ZZZAP! In 1976, Datsun made the first car-themed video game
Leveraging assets is a valuable business concept, one that our society has used to great effect. Automakers are no exception, as the Dodge Brothers helped Henry Ford get a foothold in automobile production in 1903. More recently, Malaise Era marketing departments looked past a future of low horsepower and lower emissions to leverage Pierre Cardin‘s name for the 1972 AMC Javelin. The concept lives on today, embodied best by King Ranch branded trucks and Burmester audio systems in Benzes. How did a plucky upstart Japanese automaker cut its teeth on the leveraging game?
Perhaps the story goes all the way back to 1958, and to two guys, each named Raymond. This was the year Ray Lemke founded the first U.S. Datsun dealership, in San Diego, California. The brand started its upward trajectory with 83 Datsuns sold that year. 1958 was also the same year that Raymond T. Moloney, the pinball-game magnate behind Bally Manufacturing, passed away and left his company twisting in the wind. Both moments in 1958 altered the trajectory of the Raymonds’ respective businesses, and the 1970s brought them together.
We all know the vehicle that put Datsun on the map in the early 1970s, but did you know that Bally created one of the first video games in 1973? Called Winner, it was sadly a rip off of Atari’s Pong. (Apparently, copyright enforcement was as lax then as the rules about republishing content on social media are now.) We may never know what serendipitous moment brought these two innovative companies together, but I reckon it has something to do with the early days of Datsun’s strong retail foothold in California, where Silicon Valley has its roots.
Maybe the key player(s) drank at a bar where the ever-present Pong cabinet was available. Remember, Datsun was not the generously funded heavyweight that General Motors was, and a marketing executive on a shoestring budget is most likely to come up with unique promotions after a few courage-inducing alcoholic beverages. Forget Mad Men and three-martini lunches; think sports car and computer game.
The end result of the Bally Manufacturing/Datsun partnership was the first video game with authorized branding. Originally sold as Midnight Racer, it was released in 1976 as Datsun 280 ZZZAP by Midway Manufacturing (a Bally subsidiary). The Datsun connection naturally merited a re-imaging of the cabinetry and minor code changes to the software. No matter the name, an arcade game that utilized a reflected projection, a black light, a throttle pedal, a gear shifter, and a genuine steering wheel must have wowed gamers in the mid-1970s.
Wikipedia states the game was “named after the U.S. advertising campaign for Nissan’s Datsun 280Z,” which suggests the partnership was rather lopsided. The fledging American tech company seemingly received zero recognition from the Japanese automaker, probably because video games in the mid-1970s lacked the requisite prestige to market an automobile. Conversely, Bally leveraged the partnership by catering to buyers of expensive pinball machines. Given Datsun 280 ZZZAP’s mechanical complexity relative to Pong, this was likely a four-figure business expenditure, making the cabinet out of the question for most retail buyers.
Datsun 280 ZZZAP was not helped by the fact that establishments with gaming cabinets were usually bars and taverns. Video games used to be for adults men of a certain status, and that limitation is one reason why the founder of Atari eventually created kid-friendly pizza joints with video games.
Sadly, the brilliant pairing of pizza and software-laden games lacked nationwide acceptance until after Datsun’s Z-car transitioned into the bigger, bolder 280 ZX. Life as a budding car enthusiast was much harder before PlayStation consoles and Gran Turismo games. Too bad Datsun 280 ZZZAP was more of a flash in the pan, compared to Pac-Man and the gaming frenzy it generated.
But Datsun 280 ZZZAP did not fail for Bally’s lack of trying; the software itself lived outside of bars and arcades thanks to the star-crossed Bally Home Library Computer. The Datsun 280 ZZZAP cartridge came with a companion game called Dodgem, which had nothing to do with Chryslers, and I’ve played both. Let me tell you, it doesn’t hold a candle to the arcade machine. The car-like interfaces, hood projection, throttle pedal, and stand-up cabinet can’t be replicated in one’s living room. Much like many games of the era, Datsun 280 ZZZAP only provided a pure experience in a proper video arcade, requiring a trip to a not-so-kid-friendly establishment.
Perhaps it’s fair to say that Datsun 280 ZZZAP was born before its time. The underlying message of “let’s grab a drink and drive a Datsun 280Z!” is not a good marketing tool, even in the politically incorrect 1970s. So Datsun likely created a “special decor package” to use the ZZZAP nomenclature while avoiding the baggage of its gaming heritage. Murky origin-story notwithstanding, Z-car historians refer to this model as the “ZZZap-Z,” and it is easily spotted by its Bright Sunburst Yellow paint, black stripes with yellow/orange/red gradient chevrons, racing mirrors, and rear window louvers. ZZZap-Z’s were only made in 1977. Production numbers are a bit uncertain; they range from one per Datsun dealership to a more palatable total of 1000 units, as proclaimed on the windscreen of one such example.
This specific ZZZap-Z is to be auctioned at Mecum’s Monterey auction in August. (We previously reported it sold for $42,900 back in 2021.) Aside from fewer vinyl letters on the windshield, very little appears about it to have changed in the last two years. Which is a good thing, as our own Andrew Newton noted that its “clean, mostly original interior” presented well in 2021. Though it showed signs of being repainted, it was “mostly restored underneath.”
A driver-quality 280Z it not the bellwether that this museum-worthy 240Z was three years ago, but a decor package worthy of expert-level automotive trivia at local car shows is not without merit. And this ZZZap-Z’s interior looks like a great place to spend time: The period-correct Pioneer radio looks ready to provide some Steely Dan sounds on the way to one of the many reinvigorated video arcades popping up around the country. The dash, seats, and cargo area present very well, while the factory-fitted air conditioning presumably keeps you cool after being heckled by a Gorf arcade machine. “Some galactic defender you are,” and now we hope you have enough quarters for gas money!
The ZZZap-Z is so great because it harkens back to a simpler time, both in motoring and gaming history. Even better, Datsun’s leveraging of Bally Manufacturing made waves, as Gran Tourismo and Nissan go hand in hand in our collective consciousness: Witness the work Polyphony Digital (makers of Gran Turismo) applied to the user interface of the modern (R35) Nissan GT-R. These days, games and automobiles go together like peanut butter and jelly, and the ZZZap-Z plays a small role in the success of the pairing. Or perhaps games and automobiles are like pizza and video arcades, and the Datsun Z is the driving force?