Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve loved cars. Whether they were diecast cars, Airfix and Tamiya kits as I got older, or the increasingly impressive renderings in video games, I’ve loved them for more years than I care to remember. Even as a grown man, I was involved in the world of Radio Control Drifting at 1/10th scale, culminating in representing the UK at the World Championships. Not always successfully, as the picture below demonstrates!
So, looking back over a lifetime of playing games, and racing games in particular, I am moved to consider which were the best that I have ever played. I’m going to be platform blind on this, largely because I didn’t have an Xbox until the 360 came out, so many games I played were on the other consoles that were available. In order that I played them, here are the racing games that have had a lasting impact on me and 10 of the best racing games of all-time.
The original and the daddy of my entire racing game career.
Played not only in the arcade, which was a revelation as I’d never seen an arcade machine with a steering wheel before, but also on the Atari VCS2600 that had pride of place in our living room. The routine of unplugging the aerial from the back of the telly, plugging in the Atari cable, then re-tuning the channel using a screwdriver still stays with me to this day.
In those days, remote control meant my dad telling me to get up and change to another channel, but of course, there were only three channels to choose from anyway… and come bedtime even those had stopped broadcasting. But I fear I digress.
Anyway, that Pole Position eh? Square car, stripy grass and a similar road that allowed it to deliver a sense of speed; but it was fun, and that’s what stayed with me. Looking at it now, when we’ve been utterly spoiled with games like Forza Motorsport 7, it looks so basic, but the graphics were never the point.
This to me was Genesis, and every other driving game that I’ve played owes Pole Position a debt of gratitude for planting the seed.
Fast forward a bit to my university years, and the Super Nintendo that I had in my possession was sufficient to make me one of the cool kids on the floor in my halls of residence.
Many, many nights were spent racing or playing battle mode, and with sufficient social lubricant in the form of beer applied to the situation, it wasn’t uncommon to see the sun coming up before we finished playing. There’s nothing like sitting in a lecture, with a raging hangover and a mouth like Ghandi’s flip flop, having had no sleep due to a tournament that just wouldn’t end!
Gaming wise, Mario Kart was the first game that I remember introducing the mechanics of drifting, with the little hop and slide button being vital to get around some of the tougher courses. Even now, I can still remember what a pain Rainbow Road was, and the one time I won the top cup was a complete fluke, as I always sucked at that track.
I’ve played the later Mario Karts, on my son’s Wii U and Switch, but to me the simplicity of the original and the sheer fun it provided has never been beaten.
The sound of the intro song still triggers a wave of nostalgia, even to this day.
Played first in the arcade, I’ll never forget the local arcade which had a full size Mazda MX-5 setup to let you play the game. At the time it was a £1 a go, which was a lot of money in those days to a poor struggling barman, but climbing into a car, and using the controls to play a driving game was a complete revelation. I loved every second.
Being a launch title for PS1, I spent more hours than I care to remember playing this game, mastering the drifting, and finally beating and unlocking the Devil car after roughly one million attempts at keeping it behind me. The graphics at the time were absolutely mind blowing, and while the cars weren’t real, this is the game that formed my lifelong habit of using manual transmission when playing a racing game. The cars were harder to control on manual, but ultimately faster when you learned to handle them, and this has stuck with me to this day, even in titles like Forza and Slightly Mad Studios‘ Project Cars.
The follow ups were also great, with Ridge Racer Revolution also holding a special place in my gaming heart.
The release of WipeOut saw video games move from being slightly geeky and almost something to be ashamed, to becoming cool.
With a banging soundtrack, including a masterpiece from The Prodigy – I was a confirmed heavy metal fan at the time, so couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about – and speeds that almost had to be seen to be believed, this racing game went a long way towards convincing my friends to buy Playstations.
The hoverships, the weapons (a clear nod to Mario Kart in my eyes) and the futuristic setting all sucked me in, and I was glad to go. Blasting round the course that was like a roller coaster, trying to get used to the handling and the air brake system, are the memories that stick with me. At the time, only F-Zero on the SNES had been slightly similar, but the difference in the creation of a 3D racetrack made all the difference.
An unforgettable game by any measure, the WipeOut series never again captured the magic of the original.
Gran Turismo is the first game where I learnt about real cars, with the little bit of history that each model included. I’d never heard of a Skyline before this game, but it is still my ambition one day to own a real one. An R34 in Bayside Blue, if you’re offering!
I remember loading this disc into my PlayStation, plugging in my brand new DualShock pad, and just sitting there open mouthed at the attract sequence. Never before had I seen graphics like this, and to be sat in my living room blasting these real cars around race tracks absolutely blew me away. The handling was also bang on, the manual gears worked a treat, and the replays after a race needed to be watched again and again, trying to see if there was a fraction of a second to be gained from taking a turn tighter, or avoiding the armco on the way out of a bend.
One of my proudest moments in gaming was taking the Dodge Viper around the Autumn Ring Mini track, which is basically one lone corner, and never once having the rear wheels in line with the front! One huge two lap long drift, all pulled off before I really knew what drifting was about.
My lifelong admiration for JDM cars and drifting in general can be traced back to Gran Turismo, so profound was the effect it had on me. The sequels though were actually disappointments. You see, back then I’d made the switch to Xbox, and the Forza games widdled from a great height on GT5…
Colin Mcrae Rally
Colin Mcrae Rally, to give its full title, wasn’t the first rally game I’d ever played, but it was by far the most realistic.
Sitting in the driving, listening to the co-driver barking orders at me, trying to remember what “3 left tightens, don’t cut” means, while blasting sideways through a desert genuinely made me sweat. Chasing sector times, trying to get out ahead, and maybe even carve a bit of a time cushion are moments that stay with me.
Not even the rally races in GT2 could compete with old Colin, and driving the Subaru that he had driven to WRC glory was a real treat. Again, the sequels went down a strange path, turning into the DiRT games and losing some of the purity, despite still being fun to play, but the whole “Extreme Dude Driving” wasn’t really to my taste.
I am happy to see the games getting back on course nowadays though.
Burnout 2 was the first game I played that made a virtue out of crashing.
Some may argue, and with considerable evidence on their side, that Burnout 3: Takedown was a better game, but this is my list so Burnout 2 gets the call.
Playing through things, at speeds that made my eyes bleed, was amazing back in the day. Boosting through traffic, chaining boosts to keep the speed up led to the creation of an unofficial Burnout league at work, where we would choose a track and whoever got the fastest time was rewarded with all the props. No actual money mind. Still the addition of a competition made the thrill of getting a good time that bit sweeter.
Crash mode was also great fun, deliberately crashing your car to cause as much mayhem as possible? Brilliant! This to me was my entry into the arcade subsection of racing games, and was so much fun that it rightfully earns a place on my list.
NFS Most Wanted/Underground 2
Need for Speed is a driving series that I’ve been playing for ever, right back to the early games on the Commodore 64. However, the series really hit its stride for me with the release of the Underground games, particularly the second one.
The modification, where you could take something as basic as a Vauxhall Corsa and turn it into a fully chavved up boy-racer mobile was quite appealing, and I created some truly hideous abominations. However, as much fun as the game was, Most Wanted just edges it in the fun stakes. See, it had a story, weak as it was, and working your way up the list, winning cars and trying to get your BMW back was very compelling.
This is actually the first NFS that I played right through to the end, back on my PS2. Taking Razor down after battering his cronies, and running from the police in ridiculous chases through the city, was great fun. Upgrading the cars, even just roaming around and getting into mischief really spoke to me.
I honestly don’t think either of these games have been bettered in the franchise.
Forza Motorsport 3
Being a confirmed Xbox player, at least nowadays, the Forza franchise just has to rear its head at same stage. You see, when I bought my first 360, it came with Gears of War, Halo ODST and Forza 3; firing it up for the first time, and finding that the text was blurry made me sad, so I had to go out and buy a new TV and an HDMI lead to make the most of my new purchase. Suddenly everything became pin sharp and I was hooked.
The thing I spent most time on, strangely, in this and Forza 4 was the livery designer. I loved creating replicas of famous cars, and with the market place was able to sell my creations and a whole new world opened up. Add to this some stupendous graphics (remember, I’d just come from a PS2!) and then add in online racing against real people, and the revolution was complete.
Even the griefers that used to plague the online world in those days, driving backwards around the track to cause crashes couldn’t take the shine off. Forza 3 was a genuine game changer.
Oh look, Forza appears again!
Forza Horizon was so different to anything I’d played before that I just have to include it in my list. Having the freedom to do what you want, and go where you want made this a much more expansive experience than the track focused games that came before it in the Motorsport series.
Choosing which race to compete in, enjoying the Showcase Events (I mean, seriously, who thought that racing against a plane could be so much fun?), and with amazing vistas to see, the signature handling of a Forza game mixed with an open world experience made a heady brew indeed.
The sequels built on this foundation, becoming bigger and shinier, but they wouldn’t be here without the original Forza Horizon. The online portions were also fun, just cruising around with your posse or enjoying some of the games that were put in whiled away many an evening, and as such it deserves it place on this list.
So, there we go then, a chronological drive back through the history of racing games. Obviously some titles have missed the cut but are still worthy; Test Drive, Top Gear Rally, V-Rally, and the various F1 games. But it must be said that these didn’t make as much of an impact as the games I’ve listed.
Anyways, now, I’ve shown you mine, why not show me yours? Let me know what games you think I should have included in the comments!