Racing games have come a long way since their debut in the mid-1970s. Today the genre is best known for its beautiful visuals and realistic gameplay, but this was not always the case. After all, before Quake 3D games were few and far between so racing game developers had to figure out what other perspectives they could use. Let’s have a dive into the history of racing games, their humble beginnings, and how the genre grew from its origins to the colossus it is today.
Gran Trak 10 (1974)
Whilst Atari’s Space Race technically released in 1973, arcade racer Gran Trak 10 is widely accepted as the first true racing game. A difficult title to get your hands on today, this 46-year-old racing game was truly ahead of its time. Gran Trak 10 had full manual controls for gearing and possessed staggeringly smooth driving mechanics for the time. The majority of games from the 1970s have aged appallingly, just look at Spasim or Colossal Cave Adventure. Yet Gran Trak 10 still feels smooth even by 2019’s standards.
Of course, its visually very simple but I can still appreciate how easy it is to follow what’s happening on screen. Gran Trak 10 even managed to have a skill curve in an age where the idea of eSports wasn’t even comprehensible yet. Posting fast laps requires precision cornering, accurate gear timing and, perhaps most impressively, good use of the optimal racing line. These are all skills that we now see tested in modern simulation racing games. Gran Trak 10 is, without doubt, one of the greats of early video game history alongside other vintage classics like Pong and Space Invaders.
Out Run (1986)
Whilst isometric, top-down racers were still very much relevant, the new hardware of the 1980s enabled perspectives that newer gamers are likely more familiar with. It was 1976’s Night Run that first used the now genre established chase-cam, but I would credit SEGA’s Out Run as being the game that made it mainstream. Out Run has always been a classic of its era thanks to those gorgeous, colorful visuals and that timeless Ferrari Testarossa Spider. Speaking of which, Out Run is also significant for being the first racing game to feature a licensed car and has since gone on to be synonymous with Ferrari itself.
It received hit reviews when released but more impressively is just how well it has aged. You may think that stepping into the 3D world so early on would set up Out Run to look ugly by today’s standards. In the age of ray tracing, how could a game released over three decades still expect to hold up? I’m not sure, but they pulled it off. Proof of how well it has aged can be seen with the recent Switch port which averaged an impressive 84 on Metacritic even today. Outside of some resolution tweaking and general visual refinery, the Switch port is still at its core the same game. Even so, people love it as much as ever. Nintendolife describes Out Run as “the greatest, most influential arcade racing game ever made.” There’s not much more praise than that.
R.C. PRO-AM (1987)
The United Kingdom shares a rich culture of history with racing. Some of the greatest drivers of all-time including Graham Hill, Jim Clark, and Colin McRae all had British blood flowing through them. It makes sense then that it would a small group of plucky British developers from the outskirts of little-known Leicester that would be responsible for the next truly iconic racing game. Whilst is perhaps better known for Banjo Kazooie now, Rare’s early years were spent creating exclusives for Nintendo. Handed a huge budget by the Japanese console giant, Rare got to work in developing a feature racing game for the NES.
R.C. PRO-AM deserves full credit for establishing a brand-new sub-genre of arcade racing games. By placing power-ups around the track and giving players the ability to take out other racers, racing and combat had become one. Of course, today we are all too familiar with this with games like Mario Kart but remember Super Mario Kart didn’t launch until as late as 1992. There’s no doubt that R.C. PRO-AM played a key role in Nintendo’s development direction for later Mario Kart titles.
Unlike the other two games mentioned here, R.C. PRO-AM feels strange to play today. The camera angle is a little too zoomed in and the truck’s handling offers very little in user feedback. Later isometric titles would do a much better job of perfecting how to implement it whilst Rare would move away from racing games almost entirely. Micro Machines is likely the pinnacle of isometric racers but won’t feature on this list as it didn’t do anything especially new. Just for clarity, I’m talking about the earlier titles like Micro Machines V3 rather than the embarrassment of a reboot Codemasters gave us with World Series. The less said about that, the better.
Colin McRae Rally (1998)
It was around the late 1990s that simulation racers began to attract interest. Likely due to technological limitations, most driving games through the 70s and 80s were unrealistic, arcade racers focused primarily at a casual audience. As gaming became more mainstream and technology developed significantly, the thoughts of offering a more realistic driving experience naturally followed. With Gran Turismo and NASCAR Racing 2 already on the market, asphalt simulation racing was beginning to suffer from an overly crowded market. If Codemasters wanted to sell a successful racing game with such fierce competition they had to think outside the box.
Ask racing fans what the most entertaining motorsport on the planet is to watch and a good percentage will give the same answer. Rally. The huge jumps, drifting near cliff faces and unpredictable, unforgiving terrain all add up for quite the spectacle. You have to be the best of the best to even stand a chance of staying on the track. Only the absolute elite go on to be remembered in the history books. Of course, gamers wanted to experience this thrill for themselves but actually going out and getting a professional rally license is kind of hard. So, what’s the alternative? A rally simulation racing game of course.
Codemasters released Colin McRae Rally in 1998 to universal praise. Whilst not by any means the first rally game, it was the first simulation rally game. Giving the players the power to drive some of the most iconic rally cars of the time like the Subaru Impreza WRC and Lancia Delta Integrale was a brilliant idea. By this point car licensing was becoming a standard of racing games but going one step further and licensing non-road legal cars was something completely new. Honestly, the first Colin McRae title was rough around the edges, but later titles would elevate Codemasters’ now hit rally series to great heights. A wonderful series named in honor of a legendary driver that was taken before his time.
Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (2001)
There’s something special to admire about just how complete a game earlier Gran Turismo titles were. If we were to ban MMOs from consideration, then the competition for the most content filled game of all time would be a stand-off between two racers. Gran Turismo 3 and Gran Turismo 4. That alone shows how in form Polyphony Digital was throughout the 2000s. Gran Turismo 4 is my personal favorite but if its impact on the genre we’re considering then GT3: A-Spec is, without doubt, the most impactful racing game ever made.
With over 180 cars and 20 circuit locations, including a refreshing mix of asphalt and off-roading events, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec is content packed. As per its predecessors, the aim is to complete the story mode and collect as many cars as possible. You have to work your way through specific license tests to enter later events. The Any% category for GT3 takes even the most efficient speed runner in excess of 5 hours. That’s with several skip exploits to speed things up too. If you fancy tackling a true 100% run instead then you’re looking at in excess of 150 hours at a minimum assuming you never lose a race.
It’s clear that Gran Turismo 3 is regarded by critics as one of the greatest video games of all time. Sitting at a comfy 95 on Metacritic, Gran Turismo 3 is on the top 20 list of all-time game scores. It shares its metascore with other legendary titles of the 2000s like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2. For years after its release, the standard for racing game design would be the very car collection focused gameplay Gran Turismo invented. Most racing game series including Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing owe Gran Turismo for their existence.
Road Trip Adventure (2002)
Consider this a wildcard entry to this list. By no means as popular as any other title featured here, Road Trip Adventure is as iconic as they come to those who are in the know. A self-described ‘CaRPG’, Road Trip Adventure is a breathtakingly unique game that merges JRPG mechanics with an open world racing game. Just the idea of an open-world racer is pretty revolutionary for 2002 considering Test Drive Unlimited wouldn’t release until 2006 and Forza Horizon as late as 2012. Japanese designer Etsuhiro Wada wasn’t willing to stop there though.
Road Trip Adventure has the user go on a quest to become the new president after it is announced the current president has declared the next World Grand Prix winner will take his spot. Certainly, an interesting way to elect a new leader. To be fair, had America used this I doubt Trump would ever have gotten elected so maybe there’s some democratic value in there. As you go from city to city, exploring the world to find hidden chests and talk to the hundreds of sentient cars in the world, you also work your way through the various Grand Prix events. As with most JRPG styled games, you have to grind for better equipment, or car parts, in this case, working your way up for a crack at that sweet president spot. Once you and your teammates have won the World Grand Prix you earn a right to challenge the existing president. Win that and the crown is all yours.
Road Trip features on this list for being the racing game with the most personality ever made. Fascinatingly innovative, taking Choro-Q licensed vehicles and shoving them into a driving RPG with talking cars just isn’t something a developer would do these days. Perhaps it’s a little controversial to say this but I feel racing games have lacked in originality for the last decade or so.
Choosing exactly what racing games should feature here wasn’t easy. My original draft had over twice as many titles, but I felt like that didn’t give me the opportunity to provide the very best racing games a suitable enough platform. The reality is we get a Forza Motorsport 7 or Project CARS almost every year and whilst these are impressive titles in their own right, they aren’t revolutionizing the genre.
No games are anymore, unfortunately. Developers have been keeping things safe for some time now and until we go back to those high risk, high reward plays, no truly great racing games will be made. Other honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list are F-Zero, Forza Motorsport 4, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Test Drive Unlimited, Daytona USA and Ridge Racer.