Using a behind the motorcycle perspective, the player races a linear race track divided into several stages within a limited time. Reaching a checkpoint at the end of each stage extends the time limit. The game ends if the time runs out.
The arcade game contains in-game billboards for Bridgestone (and their Desert Dueler tires), Shell, Garelli Motorcycles, TAG, John Player Special cigarettes, Forum cigarettes, and for "Marbor," an obvious parody of Marlboro cigarettes. There would be a controversy over cigarette ads in games marketed to children upon the release of another Sega racing game, Super Monaco GP in 1989.
There were two arcade cabinet designs -- the usual upright machine, only with a handlebar and brake levers (instead of a joystick and buttons), and a sit-down version which looked roughly like a real motorcycle. To steer, the player leaned to tilt the bike, which then steered the in-game bike. The screen was mounted into the windshield area of the bike.
In 1987, it was followed by a sequel Super Hang-On for arcade, and later for a range of platforms including the Sega Genesis, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. A polygon based sequel, developed by Genki, was released for the Sega Saturn, named variously Hang-On GP '95 (Japan), Hang-On GP (USA) and Hang-On GP '96 (Europe). It also appeared for the Game Boy Advance as part of the compilation Sega Arcade Gallery.
In Power Drift, the motorcycle is a hidden vehicle and can only be accessed by finishing first place for all five tracks on courses A, C, and E. It is only playable in the Extra Stage.
In Sonic Riders, there is an unlockable Gear called the "Hang-On", which plays the song from this game during use.
In Daytona USA, if one enters "H.O" as his initials, a clip of the main theme from Hang-On will play.