Car companies now routinely license their car's name, look, and characteristics for driving games. Like all clever things, somebody had to do it first, right? So who was this daring, visionary company to first wise up to the value of putting their cars in videogames? It's a name that now is used to sell cheap cars in India.

Yes, Datsun seems to be the first car maker to officially license their name and a car for a video game. This was way back in 1976, the car was the Datsun 280Z, and the game was Datsun 280ZZZap, made by Bally-Midway, and programmed by Jay Fenton. Jay Fenton later transitioned to become a woman and took the name Jamie Fenton, so you may find the game credited under that name as well.


The game actually didn't start out as Datsun 280ZZZap — it started out as a game called Midnite Racer, made by Midway. The problem was that Midnite Racer was, essentially, a copycat game (though licensed) of a Micronetics game called Night Racer. And, if you follow the copycat chain down just a little further, it looks like Night Racer was basically a knockoff of a German driving game called Nürburgring.

On top of all this, Atari would very soon release their licensed knockoff, Night Driver, creating a glut of pseudo-3D, drive-between-the-white-fenceposts racing games out there.

Midway noticed exactly this at the November 1976 AMOA (Amusement and Music Operators Association) show, which featured all the indistinguishable night-driving games in one place. After the show, in an effort to have their game stand apart from all the others, Bally-Midway started a promotion that would give away a brand new 1977 Datsun 280Z, and worked out a deal with Nissan (the details of which I still haven't found) that allowed them to rename the game Datsun 280ZZZap (sometimes just 280ZZZap) and include images of a 280Z on the marquee and case.


The game also stood out by using Midway's unique mirror-based projection system that could overlay static, printed images on top of the primitive raster-scan graphics of the game. Since the simple, 8080-based computer running the game could only display blocky black and white images, the mirror-projection system was used to overlay a night sky and the hood of a yellow 280Z on the screen. Oh, and to keep things classy, the 'dashboard' section of the screen had a woodgrain bezel around it. The effect was pretty cool, as you can see in this video:

The game was also notable for the big, pixellated words it would display when you crashed, like BANG and BOOM and most notably, ZORK. ZORK was notable not just because it's possibly the least likely sound for a car to make when running into a post at high speed, but also because 'Zork' was the name of a popular text-based adventure game of the era. Since Zork was first written in 1977, there's some speculation the name came from the game, but it may just be a coincidence as the word was in widespread use in geeky communities already.

Datsun doesn't seem to have done too much on their end to publicize this video game tie-in, though in 1977 Datsun did offer a 'special decor package' for the 280Z called the 280ZZZap, which was a Sunburst Yellow 280Z with rear window louvers and black hood and roof stripes (a personal favorite combo), and a multicolored side stripe kit.

The ZZZap edition did seem to roughly mirror what the car in the videogame looked like, though there doesn't seem to be any official mention of the game in Datsun's ads. Still, I think it's more than just a coincidence here. And this special edition car based on a video game may be a one-of-a-kind thing as well, at least until Koenigsegg releases their Agera:Forza Horizon Edition.