From arcade excitement through to modern day open world exploration, racing games haven’t always been the nerd-filled haven some are today. The past few months has seen the sim racing world thrust into the limelight, and while there are a whole host of fantastic racing sims available today, there are some games that may not live up to the modern day standards of tyre modelling, weather changes and graphical jaw-droppery, but hold a place in all racing gamers heart some 20 years later. Here’s a quick selection of some of our all-time favourites.
The nine best racing games of all time | FOS Future Lab
Colin McRae Rally
Colin McRae Rally is legendary, and brought muddy Welsh forests, snowbanks of Sweden and gravelly Australian outback to the living rooms of many a young motorsport fan. While most games these days allow you access to the top level of cars straight away, and you can tailor the difficulty to suit your style, Colin McRae Rally’s difficulty settings were based on the cars themselves. Want an easier experience, well you’re not going straight into World Rally Cars then, and you’re certainly not gaining access to any Group B cars! Instead you started with the front-wheel-drive F2 cars, such as the Renault Maxi Megane or the Seat Ibiza, and rallies were run to a shorter length.
Colin McRae Rally also brought a new experience to the racing gamer: the Service Area. Here you could repair any damage you’d caused after you rolled 17 times across Greek gravel, but at a cost of working time. Would you prioritise repairing your steering or your brakes? Well, if you were following the mantra of the game’s namesake, if in doubt… What followed was a video gaming dynasty, and while the McRae name may no longer be linked, the DNA of Codemasters’ “Dirt” series can be traced all the way back to the 1998 game.
No trip to the arcade can be regarded as complete without a heated head-to-head on Daytona USA. Penny pushing machines, three-point throws, whack-a-mole, even air hockey, they’re all fun and games, but there was nothing light hearted about stepping behind the wheel of a Daytona USA machine.
The consoles did nothing but worsen the heat-induced headaches (mixed in with a Mr Whippy brainfreeze), but it was worth the pain. The handling? Terrible. The feel of the wheel/pedals/seat? Awful. The game itself? One of the greatest racing games ever released. Such was the success of the arcade game (Sega themselves regard it as one of the most successful arcades of all time), it was ported to the Sega Saturn console and the PC, to equally positive reviews, and continues to be popular to this day, with both PlayStation and Xbox releasing enhanced versions to their respective games stores. A brand new version, Daytona Championship USA, was rolled out to arcades in 2016, the first all-new Daytona game in 1998, ensuring similar racing memories for the next generation of arcade goers.
Ask any British motorsport fan old enough to remember the original PlayStation, and it’s highly likely they have fond memories of playing one of the original ToCA games from the BTCC’s Super Touring era. While the original proved popular, it was the sequel that really set the racing game fraternity alight, and the last in the hugely successful series to be based solely on Britain’s premier racing series.
At first glance you may have been forgiven for thinking it was just an updated roster with slightly prettier graphics (akin to the modern world of EA Sports’ annual releases), but ToCA 2 had some guts behind the facelift. Improved physics meant that you couldn’t cook your tyres through Church or Copse every lap, and if I had a pound for every time I spun out at Paddock Hill Bend as a child, I could probably afford a Super Tourer today. Not only did the game feature the entire manufacturer field of the 1998 championship, but it included the entire ToCA package. For starters you were limited to either racing with Ford Fiestas or Formula Fords, but work your way up through the ranks and you were soon able to sample AC Superblowers, TVR Speed 12s, Jaguar XJ220s, Lister Storms and even the Grinnall Scorpion. Or alternatively you could punch in the buttons in a certain order to be greeted with the imitable Tiff Needell declaring “cheat mode enabled”.
Formula 1 97
The game that thrust ‘PlayStation racing into a new era’ according to one review, Formula 1 97 was the second game in the Formula 1 series, with the original game being a huge hit itself. Offering visuals well ahead of its time (a whopping 25fps during a race!), it was everything the mid-‘90s F1 fan could have asked for.
The game featured two separate ways to play the game, depending on what kind of F1 fan you were. The casual fan could jump into Arcade mode, hold down X as hard as they could and enjoy racing without any of the technicalities of Formula 1. Or alternatively you could head into Grand Prix mode and throw fuel load, tyres and damage into the mix, something clearly aimed at the Formula 1 nerds, no need to guess which camp we fit in to. What makes this game truly great, though, was born out of Jacques Villenueve trademarking his own name and image, thus blocking the game from including the Williams lead driver. The way they got around this soon became stuff of racing game legend, as Murray Walker’s commentary replaced Villenueve’s name with the wonderfully generic “Williams Number One”, or the never-stops-being-funny exclamation of “He’s hit the Canadian”. It wasn’t until 1999 that Villeneuve finally appeared in an F1 game.
Love F1? Enjoy an onboard lap of Monaco in F1 2020.
NASCAR Racing 4
If you wanted to play a NASCAR game in the late 1990s you had two options. Buy a PlayStation and play EA Sports’ offerings with the full licencing and traditional EA Sports-style unrivalled levels of presentation, or fire up your PC and pick up the newest NASCAR installment from Papyrus for some pretty-much perfectly simulated stock car racing. Papyrus may be a new name for many, but for the PC sim racing fan they were, or rather still are, legends. An apt title for them as they released the equally brilliant Grand Prix Legends game in 1998, which came very, very close to making this list. NASCAR Racing 4 was a huge step up from the previous iteration, predominantly on the presentation front, adding in improved environments, vehicle models and even an animated pit crew. While that doesn’t usually make for a better game, the physics were already on point, and it was in vast need of a lick of paint here and there – the previous games were limited to eight-bit colour, for example.
One other addition that completely changed the game for the Papyrus series was the addition of Daytona. It’s hard to imagine a NASCAR game without the iconic speedway, but it didn’t appear in the video games until 2001, and allowed NASCAR Racing 4 to offer a full season on every official track from the 2001 season. Papyrus’ run of NASCAR games ended in 2003, and so began the end of the company. A large number of the staff would go on to work on another racing simulator by the name of iRacing, and we’re pretty sure you’ve heard of that one.
If you’re into your sim racing, check out our list of the seven best sim racing games.
Gran Turismo 4
How do you pick a single entry from arguably the greatest racing game franchise of all time? You could probably choose any Gran Turismo to go in this list and it wouldn’t be out of place, but we’ve had to go for GT4. Simple reason being it was the first game to ever feature all 13 miles of the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
The Green Hell has now become so common in video game track lists that the novelty has almost worn off, but many an hour was lost to those playing GT4 for the first time as they desperately tried to remember what happens after Flugplatz, or try to not get thrown off halfway through the Karussell. With over 700 cars to choose from, it was just far too easy to do your own Nordschleife fastest lap contest, long before Jimmy Broadbent turned the premise into a successful YouTube series. In true Gran Turismo jaw-dropping visual style, GT4 was one of only four titles for the PlayStation 2 capable of 1080i HD output, one of the others being Tourist Trophy, a motorcycle version of GT4.
Crash Team Racing
This could be controversial. This is the spot that’s usually reserved in these articles for Mario Kart, and yes, Mario Kart is a fantastic game, but Crash Team Racing was just that little bit better. Crash Team Racing was PlayStation’s answer to Mario Kart, and it lived up to the comparison with aplomb. Nothing was more frustrating than desperately trying to take the lead on the final lap, praying for a tracking missile or power boost, only to be rewarded with a TNT crate and missing the all-important throw. If you weren’t keen on racing, though, there was the fantastic Battle Mode. Gone were the confines of the race track, and it was just all out war. CTR was recently back on the shelves as a remake was released for Xbox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, featuring much improved visuals, as would be expected after 20 years of video game development.
If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ll find our list of the six best racing games for kids quite handy…
Forza Horizon 4
Coming right up to the modern day, Forza Horizon 4 is probably the perfect driving game for the casual car fan. Featuring a mixture of cars so diverse the only place you can expect to see such a selection would be the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard, which is handy, as Goodwood House was the chosen destination for the launch of the game in 2018. Set in a simplified version of Britain, with visual cues from Edinburgh to the Cotswolds, and featuring changing seasons as the player gets to explore the open world and drive to his heart’s content. As is often the case with modern games, additional content has continued to be released long after the game’s original release, and Forza Horizon 4 knocked it out of the park with their release last summer.
What’s better than an open world based on the most picturesque parts of the UK and a huge selection of cars? Adding Lego into the mix, of course. The Lego Speed Champions pack featured Lego cars, environment and its own campaign – it’s almost worth buying the game just to get that pack.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer
There’s a balancing act in the universe. Where there is dark, there is light. Where there is good, there is evil. Where there are Jedi, there are Sith. And believe it or not, even The Phantom Menace brought some good to the world. Yes, this was the film that brought us Jar-Jar Binks, but it also spawned one of the greatest Star Wars games ever, and a genuinely good racing game at that. You could spend hours upon hours just racing at the Tatooine circuit as seen in the film, recreating the rivalry for the ages of Anakin and Sebulba, but there were just as impressive original tracks created just for the game. It featured a fairly decent career-esque mode, too. While the thirst for instant action could be quenched by Single Race mode, Tournament mode saw you entered into a championship, where the better you finished, the more you earned to spend at Watto’s shop (we’re guessing the prize fund wasn’t in Republic credits) to improve your racer, with the aid of numerous pit droids.
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