The 1976 Exidy arcade game Death Race caused sufficient controversy to fuel the first public protests against a video game, which in turn assured the primitive game's place in history. While not an official adaptation, it was surely inspired by the previous year's outrageous, jaundiced drive-in action satire Death Race 2000, probably director Paul Bartel's funniest film, and one of the most fun-packed produced by Roger Corman in this period. The object of the race in question, in both arcade game and movie, is to run down as many people as possible. Death Race pretends that its blocky stick-figures are "Gremlins," but this is parent placating hair-splitting.
Because Death Race is built on transistor-transistor logic, it is one among a handful of early games that cannot be truly emulated on a modern home computer. The only way to play Death Race is on an original Death Race cabinet. Between the game's controversy and low production numbers, cabinets are hard to come by.
The Musée Mécanique, currently located on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, houses a massive collection of vintage coin-operated arcade devices. The majority of these are turn of the century mechanized dioramas, where one may drop a coin and watch tiny robotic puppets act out morality plays (an opium addict hallucinates dragons, skeletons, Satan; a criminal is decapitated by guillotine), or musical performances (monkey orchestras, dog orchestras, etc.), or both (skeleton orchestras). The Musée have a small but tastefully curated collection of coin-op devices of more recent vintage: early video games.
The Musée Mécanique has a Death Race machine. And, like all the displays, you are allowed to play it.
The cabinet graphics are lurid and wonderful, looking like morbid '60s hot rod cartoons. The game graphics are black and white, blocky certainly, but more clearly representative than the Pong machine nearby. They look approximately as good as the cowboy dueller Gun Fight (1975).
Death Race is a driving game, plain and simple, the play area an empty black field with scattered obstacles piling up wherever one has slaughtered a Gremlin. The longer you keep your car from cracking up, the better your score, the more clogged the road becomes. The steering wheel is stiff in comparison with the game's descendants, but it is very responsive. Controls are either over-sensitive or the game is over-clocked. Death Race is a spazzy game, and, like all classic arcade games, designed to be over in a matter of seconds.
Completely, cheerfully tasteless and a hilarious way to spend two minutes, Death Race is, in that regard, exactly what one would want from a Death Race 2000 game in 1976. Which also puts it slightly above par for video game adaptations of movies. Should you be lucky enough to locate a cabinet, do not hesitate to join the Death Race. It's 25 cents of hit and fun!