For as long as there have been video games, there have been racing games, and no other genre has served as a bellwether for the medium in the same way. Things have come a long way since Atari released the 2D Speed Race in 1974, and not just in graphic performance. The spectrum of racing games has expanded with the performance capacity of consoles, and their ability to thrill gamers and audiences remains unmatched. Ride along with us as we delve into the greatest car and racing games over the past few decades.
Some people had smart fathers who didn’t let them drive the family car. Those dads probably did responsible things like feed their kids home-cooked meals instead of McDonald’s, and instead of letting them be an accessory to a crime, they sat them down in a Daytona USA arcade game. Little did they know that they were giving their children their first doses of speed. You knew we meant velocity, right?
How could an arcade game released in 1994 be one of the greatest car games on a 2017 list? Check out your local arcade. There’s probably a Daytona USA box still raking it in for Sega. At a time when Star Fox was considered the zenith of video game graphics, the visuals were out of control and totally immersive. You needed a moment to steady yourself when you finally stepped out of the box, like you’d actually been whipping around at 200 mph. Daytona USA set a high bar for everything that would come after it, which basically makes it the Beatles of car and racing games.
Gran Turismo 3
There’s a watershed moment in every young person’s life when they discover that sex and romance aren’t as gross as previously believed. For anyone born around 1985, it might have happened when they saw Britney Spears in “Hit Me Baby One More Time” or Justin Timberlake in “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Similarly, there’s a moment in many young person’s lives when they discover that cars inspire a strangely similar feeling to seeing Britney (or Justin) – and that moment probably came while playing a game from the Gran Turismo franchise.
Gran Turismo is, for most, the premiere racing simulator for car enthusiasts, and the apex of the series was undeniably GT3: A-Spec. It had the perfect ratio of realistic and challenging, with races ranging from minutes to hours on both dirt and pavement, and the cars were rendered perfectly. And speaking of the cars, the catalogue was endless and beautifully rendered. You’d start with something your mom would drive, like a Ford Tempo, customize and improve it piece by piece until you could afford a better car, which you’d soup up until you finally reached your dream car, only to find out you kinda prefer your ridiculous Tempo. Gran Turismo was great because you’d rent it on Friday thinking that Dodge Vipers were the coolest cars in the world, and by Sunday you’d forsaken anything that wasn’t built in Japan or central Europe. It made you into a bit of a car snob, but considering that it’s one of the bestselling games of all time, you’re in good company.
Forza Horizon 3
There’s a lot of debate about whether Forza has dethroned Gran Turismo as the best racing simulator on the market, but these two games definitely aren’t meant for the same audiences. While Gran Turismo is undoubtedly for those obsessed with cars from their build to their history, Forza is really more about the pleasure of watching very pretty cars do borderline impossible things.
The franchise is almost smug in its reliable greatness, and it’s easy to see why. Each installment takes the term “visually stunning,” carries it to the top of a mountain, and launches it into space. However, where the Motorsport series is basically Gran Turismo in an open world, the Horizon series takes all the beauty and optimized physics of its realistic counterpart and throws it on its head.
There are fewer cars in the Forza series, particularly when compared to Gran Turismo, but Forza, particularly the Horizon series, is more focused on reaching a wider audience. Take your crazy awesome car and drive it around the open world, maybe even go off-road enough to get seriously lost in the wilderness. The races are as much about doing tricks and jumps and breaking speed records as they are about winning the race. And there are Hot Wheels levels, with flaming hoops and loop-the-loops. ‘Nuff said.
For the majority of people who will never be able to afford a pilot’s license, the joy of flight simulators is the chance to experience all variety of planes and their navigational nuances. There are no races to win, no items to find, just a new tool to learn, in an ideal environment to test it. And for the majority of people who will never have the opportunity to drive an Alfa Romeo or a Bentley, there is Assetto Corsa.
Italian for “racing setup,” Assetto Corsa is considered the premiere racing simulator for its laser-like focus on realism. Taking into account physics, accurate performance, and things you wouldn’t even think about like tire deformation, the level of detail that went into making sure this game is true to real life is absolutely mind-boggling. Where it fails is in actual gameplay. That is, the emphasis in the game’s title is the “set-up” part. It’s been described as both uninspiring and too hard, which for some renders it basically just a pretty encyclopedia of a somewhat limited number of cars. However, it was designed with extensive modding in mind, and since its release in 2014 it has undergone several updates that have fixed several of the simulator’s shortcomings. Players can even design their own cars and games to be imported. In the end, Assetto Corsa is a car simulator, not a racing game. But you’re also more likely to drive a Porsche than race in one, so it’s really just taking realism to the next level.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
If you’ve ever played Grand Theft Auto and wished there were fewer felonies and more actual cars, this game was made for you. One of the great aspects of this game is that it’s set in an open world, so instead of choosing races from a menu you have to get in your car and go to a rendezvous point, just like you’re a real-life street-racing criminal. It’s got one of the most extensive lines of licensed cars to choose from, and enables a wide range of customization. It sacrifices a bit of realism for a good time and an engrossing storyline, so if you like some drama with your irrationally souped-up Audi TT, look no further.
And if you’ve ever wanted to be in a car chase, Most Wanted really delivers. Whether you’re mid-race or just being a jerk to commuters, the cops are ready to take you down. The more notorious you get, the harder they try to stop you: Head-on collisions, swooping choppers, and some well-timed slo-mo when you slip past their patrol cars blocking the road. The game even keeps track of how much damage you’re doing to the police department, so you get the added satisfaction of knowing you’re costing them a lot of extra money.
And now for something completely different. F-Zero invented the futuristic racing genre – much to the surprise of everyone, including Nintendo. Its name was a play on Formula One, as it was supposed to be a leap in speed and reference the fact that these were hover cars – i.e., zero gravity. Was it realistic? Well, we don’t really know what racing will be like in the 24th century, but the cars really did handle like hover cars, and came with the added technique of leaning, literally tilting the car, to take tighter turns.
There have been quite a few installments to the franchise, but nothing quite lives up to the original. Today, many car and racing games are heavy on the specs and customization, and by the series’ completion it had over 40 different cars to choose from, but F-Zero kept it simple without it being boring. Only four cars that all handle totally differently from one another; all of 15 tracks with creepy, Blade-Runner-type settings and names like Sand Ocean and Silence that were just difficult enough to demand mastering; and a stereo soundtrack that was absolutely righteous, as if Rush were the primary musical influence of the last five centuries.
Destruction Derby 2
If you were a Legos kid, you know that the best part of any build, whether you kept it for a year or a minute, was smashing it into your other builds. When you shed Legos for video games, however, your options to scratch that destructive itch become suddenly limited. There’s a wide spectrum of battle racing games, from the child-safe Mario Kart to the semi-psychotic Twisted Metal, but they all have too much of a fantasy veneer to truly deliver the satisfaction of destroying something really expensive. The previously mentioned car and racing simulators are also not particularly keen on letting you destroy the cars they spent hours coding in intricate detail.
When it comes to wrecking up a car, nothing will ever really come close to Destruction Derby 2 for Playstation. It had a straight race option, and a battle race option, but the real joy was the demolition derby game. Just hit the accelerator and ram headlong into the nearest car. The graphics and physics were significantly improved over the first Destruction Derby, with more satisfying damage and exponentially more thrilling crashes. Did it get a little repetitive? Sure, but it worked best as a party pleaser or a breather after a frustrating round of a more realistic racer. Bust up a few dozen cars, cry into your pillow a little bit, and you’re ready to get back to the real world.