As an arcade game, Hard Drivin' emphasised the use of 3D polygon graphics and (realtively) realistic physics largely unseen in video games at the time, as opposed to longevity. There is only one course which is divided into two tracks; a "race" track which emphasises speed and a "stunt" track which has the player negotiate jumps and loops. The race is timed, with players having to reach checkpoints to keep play going, and the game ends when the counter reaches zero.
The player can crash into objects and opponent cars, which in turn leads to a loss of time. Likewise if the player strays off road for too long, this is registered as a crash. Crashes are followed by third-person replay, again novel for the time. Completing the stunt track within a certain time allows the user to race against an opponent car, the "Phantom Photon".
The Mega Drive version adds nothing to the experience, instead aiming to be a direct port of the arcade version. While reasonably accurate, fewer polygons are used in-game and the frame rate is much lower (albeit not as low as seen in some other ports of the game). The draw distance is also shorter, and the move to the Mega Drive's D-Pad sees a loss of the analogue steering seen in the arcade version.
One of Hard Drivin''s sequels, Race Drivin' also made it to the Sega Mega Drive in 1992. Race Drivin' includes all the content seen in Hard Drivin', but adds extra courses and vehicles.
Hard Drivin' stands as the first Mega Drive game to feature a full 3D world built with polygons.