The 11 best racing games of the 1990s

11th February 2021
Ethan Jupp

The 1990s saw the proliferation of the personal home-based games console, all while local arcade gaming continued to flourish. It was a decade of disparate titles, styles of play and locations before everything streamlined and matured in the 2000s. Gaming also got more serious in the 1990s, with better graphics, better physics, more detail and bigger ambition. We go through the best racing games of the 1990s, from arcade legends like Sega Rally and Ridge Racer and long-lost franchises like Lotus Turbo Challenge, Road Rash, and Geoff Crammond Grand Prix, to console stalwarts that remain at the top of the pile three decades on, like Gran Turismo and Need For Speed.

Geoff Crammond Grand Prix – 1991

A big milestone on the way to the dream of a game that gives you a true F1 experience, was Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix. The franchise’s first entry arrived in 1991 for a run of five games spanning a decade.

Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix, or F1 GP for short, delivered for the first time something akin to realistic physics in 1991. Adjustable gear ratios, tyre compounds and wing settings were tunable and crucially, had a tangible effect on the way the game felt.

It also brought an incredible for-the-time frame rate of 25fps paired with impressive 3D graphics. In fact, the game was so graphically impressive and the way it was developed was so uncompromising, that it caused issues with many gamer’s PCs. Due to the fact the game would not throttle itself when pushing a computer’s CPU to its limits, lead to the so-called ‘slow-motion driving’ where the absence of a framerate drop meant the game would simply play slower in real time. Regardless, F1 GP and its sequels have their place in history as true pioneers of the simulator genre. Never mind the fact it wasn’t officially licenced, the liveries look good enough anyway.

If you love gaming, you’ll want to read out list of the nine best racing games of all time.

Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 – 1991

Ah, one-brand racing games. Remember those? Porsche, Ferrari – games dedicated to those names you’ve definitely heard of. Die-hard fans and shall we say, slightly older gamers, will be the ones shouting “don’t forget Lotus!”. Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge launched the series in 1990, with Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 arriving in 1991 with er, a more varied car selection. That’s to say, an Elan as well an Esprit.

While the sequel ditched fuel limits and difficulty levels, it added course based time trials in place of lap levels. Levels would alternate between Esprit and Elan, without a choice, and the sequel also allowed different colours for competitors. The Lotus Trilogy remained just that – a trilogy – with no sequels following the release of Lotus III in 1992, which incorporated elements of both of its predecessors with a couple of extra cars and a course creation system. The most accomplished series of racing games? Perhaps not but it’s oh-so ‘90s and for this list, embracing the theme is just as important.

Road Rash 1,2,3 – 1991, 1992, 1995

For bike lovers the Road Rash series, especially the first three releasing in 1991, 1992 and 1995, offered violent street racing two-wheeled action. It was Tekken meets Grand Prix. Locations ranged from California only in the first game, to branching out across the USA and eventually the rest of the world.

What the first game set in stone for lovers of the franchise was, firstly,  the two-player facility allowing you and a friend to progress through the game together and secondly, of course, the ability to whack your opponents. With each of the following two entries, new characters and even a choice of weapons joined the expanding roster of locations. Come Road Rash 3D’s release in 1998, the violence was toned down in favour of a focus on the racing. For fans of the early entries in the franchise, it was a loss of what Road Rash was all about.

Why not read our other list, the eight best racing games of the 2000s?

Super Mario Kart – 1992

Up to this point you might have struggled to remember the games we’ve mentioned. That changes now. What gamer doesn’t know what Super Mario Kart is? It’s ranked by many experts as one of the greatest video games of all time, while it also has the Guinness World Record for top console game of all time. We don’t need to explain much about what appealed about this game. Eight lovable playable characters, two-player multiplayer mode, competitive graphics for the time. More than anything, it’s the pure sense of fun. Everyone can get on board with that. This is probably why the Mario game franchise as a whole is the best-selling of all time.

Ridge Racer – 1993

Ridge Racer is an exemplary racing title typical of the 1990s, where the story was telling of the times and what was to come. The franchise, which continued long into the 2010s and to this day, started early on as an install on a Namco System 22 arcade machine. It’s the typical arcade racer, releasing first in October 1993, as it happens, ten days after I was born. That first game was then ported to the PlayStation as a launch title for the console. Yes, Ridge Racer was there for the first days of the games console as we know it today. If anyone remembers Ridge Racer Full Scale, they’ll remember the full-size Mazda MX-5 cabin they sat in at the arcade to play it. All of this aside, Ridge Racer had, throughout its various iterations, solid building blocks for an enduring racing title: good racing, cool locations, semi-recognisable cars not affiliated with any brands and a general prioritisation of fun.

Once you’ve finished gaming you can watch a film… Read our list of the best racing car movies of all time.

The Need For Speed – 1994

Now we’re really talking enduring titles, to the point that several entries from this series appeared in our 2000s games list, with the latest debuting in 2019. The first, however, was in 1994. Road and Track presents The Need for Speed sounds very distant from the titanic multi-entry franchise we know today. You did read that right, though. The first came with a splash of expertise from the American motoring publication. The collaboration between EA and R&T worked on the realism of cars, from their handling, even down to the realistic sound of the gearshift. With a selection of eight cars available, there was ‘magazine style’ video and photo content set to music showing them off in the menus. The gameplay? Typical NFS – that’s to say arcade-style racing, tickets, police, all the good stuff. It’s as you’d expect. Some parts of the formula have stayed consistent over the franchise’s near 30-year tenure. Here, however, is where it all began and it started strong.

Sega Rally Championship – 1994

Though console gaming has largely rendered the traditional arcade experience extinct in terms of the cut of the gaming pie it takes, some arcade titles are truly immortal. In the world of racing games, few can claim to have quite such an enduring place in its history as Sega Rally. Even now, almost 30 years on, the original endures in the minds of gamers. Generation Alpha, the kids born on or after 2010, are likely the first that are less likely to come across a Sega Rally installation somewhere or another. Even though I was just a year old when it appeared, ten, fifteen, 20 years on, they were always where you expected them and where you needed them to be.

Obviously, it wouldn’t have endured and we all wouldn’t have such good memories, if the game itself was no good. Sega Rally Championship gave gamers different surfaces and friction levels with as close to realistic handling dynamics as was possible at the time. The ‘World Championship’ mode presented three stages, in a desert, forest and mountain setting, with thee cars available. Two Lancias, – a Delta Group A and a Stratos, and a Toyota Celica GT-Four. As well as in the minds of most gamers and car enthusiasts alike, Sega Rally Championship is formally remembered. A number of outlets and experts cite it as one of the all-time great racing games, with some saying it’s one of the all-time great games generally. We won’t argue.

The seven best sim racing games. Don’t worry, there’s a rally game in here.

Gran Turismo – 1997

Gran Turismo. Need we say more? An obvious inclusion. In terms of graphics, car list, physics, sounds, it was on a completely new level when it rocked up in the closing days of 1997. Perhaps what speaks the most of the finished product is the fact that its creator, Kazunori Yamauchi, wasn’t actually satisfied. Even after five years of hard graft, sleepless nights and not going home. Today, his refusal to accept anything other than perfection is legendary. In the days prior to the release of GT1 in December 1997, it would have been make or break. Of course, the hard work paid off, with over six million units selling worldwide within its first three years on sale. Gran Turismo changed racing games forever.

Grand Prix Legends – 1998

From one of the great success stories in racing games, to a proper flop. Grand Prix Legends wasn’t unsuccessful because it was bad, though. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list. In part it earns its spot because of its concept and in part, its execution.

It was unique as an F1 game because it had nothing to do with contemporary racing. It looked back to the 1967 season, which happened just over 30 years prior to its release. Inspired by the 1966 movie Grand Prix, the developers were drawn to the racing environments of cars flying past houses and shops, which when put in a game, increased the sense of speed. Also considered were the, shall we say, more exciting handling characteristics of the 3.0-litre F1 cars from 1967. One of the unique challenges to making a game set in the past faithfully was tracks that no longer exist. They worked around this issue with schematics acquired from authorities local to where the tracks were.

The game was lauded critically for the reward it gives those who commit to learning it. Many who did buy it however, found it off-puttingly difficult. It was also a relatively niche subject matter which alienated enormous markets like North America, which in the ‘90s was at best casually interested in contemporary F1, let alone its history. Put it all together and you get a great game with massive appeal to a select few (many of whom are still loyal today) and very little to offer the masses. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a mention here.

Love F1? Of course you do. Read our list of the 10 best F1 games of all time here.

V-Rally, V-Rally 2 – 1999 Course maker

The V-Rally series of games, particularly V-Rally 2, were part of the ‘90s wave of rally love, together with Sega and the official WRC games. While Sega fostered the love and the WRC games were more hardcore, V-Rally straddled the line, to near perfection, between fun and simulation.

V-Rally 2 featured the 26 cars of the 1999 WRC season and 80 original tracks emulating stages from the season. Different modes catered to different play styles, with Arcade mode allowing for quick play satisfaction. Then for the hardcore WRC lovers, you could near-on play the actual season in championship mode. Genuine conditions of mud, rain, snow and more featured, as did day and night. Crucially new for the sequel, too, was the course creator, allowing players to build their own rally tracks. It has its place in history and lives on to this day, with V-Rally 3 and 4 following in 2002 and much later for the latter, in 2018.

Crash Team Racing – 1999

Rounding out our list of the greatest racing games of the 1990s, of course, it had to be Crash Team Racing. We’ve got the best sims, the best themed racers, the best arcade games. Crash, along with Mario Kart, make up that unmissable other side to the racing game coin. Pure, make-believe fun for all the family. With fifteen characters – many beloved by Crash Bandicoot fans – a number of wild and exotic circuits, a fun and engaging story, surprisingly skill-driven drifty physics and multiple modes including multiplayer, CTR was as rewarding and fun for non-car enthusiasts and casual gamers, as it was for car lovers and sim fanatics. Though the Kart genre was a bit played out by 1999, when sims were properly getting into their stride, CTR was a reminder of the value of a racer designed purely to be fun.

What’s your favourite 1990s racing game of these lot? Are there any glaring omissions? Let us know!

Trying to keep kids entertained? Or just want some fun? Read our list of the six best racing games for kids here.

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