The history of racing games dates back decades, all the way to the earliest origins of video games. Always quick to squeeze every ounce of performance from any given platform, racing games are regularly at the tip of the spear when it comes to technological leaps.
From top down to takedowns and Byron Bay to Colin McRae, there have been hundreds of top quality racing games released over the years featuring just about every type of machine you can strap an engine to and point towards a finish line. However, we’ve narrowed down a list of our favourites to what we believe are the very best racing games of all time.
The following 25 games represent a broad spectrum of racing sub-genres and are plucked from several decades of video game history, so the final mix is a fusion of influential greats, seismic smash hits, and series-best instalments. We’ve curated it with a maximum of one game per franchise in mind to ease up on repetition, so keep that in mind if some popular series below seem limited to a single heavy-hitter.
It doesn’t matter whether you win by an inch or a mile; these are the greatest racing games ever.
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25: Rock n’ Roll Racing (1993)
A memorable isometric battle racer, Rock n’ Roll Racing owes a good deal to some key trailblazers before it, including Rare’s highly-successful 1988 NES smash-hit R.C. Pro-Am and EA’s earlier Commodore 64 game Racing Destruction Set from 1985. In fact, Rock n’ Roll Racing developer Silicon & Synapse was actually behind the 1991 SNES remake of Racing Destruction Set, dubbed RPM Racing (or Radical Psycho Machine Racing, according to the box art, proving that some hastily-scrawled napkin notes really need to be left at the bar after closing time).
After Super Mario Kart launched in 1992 and sucked all the jam out of RPM Racing’s doughnut, Silicon & Synapse repurposed its remains into Rock n’ Roll Racing. The result was a racer high on ’90s attitude yet powered by your old man’s record collection, as your TV bleeped and blooped through Born to be Wild, Bad to the Bone, and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, amongst others.
Silicon & Synapse subsequently changed its name to Blizzard and has spent the last 25 years releasing games with little discernible rock n’ roll and a distinct lack of racing. Despite this, upon closer inspection, the studio appears to have enjoyed some success.
24: Wreckfest (2018)
Who’s the demigod of destruction racers? The PlayStation classic Destruction Derby, perhaps? The oft-forgotten and criminally-underrated Driven to Destruction (also known as Test Drive: Eve of Destruction)? Or maybe it’s the fan-fave FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage?
Well, Wreckfest is the culmination of all of those: a magical mix of jalopy jumping, rubber ripping, metal-rending mayhem. With Wreckfest, car smashing specialists Bugbear recaptured the door-slamming spirit of its original FlatOut games and brought it back to life inside the best demolition derby game in over a decade.
The presentation is a little staid but the elbows-out competition on track is anything but, and the handling is tuned to a T. Hulking American muscle cars and land yachts squat back on their worn springs and need to be wrestled into heroic Hollywood powerslides and steered on the throttle. Smaller European and Japanese models are nimbler but they’re also lighter and require a little more finesse to manhandle around the track. And then there’s the special vehicles: school buses, RVs, lawn mowers, and even a motorised couch.
Better still, just about every panel and part on them can be punished, pulverised, or simply prised off completely.
Time will tell if Wreckfest’s reputation can last as long as its forebears but, for now, it’s certainly the best destruction derby game on four wheels (when they’re all attached, that is).
23: Wave Race 64 (1996)
What’s a list of radical racing games if you don’t get a little wet?
Spearheaded by some of Nintendo’s most distinguished developers, including Shinya Takahashi, Katsuya Eguchi, and Shigeru Miyamoto, Wave Race 64 was the first racing game for the Nintendo 64. It was a little short but it made a big splash on account of its thoroughly convincingly water physics – the likes of which were more or less unparalleled at the time.
The dynamic nature of race courses affected by sloshing swell made for a highly-engaging racing experience, in which you were constantly reading the waves and using the game’s impressive physics to ride or launch off them. It was completely different from the static circuits gamers were used to.
Nintendo made a single follow-up – Wave Race: Blue Storm for GameCube in 2001 – but the series has been basically submerged for almost two decades now.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20series%20has%20been%20basically%20submerged%20for%20almost%20two%20decades%20now”]Motocross Madness developers Rainbow Studios released a pretty damn great PlayStation and Xbox equivalent in 2001 called Splashdown – which switched the jet skis for Sea-Doos – but it’s telling that after nearly 20 years, Nintendo’s Wave Race 64 still rules the tides.
22: Hard Drivin’ (1989)
The stunt racer has a long history and there are plenty of prized examples dating all the way back to the ’80s.
Looking back at some of stunt racing’s heavyweight champions, there’s a trio of truly trendsetting stunt racers that are actually quite hard to split. In the red corner there’s Atari’s incredible Hard Drivin’ arcade cabinet, which featured a clutch and a manual shifter like no other game at the time (though the home release ports tended to have frame rates you could count on one hand and the Commodore 64 version was particularly horrific). In the blue corner? Geoff Crammond’s highly-acclaimed and physics-heavy Stunt Car Racer for Amiga and a variety of other platforms (released as Stunt Track Racer in the US).
The third? Well, waiting in the parking lot to sucker punch the winner and scurry away is Distinctive Software’s derivative but very popular Stunts from 1990, which in most ways is admittedly an unashamed (albeit superior) rip-off of Hard Drivin’ with one key bonus: its amazing track editor.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%5BHard%20Drivin’s%5D%20wild%20loops%20and%20cutting-edge%20polygonal%20graphics%20were%20like%20nothing%20gamers%20had%20seen%20before”]Plenty of stunt racers have followed over the years – from Gremlin’s Fatal Racing (dubbed Whiplash in the US) to Reflection’s super-tricky Stuntman, and the long-running Trackmania series – but we’ll give the belt to Hard Drivin’ here, because its wild loops and cutting-edge polygonal graphics were like nothing gamers had seen before.
21: Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition (2006)
California’s Angel Studios (which became Rockstar San Diego in 2002) deserves a stack of credit for being a pioneer of open world racing; after all, the studio created the Midtown Madness, Smuggler’s Run, and Midnight Club series.
Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition was the first time the series would feature licensed cars, however, and its array of vehicles was almost as diverse as its killer soundtrack. More than that, though, its gameplay was rough, rugged, and thrilling; DUB Edition had a superb sense of speed as you gunned towards the next smoke-signal checkpoint, flinging your car sideways around corners as you fanged through the dense traffic of the game’s three sprawling cities.
Special abilities distinguished it further, letting you barge cars out of the way or thread the needle through tricky traffic in slow-motion, while extensive, delightfully bling customisation options were the icing on a cake like no other. No wonder Midnight Club 3 is regarded as one of the top racers of the PS2 and original Xbox era.
20: Colin McRae Rally (1998)
1994’s SEGA Rally Championship is an unconditional legend of off-road arcade racing. With its fantastic force feedback and pioneering simulation of mixed surfaces, sitting in a SEGA Rally cabinet was like little else for enthusiastic arcade visitors.
SEGA Rally Championship would make its way to Saturn and PC in the following years, but it would be an earnest imitator from Codemasters in 1998 that would subsequently grab the rally gauntlet – and it hasn’t let go since.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20Colin%20McRae%20Rally%20series%20has%20never%20been%20the%20only%20rally%20racer%20on%20the%20block%20but%20it%20has%20become%20the%20definition%20of%20rally%20games”]The Colin McRae Rally series has never been the only rally racer on the block but it has become the definition of rally games, from its genre-leading beginnings to its reinvention as the Dirt franchise.
With input from McRae himself, plus route notes from McRae’s experienced co-driver Nicky Grist, punishingly tricky stages, and service areas for limited car repairs, the original Colin McRae Rally was stern and serious in a way SEGA Rally was not. It was really the first modern rally sim.
There’s no shortage of top-notch rally games, from Eden’s fun and frantic V-Rally 2 and its addictive track editor to Warthog’s brutal Richard Burns Rally, which still has an active modding community to this day, but the Flying Scotsman’s iconic digital debut is hard to top.
19: Trials HD (2009)
Part racing game, part puzzle platformer, Trials HD is a bitter competition against the clock (and your closest friends).
Following in the tyre tracks of early motorcycle trial games like Kikstart II, Trials HD is set on a series of increasingly dangerous, side-scrolling, makeshift motorcycle trial courses that got tougher and tougher.
Heavy on physics and light on forgiveness, Trials HD was actually developer RedLynx’s third game in the series (it had begun life almost a decade earlier) but its much-publicised arrival on Xbox Live Arcade saw Trials HD turn into a bit of a phenomenon.
With a small needle on-screen representing your friends’ times relative to your current run, it was certainly possible to lose countless evenings chasing your invisible friends as they hovered just hundredths of a second in front of you. Seriously, watching that needle nudge just in front of your bike at the last moment was an emotionally sapping experience. The only way you could be more haunted by a friend’s ghost would be if they actually died and came back to rearrange your furniture while you were out.
18: F1 2020 (2020)
Open wheel racing is really the pinnacle of motorsport, and Formula 1 games in particular have flourished throughout multiple generations, advancing dramatically alongside hardware improvements.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Formula%201%20games%20in%20particular%20have%20flourished%20throughout%20multiple%20generations”]To take nothing away from UK Formula Three game Revs (released on the BBC Micro in 1984 and on Commodore 64 the following year and generally regarded as the first true racing simulator) and Papyrus’ legendary IndyCar games, it’s Formula 1 that has seen the lion’s share of top-notch virtual open wheel racing over the decades. There’s Microprose’s fabled Formula One Grand Prix and Grand Prix 2 (from celebrated racing game design guru Geoff Crammond), and Papyrus’ punishing portrayal of the 1967 Grand Prix season in the exalted Grand Prix Legends. There are also the much-loved Murray Walker-packed Psygnosis/Bizarre Creations games of the late ’90s, as well as EA’s somewhat forgotten but fantastic F1 Challenge ’99-’02 (don’t be turned off by the EA Sports branding; these games were developed by Image Space Incorporated, the studio that would go on to create rFactor using these F1 games as the bedrock).
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But while there’ll likely be an even better one next year, it’s hard to look past the current zenith of Codemasters’ popular and long-running current stewardship: F1 2020. The best looking and best handling Codemasters F1 game to date, it’s also the deepest, with players able to follow in the footsteps of greats like Sir Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren and build their own personal race teams around them.
F1 2020 is an immensely polished portrayal of a modern motorsport, taking the world of traditional racing sims and placing it alongside chart-topping sports series like FIFA and NBA 2K.
17: Mashed (2005)
Two words define Mashed, an isometric, sixth generation multiplayer racer that barely made a blip on the radar back in the mid-noughties: Polar Wharf.
Polar Wharf, a deceivingly dastardly set of two slippery straights connected by a pair of punishing hairpins, is the Mashed track. Halo has Blood Gulch, GoldenEye has Facility, and Mashed has Polar Wharf. There aren’t actually that many tracks in Mashed but it’s of no consequence, because Polar Wharf is the only one that matters. It’s the glue that binds Mashed fans together and the only car combat colosseum any multiplayer Mashed session needs. If you’ve never battled three mates on this frozen, friendship-shattering circuit, you’re missing out.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=If%20you%E2%80%99ve%20never%20battled%20three%20mates%20on%20this%20frozen%2C%20friendship-shattering%20circuit%2C%20you%E2%80%99re%20missing%20out”]Polar Wharf is really a spiritual remake of a track called Turbo Turns in 1994’s Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament, a bona fide post-pub classic of multiplayer mayhem. However, Micro Machines 2 and Mashed were both developed by Supersonic Software, so you can hardly fault the team there for cribbing from their own best ideas (Supersonic’s Mashed successor Wrecked: Revenge Revisited also features the track under the moniker Ice Bridge).
Mashed is a slightly less frantic version of the otherwise wonderful Micro Machines formula (a lap of Turbo Turns could be completed by an expert in around eight seconds; Polar Wharf is nowhere near as lightning-paced as that) so it’s a little more suitable for folks five pints down nursing half a chicken kebab on their knee as they compete. With full credit to the top-down pioneer that inspired it, there’s basically no matching the near supernatural allure of Mashed’s seemingly unremarkable yet endlessly entertaining Polar Wharf.
16: Ridge Racer (1993)
There was a time when Ridge Racer was as regular as clockwork and the series was a rock-solid staple of Sony platform launches. The original PlayStation, the PS2, PS3, PSP, and PS Vita all arrived with a Ridge Racer game in tow. Hell, even the Nintendo DS and Xbox 360 couldn’t escape the clutches of a day one Ridge Racer, such was this darling of drift’s love of latching onto new hardware.
Since the launch of 2012’s good but ultimately ill-fated (and non-traditional) Ridge Racer Unbounded, the Ridge Racer series has faded from focus – but that doesn’t detract from the mark on history made by the impressive original.
Hitting Japanese arcades in 1993 and working its way to the west in ’94, Ridge Racer found itself mano a mano with SEGA’s Daytona USA, a game destined for its own place in arcade folklore. However, while Daytona USA’s legend would remain largely rooted in the arcade world, Ridge Racer’s console port brought that arcade action home, stunning gamers used to shelling out fistfuls of coins for the same experience at their local arcade or bowling alley.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Ridge%20Racer%E2%80%99s%20console%20port%20brought%20that%20arcade%20action%20home%2C%20stunning%20gamers%20used%20to%20shelling%20out%20fistfuls%20of%20coins%20for%20the%20same%20experience%20at%20their%20local%20arcade%20or%20bowling%20alley”]Ridge Racer may have only consisted of one track (plus extension, both of which could be raced forwards, backwards, and mirrored), but it felt like a vision of gaming’s future – brash, stunningly pretty (at the time), and energetic. There simply wasn’t anything as satisfying as weaving through the pack before drifting around a corner at the perfect angle, losing zero speed before regaining grip and speeding towards the next bend you’d fully committed to muscle memory.
The course took you screaming along city freeways, through yellow-strobing tunnels, careening up and around a hill before speeding down and along the water’s edge. Azure skies gave way to night and the windows in the roadside buildings lit up, all while a thumping rave soundtrack assaulted your ears and tyres screeched. It felt like the product of a whole new era… and it was in your house.
Ridge Racer sired a long list of offspring (including the much-loved Ridge Racer Type 4) but there’s no ignoring the greatness of the rapid, razor-sharp original.
15: iRacing (2008)
Following in the footsteps of defunct PC racing simulation kings Papyrus (the developers of the highly-influential Indianapolis 500: The Simulation, the illustrious Grand Prix Legends, and fan-favourite NASCAR Racing 2003 Season), iRacing was established as a subscription-based simulation racing service by Papyrus co-founder David Kaemmer and billionaire sports team owner John W. Henry. It began life using the code from Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing 2003 Season as a foundation, but virtually everything in there was quickly updated or changed entirely, and iRacing has been in constant development since its launch.
While it isn’t as approachable as other racing simulations, and its subscription-based model means the cost is significantly greater than buying single racing sims outright, iRacing has certainly established itself as much of the motorsport industry’s virtual racer of choice. 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic even saw iRacing go prime time, with professional racers from a number of major, high-profile categories competing from their homes using iRacing in televised virtual series while tracks were closed worldwide. In fact, motorsport was about the only sport that could proceed in a manner even close to normal, thanks in large part to iRacing.
There are a number of high-quality and commercially successful racing games on the market that excel against iRacing in their own ways. There’s the mod-friendly nature of PC darling Assetto Corsa, the incredible spectrum of weather scenarios present in the excellent Project CARS 2, the unsurpassed selection of global automobiles available in Forza Motorsport 7, and the hugely-robust online racing experience available in Gran Turismo Sport, but iRacing continues to appeal to its loyal users, which range from amateur hobbyists to famous, real-life racing drivers.
Dedicated subscribers – which have surged by 50% this year on the back of a wave of pandemic-related publicity – will likely be loath to call it a game, but iRacing is a very important part of the virtual racing conversation.
14: OutRun (1986)
Following its success with Hang-On and Enduro Racer, Sega switched back to four wheels for OutRun. A sharp departure from Namco’s successful Pole Position formula, OutRun eschewed F1-style open-wheelers for the raked gills of a Ferrari Testarossa and opted for exotic, sun-drenched European streets over bland and mostly barren racetracks. The results were iconic.
OutRun creator Yu Suzuki regards 1986’s Out Run as a “driving game” rather than a “racing game.” However, while it’s a subtle but important distinction for Suzuki, OutRun is still very much a classic, race-against-the-clock experience. OutRun proved to be a hugely influential force on the genre, and traces of OutRun DNA can be found in series like Test Drive, Need for Speed, Project Gotham Racing, and Burnout. Even modern big-ticket racers like the Forza Horizon games are still, in a lot of ways, respectful nods to the spirit of the original OutRun: expensive car, gorgeous open road, foot to the firewall.
With selectable “radio stations”, undulating tracks, and a killer cockpit-style cabinet, the innovative and extraordinarily successful OutRun was unlike any racing game out there in 1986.
13: Test Drive: Unlimited (2006)
Stunningly ahead of its time, developer Eden’s Test Drive: Unlimited delivered a vast, open world driving MMO to market before we even knew we wanted it.
Set on a 1:1 recreation of Oahu, TDU’s grand road network dwarfed its limited competition at the time. Whether you were after high-speed racing or aimless cruising, TDU was the place to be. It also nailed the sense of ownership of your vehicles, which needed to be purchased from specific dealers spread around the island and stored in the limited spaces at your properties.
While some racers focus on short blasts of fun, TDU was at its best during its lengthy car delivery missions and its epic full island events, like The Millionaire’s Challenge – a complete lap of Oahu that must be completed within 60 minutes.
Emerging at the dawn of the Xbox 360 era, TDU’s muted and sometimes murky appearance was eventually eclipsed by its glossy spiritual successor Forza Horizon – which arrived at the tail end of the generation – but there’s no doubt Playground Games’ open world opus was standing on the shoulders of Eden’s earlier masterpiece.
12: Pole Position (1982)
Pole Position may not be quite as celebrated as Namco’s iconic puck-faced pill popper but this racing relic is more than just one of the biggest games of its era; it’s without doubt one of the most influential and important racing games ever made.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%5BPole%20Position%20is%5D%20without%20doubt%20one%20of%20the%20most%20influential%20and%20important%20racing%20games%20ever%20made”]While Sega’s Turbo in 1981 is generally regarded as the first car racing game to feature the now-ubiquitous chase cam view, it was the lower-slung third-person view from Pole Position that became de rigueur across the entire racing genre.
Pole Position didn’t stop there, however; several more of the racing genre’s most central conventions were first established by this high-speed classic. It introduced qualifying, checkpoints, and was the first racing game to feature a real-life race track (although the primitive rendition of Fuji Speedway in Japan is a little hard to recognise). The immense success of Pole Position, which was the highest-grossing arcade game in North America in 1983, cemented the genre in place for decades to come and inspired a horde of other racing games to follow in its slipstream.
11: WipEout 2097 (1996)
There was a time when you couldn’t hurl a hoverboard into a games store without knocking over a pile of futuristic racing games. F-Zero, Rollcage, Star Wars Episode I: Racer, Motorhead, Extreme-G, Jet Moto, and many more. Sadly, the further we creep into the future the fewer futuristic racing games we seem to be getting.
There’s one series in particular that hovers just above the rest, however, and that’s WipEout.
Developed by legendary Liverpudlian studio Psygnosis, the original WipEout was a European launch title for the first PlayStation. It was like nothing players had ever seen before: a punishing, high-speed rollercoaster of a racing game for the rave generation. But its follow-up, WipEout 2097 (known as WipEout XL in Japan and North America), was where this anti-grav superstar really hit its stride.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=A%20punishing%2C%20high-speed%20rollercoaster%20of%20a%20racing%20game%20for%20the%20rave%20generation”]Faster and more adversarial than the original, WipEout 2097’s extensive Red Bull branding was a little naff, but its soundtrack – featuring the likes of Prodigy, Underworld, The Future Sound of London, and The Chemical Brothers – was very much of the moment and incredible, as was its colourful, stylish aesthetic.
And where the original game punished every little mistake, in 2097 you could let it ride a lot more, grinding the sides of the track instead of coming to a dead stop. This breathed even more life into the series’ signature air brakes, which gave real nuance to the control, letting players do everything from strafe through slalom sections to whip around the tightest hairpins at breakneck pace. Mastery of WipEout 2097’s tracks at the highest speed class took a hell of a lot of practice… but was a thing of beauty if you could pull it off.
10: Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2005)
While some racing purists may look down upon EA’s long-running Need for Speed series as mainstream bunk, there’s no avoiding the fact that no other racing franchise this side of Mario Kart comes close to matching the monumental success of NFS over the past 25 years.
And while it’s true there have been a few turkeys along the way, there are a host of genuinely great instalments in the NFS series. It’s definitely a photo finish, but 2005’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted has demonstrated a consistent ability to remain the barometer against which most other Need for Speed games are judged, and that gets it over the line first here.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Need%20for%20Speed%3A%20Most%20Wanted%20has%20demonstrated%20a%20consistent%20ability%20to%20remain%20the%20barometer%20against%20which%20most%20other%20Need%20for%20Speed%20games%20are%20judged”]After the firm cult-favourite Hot Pursuit 2 in 2002 and the tuner-focused soft-reboot of the series in 2003 with the much-loved Underground, Most Wanted was the first successful combination of the two pillars of NFS. It merged the two worlds of Need for Speed: high-speed cop chases in achingly-expensive exotic supercars, plus a roster of highly-customisable, mass market hatches and sports cars that appealed to regular revheads.
The result was a ridiculously fun arcade racer crammed with intense police pursuits, but it was also a game designed to push players into forging lasting relationships with their in-game rides – most notably a unique blue and silver BMW E46 M3 GTR that has since become the most iconic car the series has ever produced.
9: TOCA Race Driver 3 (2006)
If you’re in Germany you may remember this as DTM Race Driver 3, and if you’re in Australia you may remember it as V8 Supercars 3. Of course, for those of you in the UK, it was TOCA Race Driver 3, although you may remember it didn’t actually feature the British Touring Car Championship despite clinging onto the name.
At any rate, Race Driver 3 was stuffed with official championships – including DTM, V8 Supercars, and IndyCar from the US – plus a mountain more, from sprint cars to Formula 3, and GT racing to monster trucks. You could spend all morning conquering Mount Panorama in a V8 Supercar and all afternoon manhandling a massive supertruck around Oran Park and you wouldn’t have scratched the surface of what’s available in Race Driver 3. Hell, you wouldn’t have even left the state, much less Australia. There was a literal world of motorsport waiting for players here for those with the stamina to unlock it.
The spirit of Race Driver 3 lives on in various games, from hard-core favourites like iRacing to Assetto Corsa’s thriving mod scene, to standalone racers like Forza Motorsport 7 and Project CARS 2, with the former brimming with modern and historical cars clad in their official liveries and the latter with the broadest set of tracks in the category – but it’s not quite the same as Race Driver 3’s one-stop speed shop.
8: Road Rash [CD-based versions] (1994/1996)
Road Rash had been kicking around on a variety of platforms since 1991, but it’s the later CD versions that left us with the greatest gravel rash. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater gets a lot of credit for kicking off a licensed soundtrack arms race in video games, but the CD versions of Road Rash – beginning with the 3DO in 1994 – were beating that drum several years before the Birdman.
After being knocked back from A&M Records, EA went after Seattle grunge gods Soundgarden directly, discovering the band were fans of the original Road Rash games and played them on their tour bus. Soundgarden were keen to embrace video games as a new way to pump some rock and or roll into the public’s earballs. After a little more legal to-and-fro, Soundgarden wanted to share the soundtrack slots with a bunch of their compatriots from A&M, so EA ended up with an armful of tight tracks from Soundgarden, Paw, Swervedriver, Monster Magnet, Therapy? and Hammerbox.
The result was the greatest soundtrack to ever wiggle into a set of leather pants.
Beneath the music, however, Road Rash remains a classic of quick and chaotic combat racing. Notoriously anti-social at the time for its mild-by-modern-standards violence, Road Rash is one of the most-memorable motorcycle games of all time.
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7: Street Rod (1989)
Perhaps best described as Need for Speed Underground meets American Graffiti by way of MS-DOS, Street Racer is arguably the sensei of all tuning games.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Street%20Racer%20is%20arguably%20the%20sensei%20of%20all%20tuning%20games”]Street Rod is set in the summer of 1963, right at the tail end of the hot rod era and the early days of the rise of the muscle car, which had begun to make it increasingly possible to pick up a dominant, street legal drag racer right off the lot.
Street Rod places a huge focus on built, not bought, and buying new parts and tinkering under the hood is a vital part of progression. There’s a slim story here, too; players have just the 12 weeks of summer to build a car capable of crushing The King in his black ’63 Corvette. But he won’t race just any random loser in some 20-year-old clunker with a fresh carburettor, and nor would you beat him if he did; you need to challenge and beat a cavalcade of other local car enthusiasts down at the burger joint to build up enough bank to put together a street machine that can rule the city.
Parts need to be purchased from the classifieds with money you earn from drag racing and street racing, and they even need to be mounted manually. For maximum performance cars have to be properly tuned too, and the ancient engine note will even change as you adjust the timing.
A lot of what we likely take for granted in contemporary “car-PG” tuning and racing games was hugely fresh and original in Street Rod, though it wasn’t afraid to punish players in ways games largely hesitate to do these days. Part doesn’t fit because you bought the wrong brand? Too bad, dummy. Blown your transmission? You’ll have to buy a new one. Wrecked your ride and can’t afford the cheapest car in the classifieds? Game over, sucker. You even have to keep your cars topped up with fuel.
6: Driver: San Francisco (2011)
Driver: San Francisco is possibly one of the most under-appreciated and unique driving/racing games ever made, though it’s also one of the weirdest. Placing the main character in a coma and setting the bulk of the action in a dream-state where he has the supernatural ability to possess any other driver on the road sounds like an absurd detour from the established direction of the Driver series on paper, but in practice it’s incredibly entertaining.
Need to win a race? Do you stick with the nominated competitor’s car, or do you teleport into oncoming traffic to wreak havoc with the other racers? What other driving game would permit such lunacy?
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=What%20other%20driving%20game%20would%20permit%20such%20lunacy%3F”]The premise is preposterous but Ubisoft Reflections leans into it so earnestly and wholeheartedly that Driver: San Francisco remains charmingly goofy but never outright idiotic. The grab bag of licensed vehicles hides amongst it some of the most iconic car chase stars of all time (and homages to those famous silver screen sequences are hidden in the game). And the fastidiously assembled music mix of funk, rock, and soul is a perfect soundscape for pedal-stomping powerslides and tenacious pursuits.
It was a surprise technical titan, too; a buttery 60 frames per second was a priority for the single-player, and the team pulled out all the stops to achieve it while maintaining the ability to teleport all over the map and into NPC cars virtually instantly. There was even splitscreen multiplayer, in an open world, where both players could teleport at will. It’s bonkers.
There are certainly several strong candidates in this sub-genre, from the enormously influential original Driver and its regularly forgotten but quietly revolutionary follow-up, to old-school pursuit classics like Chase H.Q., but Driver: San Francisco is the king of dedicated car chase games.
5: Daytona USA (1993)
The fact that, to this day, Daytona USA machines are still resting proudly in arcades and bowling alleys the world over speaks volumes about the impact and importance of Sega’s all-conquering racing legend. Discovering an arcade without a Daytona USA machine is like walking into a pizzeria out of pepperoni. Baffling and culturally unacceptable.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Discovering%20an%20arcade%20without%20a%20Daytona%20USA%20machine%20is%20like%20walking%20into%20a%20pizzeria%20out%20of%20pepperoni”]Daytona USA, perhaps the most recognisable arcade racing game of all time and the highest-grossing sit-down cabinet ever, remains a shining example of arcade racing at its absolute purest, from the joy of judo chopping the invariably greasy gear knob from fourth to first to throw the #41 Hornet into a killer drift, to the gleeful and eternally infectious theme song composed and sung by the irrepressible Takenobu Mitsuyoshi. It also featured support for up to eight players, which regularly made this arcade king a bustling hub of constant competition.
Hitting arcades in 1993/1994 Daytona USA went head-to-head with Namco’s similarly cutting-edge Ridge Racer. Ridge Racer ultimately enjoyed the better home release conversion (and being on the explosively-successful PlayStation didn’t harm its fortunes) but on any list of arcade racing titans, Daytona USA truly has to be on top.
4: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017)
Who reigns supreme in a slugfest between history’s slickest kart racers is a matter of much subjectivity. Is it the original Super Mario Kart, the influential granddaddy of them all that singlehandedly established most of the tropes we associate with kart racing video games to this day? Is it Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing, which staunch fans will argue ran rings around Mario Kart 64 back in the late ’90s? Or is it a dark horse like Crash Team Racing, the derivative but extremely well-executed Sony facsimile of Nintendo’s winning formula that has since entrenched itself as a true connoisseur’s karting experience?
The answer is none of them, probably. Not when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe exists. The culmination of 25 years of kart racing experience, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is really the final say in karting in 2020 and the pinnacle of the franchise and the genre at large. It’s beautiful to behold, stuffed with racers and unlockables, and bursting at the seams with vibrant personality across its large set of lovingly-designed tracks that – as has become tradition in the series – span both originals and re-imaginings of classic circuits. The handling is responsive, the frame rate is buttery, and the powerslide mechanics are as good as they’ve ever been here, rewarding track knowledge and real skill, particularly on the higher CCs.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20culmination%20of%2025%20years%20of%20kart%20racing%20experience%2C%20Mario%20Kart%208%20Deluxe%20is%20really%20the%20final%20say%20in%20karting%20in%202020″]It offers up plenty of ways to play too, from Battle mode through to the relatively customisable (for Nintendo) VS Race mode, which lets players do things like race in teams and choose from a variety of item load-outs. The latter option makes for a particularly nice change from the game’s Grands Prix, in which players are actively punished for doing well, while those at the back of the pack are given a never-ending bounty of catch-up mechanisms. This mechanic, however – which has been a series bugbear for a long time – is entirely in service of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s ambition to be the ultimate family party game, and in this regard it really succeeds.
Yes, four-player spitscreen has been standard since Mario Kart 64 and yes, kids have had the (incorrect) option to steer with motion controls since Mario Kart Wii, but what Mario Kart 8 Deluxe does so well is to take important additional steps to level the playing field. In this game, assists like auto acceleration and smart steering ensure that absolutely everyone can get in on the action and have a blast. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe isn’t just the best kart racer ever, it’s the most welcoming too.
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3: Forza Horizon 3 (2016)
The Forza Horizon games are really the gold standard in modern open world racing. Every one of them is amongst the most critically-acclaimed racing games of the current era; they are, without doubt, the mainstream racers to beat.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20Forza%20Horizon%20games%20are%20really%20the%20gold%20standard%20in%20modern%20open%20world%20racing”]However, while Forza Horizon 4 remains a remarkable addition to the series thanks to its shifting seasons and incredible post-launch support (well over 100 new cars have been added to game over the past two years for free), upon reflection it’s the simply superb Forza Horizon 3 that we find ourselves looking back upon especially fondly.
The reason isn’t the amazing garage, though it is undoubtedly an impeccably-curated selection of cars from all corners of car culture – including some corners that almost all other racers traditionally ignore. To be honest, the entire Forza brand’s egalitarian approach to car selection has probably been the best in the business since the much-loved Forza Motorsport 4.
No, the reason is the world itself. Yes, Forza Horizon 4’s Edinburgh is far and away the best and most beautiful city depicted in the series to date – and a far nicer place to cruise and explore than Forza Horizon 3’s Surfers Paradise – but beyond that high-rise, urban metropolis Horizon 3’s map is a terrific tapestry of extremely varied landscapes plucked from all across the land down under. There’s a quiet coastal town, flanked by picturesque beaches and rolling, windswept paddocks. There’s a damp and dense rainforest that gives way to rural vineyards. Drive a little further and you’ll find yourself in the red dust of Australia’s iconic outback. It’s the most varied world in the series, and that’s before you include its two high-quality expansions: Blizzard Mountain, a terrific, snow-covered take on the Australian Alps that brought a drastically different new dimension of driving to the Forza Horizon experience, and Hot Wheels, an absolutely barnstorming detour from the largely-grounded world of Forza Horizon that gave us a tropical paradise of life-sized loops, launchers, and large lizards.
Forza Horizon is a series informed by many others, from the open world wackiness established and embraced by Midnight Club and Midtown Madness, to the joy of endless cruising present in Test Drive: Unlimited, and the incentivisation of creative driving imbued in Bizarre’s wonderful but defunct Project Gotham Racing series. However, it’s this killer cocktail of ingredients that’s made the Horizon series an absolute smash hit.
2: Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (2001)
No conversation about great racing games is complete without bowing to the godfather of all console racing sims: Gran Turismo.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=No%20conversation%20about%20great%20racing%20games%20is%20complete%20without%20bowing%20to%20the%20godfather%20of%20all%20console%20racing%20sims%3A%20Gran%20Turismo”]Series creator Kazunori Yamauchi expected the original Gran Turismo to be a niche game: a curio for hard-core car aficionados like himself. Instead, Gran Turismo redefined what gamers could expect from a racing game and went on to be the single best-selling game on the original PlayStation and more or less the blueprint upon which even today’s console racing sims are still based.
Exactly what defines greatness in the context of Gran Turismo is tricky, however. While the original is one of the most influential racing games ever made, Gran Turismo Sport is home to arguably the most robust online racing environment currently on consoles.
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, literally, as it’s a little hard to look past the monumental arrival of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, the best-selling game in the franchise. Do you remember watching the intro movies for GT and GT2 and wishing the game actually looked like that?
Now remember booting up GT3 and realising Polyphony had achieved just that.
The generation jump had left it with a slimmer car selection than the fabulous Gran Turismo 2, and it would go on to be outmatched by the equally fabulous GT4, but GT3 arrived on PS2 shortly after the console’s launch, ushering in a new era of racing with never-before-seen levels of fidelity. Everything about GT3 hit the mark, from the series-best soundtrack to the always-unstoppable Suzuki Escudo.
1: Burnout 3: Takedown (2004)
It’s been 16 years since Criterion’s Burnout 3: Takedown arrived, and in that 16 years the games industry hasn’t produced a better arcade racer.
The universally-acclaimed and utterly timeless Burnout 3: Takedown is the ultimate expression of high-octane, no-holds-barred arcade racing, and it remains a fun and ferocious experience that’s as playable today as it was in 2004.
This is Burnout at its peak. The sumptuous and silky-smooth visuals were a significant step up from the already good-looking Burnout 2. The racing is pure and precise, Crash Mode is brilliant, and the high-energy pop-punk soundtrack is a time capsule for the early 2000s. The mild drivel of DJ Stryker may date the audio a little, but elsewhere it’s pitch perfect. Just listen for the satisfyingly mechanical clunk of even a simple gear shift; it sounds like Robocop swallowing a nail gun.
But it’s the Road Rage mode, where the titular takedowns are key, in which this arcade racing masterpiece shines brightest. Many have attempted to replicate the feeling of Burnout 3’s crunching collisions. Few have succeeded.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Many%20have%20attempted%20to%20replicate%20the%20feeling%20of%20Burnout%203%E2%80%99s%20crunching%20collisions.%20Few%20have%20succeeded”]The immediate follow-up, Burnout Revenge, was a fine game in its own right but it introduced what it called “traffic-checking” – which was the ability to plough through cars travelling in the same direction as you. This sent NPC drivers skittling out of your path as you continued your charge, unabated. Unfortunately, this diluted the dynamics of Burnout’s twitchy but rewarding brand of weaving through traffic at wild speeds and it didn’t feel like Burnout should. Burnout Paradise, an extremely firm fan favourite and the beneficiary of a well-received remaster in 2018, took Burnout into an open world. It remains an excellent racer, too, but as one of the highest-rated racers in history, Burnout 3: Takedown doesn’t just sit amongst the most revered racing games the industry has produced – it’s one of the greatest and most-acclaimed games ever.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter sporadically @MrLukeReilly.