and Gran Trak. The only computer-generated imagery consisted of two lines of sparse white rectangles representing posts delineating the sides of an imaginary road (the image of the nose of a car that appeared on the screen was merely a sticker). The conceit was that you were driving at night, and hence no landmarks were visible. But Atari put those rectangles to good use. Night Driver was a classic example of making a lot out of very little. Though the graphics may have been simple, the game’s 3-D, first-person perspective created a “you are there” illusion that added immeasurably to its realism. This was especially true of the sit-down version that Atari released in April, 1977 (though the upright actually sold far more units). At the time, Atari still had a number of sit-down cabinets left over from 1975’s Hi-Way and decided to use them for a sit-down version of Night Driver. So how does Night Driver compare to its predecessors (Nurburgring, Night Racer, and 280 Zzzap)? Not having played all the games in their coin-op format, it’s hard to tell. In terms of basic gameplay and graphics, the games were very similar. It’s the trappings that distinguish them. Nurburgring appears to have had better sound, though that is really a guess. 280 Zzzap appears to have had more impressive bells and whistles – including its pseudo “dashboard”, the flag-waving referee, and the fluorescent, mirrored-in background graphics (Atari’s version used a stick-on decal to represent the player’s car, though it may have had smoother gameplay). Comparing Night Driver to Night Racer is even more difficult since I could find little in the way of a detailed description of the latter and no YouTube video of gameplay (the game is also quite rare). Looking at the flyers for Night Racer, however, it appears to have been a notch below Night Driver in terms of graphics and, while it had a sit-down cabinet, Atari’s looks much sleeker. In terms of popularity, of course, it was no contest. Nurburgring and Night Racer saw no real success in the US market. 280 Zzzap was listed at the #10 game of 1977 by RePlay and #9 by Play Meter. That same year, Night Driver ranked #6 on both charts. But that fact alone doesn’t tell the full story. After its initial popularity 280 Zzzap quickly faded from the scene (though it did earn an “honorable mention” in RePlay’s 1978 year-end summary). Not so Night Driver. Play Meter listed it as the #9 game of 1978 and the #11 game of 1979 and the game appeared RePlay’s monthly charts as late as January, 1981. Why the difference? While Night Driver may have had smoother gameplay (or may not – I haven’t played the other games), the main factor may have been the simple fact that Night Driver was made by Atari. Another likely factor was that Atari also produced a very popular Atari 2600 version of the game (ported by Rob Fulop and probably the version most people remember today). In any event, for those who were gaming in the late 1970s, Night Driver stands out as one of the more seminal driving games of the era (even if it wasn’t the first of its kind).