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The 10 best old school car racing games

The most popular racing games at present have become major franchises - Gran Turismo, Forza, Need for Speed - with multiple versions to choose from over the years. (Image: Grand Prix Legends)

Forget what you think you know about car racing computer games, because the world has changed dramatically since you were a kid playing Daytona USA or Test Drive.

Take this biography of a sim racing driver found on an online racing team’s website, which reads: “Max is incredibly quick in sim and a natural driver, he has been a sim racer for over 10 years.”

The ‘Max’ in question is also a three-time Formula 1 world champion. Because he’s Max Verstappen. 

That’s right, the reigning F1 champ loves playing computer games just as much as he loves racing in real-life.

He’s part of a new era of drivers who have grown up playing online car racing games, which also includes Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen, Indycar champion Alex Palou and Verstappen’s F1 rival, Lando Norris.

We’ve come a long way since the original car racing games were very rudimentary and could only be played in arcades.

These days there’s a vast array of car games to play, from realistic ‘sim’ games like iRacing and rFactor2 (popular with the likes of Verstappen and co.) to fun, arcade-style games like Mario Kart (popular with kids).

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What are car racing games? How long have they been around?

Gran Trak 10, released way back in 1974, is considered by most to be the world’s first racing game.

The arcade game featured a simple black and white screen with dots forming a top-down viewed track and required the player to navigate the course using a steering wheel and pedals. 

By 1982 Pole Position had brought third-person view (you were now behind the car, looking ahead at the track instead of down on it) and had colour graphics and even in-game advertising.

It began life as an arcade game but was eventually released onto the then-popular Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64 consoles at home.

Driving car games then rapidly accelerated through the 1980s and into the ‘90s with the growth of personal computing, with titles like Pitstop and Test Drive bringing racing action out of the arcade and into your home.

Why are they so popular?

The short answer is simple - because they’re fun. The more complex answer is, as they have improved the best car racing games have allowed the average person to get a taste of what it’s like racing wheel-to-wheel in their favourite racing series.

There are currently games that include every major form of motor racing, from F1 to rally cars and NASCAR, and there’s even a game that tries to replicate the two-week odyssey that is the Dakar Rally.

So, there’s something for everyone and that has seen the popularity grow and grow over the years.

How have car racing games evolved and changed over time?

To answer this question it’s important to quickly define the different types of car racing games on the market. They can generally be split into two different categories - simulations and arcade games.

Simulation (or just ‘sim’) games try to be as realistic as possible. That means developing very complex ‘physics models’ - the way the car behaves and reacts to inputs from the player.

Some of the most popular sim racing games are iRacing, rFactor2 and Assetto Corsa and these are favoured by real-life racers and serious gamers.

The second type, arcade-style games, tend to be more geared towards just having fun and don’t worry about the cars behaving like real cars.

Games like Mario Kart and Daytona USA don’t require you to carefully manipulate the accelerator and brakes, you can just mash the buttons and have a good time.

Sim racing games have become big business over the years, so much so that there are now eSports championships for most major racing categories and dedicated eSports teams that compete in these events.

During the pandemic the likes of F1, Supercars and Indycar ran online sim racing events with their real-life drivers to give fans something to watch.

This has only become possible as computing power has advanced. More powerful PCs and consoles, such as PlayStation and Xbox, have allowed developers to make more and more realistic games.

Old racing games suffered from limited graphics and restrictions on how players could interact. Keyboard or ‘80s joysticks offered only binary inputs which detracted from the gameplay.

Since the mid-’90s steering wheel and pedal set-ups for home users (on PC and consoles) have meant a more realistic driving experience and that has also helped drive the industry forward.

What are some of the best modern car racing games? How do they compare to the original?

The most popular racing games at present have become major franchises - Gran Turismo, Forza, Need for Speed - with multiple versions to choose from over the years.

The best sims have become major eSports, with iRacing, rFactor2 and Assetto Corsa Competizione attracting a mixture of the best online gamers and real-life racers to the virtual track.

These modern games are so much better to look at, with photo-realistic graphics, and much more realistic to drive thanks to the latest, highly developed physical models that make the modern gamer feel like they’re competing in an actual race.

Top 10 car racing games

10. Daytona USA (1994)

Full disclosure before I start this list - I have a personal preference for sims, the more realistic genre. However, having said that, I also spent plenty of my time in my youth playing Daytona at the local arcade. 

While very loosely based on NASCAR racing, Daytona USA most definitely falls into the category of an arcade game.

While very loosely based on NASCAR racing, Daytona USA most definitely falls into the category of an arcade game. While very loosely based on NASCAR racing, Daytona USA most definitely falls into the category of an arcade game.

You could always keep the accelerator buried and slide through the corners. Which you needed to do to avoid missing the countdown to the next waypoint and then needing to feed more dollars into the machine to keep playing.

It was later released on a variety of consoles, including Sega Saturn, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but if you really want to play it today you should go and hunt down an original machine at a local arcade. 

 

9. GTR2 (2006)

The FIA GT Championship was not a major category to rival F1 or Indycar, but this game was a breakthrough in many respects and became a cult favourite.

The developers were experts at creating a realistic physics model for the 144 of cars in the game, which included exotics like the Maserati MC12, Ferrari 575 GTC and Saleen S7R.

The developers were experts at creating a realistic physics model for the 144 of cars in the game. The developers were experts at creating a realistic physics model for the 144 of cars in the game.

The creators pushed the boat out with this game, adding changing weather conditions and realistic crash damage. It also included not-previously-seen levels of adjustment for the controls, including speed sensitivity and steering lock if you were using a wheel and pedals.

It also allowed for outsiders to introduce their own modifications - new paint schemes, new cars, new tracks, etc - and that has seen it carry on with its cult following to this day - nearly two decades after its release.

 

8. Indycar Racing II (1995)

Again, full disclosure, I spent too many hours of my youth playing this game. It was one of the first games that could really call itself a simulation, with a more realistic driving experience than those coming before it.

So much so I still get sad when I think about the time I was on course to win a race on the Gold Coast street track only to miss a gear shift and blow my engine…

The game includes multiple chassis and engines to choose from and you could race on almost all the real-life Indycar tracks. The game includes multiple chassis and engines to choose from and you could race on almost all the real-life Indycar tracks.

The game includes multiple chassis and engines to choose from and you could race on almost all the real-life Indycar tracks (except the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). This meant a mixture of road courses, street tracks and ovals.

While you’d need to find a physical copy of the CD-ROM to play it now, the legacy of Indycar Racing II lives on today.

That’s because the developer of the game, Dave Kaemmer, teamed up with Liverpool FC and Boston Red Sox owner, John Henry, to create iRacing - which is a market-leader in sim games today.

 

7. Test Drive Unlimited (2006)

When I say some of these games have become franchises, I mean it. Test Drive Unlimited was the 18th iteration of this title but was also a relaunch of sorts.

While not technically a ‘racing game’ it has a cool party trick that means it had to make this list.

The original Test Drive came out in 1987 and allowed players to select one of five sports cars and then use it to try and get through each stage of the course without being caught by the police. 

Test Drive Unlimited was the 18th iteration of this title but was also a relaunch of sorts. Test Drive Unlimited was the 18th iteration of this title but was also a relaunch of sorts.

Test Drive Unlimited took the game to the next level (and here’s that cool party trick), creating a digital version of an entire island of Hawaii and letting players roam freely across it - rather than being locked into an official course. It was something radically different at the time.

While we would never condone unsafe driving or evading the police, Test Drive Unlimited allows you to speed without hurting anyone, race anyone in the game and do virtual jobs to earn money to buy more cars in the game.

It’s not a pure racing game but the freedom to drive around an entire island at speed in exotic cars - all without leaving your house or risking jail time - makes it great fun.

A new entry in the series, Test Drive Unlimited Solar Crown, is due to be released sometime in 2024 and it elevates the franchise again by making a digital 1:1 recreation of Hong Kong Island.

 

6. Mario Kart (1992)

Like I say, I love sim games but I’m not a heartless monster who can’t enjoy racing go-karts against Donkey Kong and Princess Peach.

Mario Kart is a spin-off of Nintendo’s popular Super Mario game but over the years has expanded to include other Nintendo characters.

The game is arguably the benchmark for arcade-style fun. The game is arguably the benchmark for arcade-style fun.

The game is arguably the benchmark for arcade-style fun, with ‘power-up’ mushrooms to help you catch up if you fall behind and shells and banana peels you can throw at your rivals to slow them down. This is just good old fashioned fun.

Mario Kart has become a pillar for Nintendo and the latest version (the 15th interaction), Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, was released in 2020.

 

5. Grand Prix Legends (1998)

Between Indycar Racing II and iRacing, Dave Kaemmer and the designer team at Papyrus Design Group, went back in time to create a modern masterpiece.

While racing games tend to focus on the present, Grand Prix Legends is based on the 1967 Formula 1 season, back when Australia’s own Sir Jack Brabham took on Ferrari, Lotus and more.

Grand Prix Legends is based on the 1967 Formula 1 season. Grand Prix Legends is based on the 1967 Formula 1 season.

The decision to recreate ‘60s grand prix cars meant an incredibly challenging physics model for the average gamer, with the powerful cars sliding around on their grooved tyres.

There was also no margin for error as the developers had recreated the tracks in ‘60s style, meaning limited run-off areas and plenty of trees, poles and walls to hit.

Unfortunately if this sounds appealing to you and you don’t have a copy of the CD-ROM, you’ll need to search online for someone selling one.

 

4. Need for Speed (1994)

Another multi-version franchise that’s still going strong today (and even spawned a Hollywood movie in 2014), the original ‘94 version was simpler but still loads of fun.

Again, we’re not condoning breaking the law, but this game centred around point-to-point street racing with the police appearing to try and arrest you before you make the finish line.

Players could choose from eight cars. Players could choose from eight cars.

Players could choose from eight cars - including a Ferrari 512TR, Honda NSX, Dodge Viper and Lamborghini Diablo - and the developers collaborated with Road & Track magazine to fine-tune the in-game physics.

While you can’t buy the original game anymore, the franchise has now reached its 25th instalment with the release of NFS Unbound in 2022.

 

3. Grand Prix 2 (1996)

Formula One Grand Prix came first but it was Grand Prix 2 that really waved the green flag of F1-based racing games.

Released in 1996 but based on the 1994 season, it included every team and driver (except the late Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger) and each car in its correct livery. 

Released in 1996 but based on the 1994 season. Released in 1996 but based on the 1994 season.

The game was focused on realism, making it one of the first true sims, and allowed you to switch off driver assistance aids and race a full grand prix weekend - practice, qualifying and the race. You could even simulate a full season, competing in each grand prix in order.

The key to its success was arguably its developer, Geoff Crammond. The Brit had a background as a defence industry system engineer, which undoubtedly helped him understand the key physics needed to make a more realistic driving experience. 

Crammond would carry on and make two more subsequent games, but as the business of F1 grew the gaming licence changed hands. Nowadays there is a new F1 game each year, released in time to include all the current drivers and paint schemes. 

 

2. Colin McRae Rally (1998)

Colin McRae was the 1995 World Rally Champion, but for a generation of fans, Colin McRae is a computer game.

Sega Rally was the first major rally game to put the sport on the map in arcades, but Colin McRae Rally brought it home to gamers all around the world as PCs and PlayStations became more popular. 

Rally fans could now slide and jump their way across eight different rally terrains in iconic cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

Colin McRae was the 1995 World Rally Champion, but for a generation of fans, Colin McRae is a computer game. Colin McRae was the 1995 World Rally Champion, but for a generation of fans, Colin McRae is a computer game.

McRae was heavily involved with the development of the game, helping to ensure the handling was as realistic as possible. His navigator, Nicky Grist, also provided his help by voicing the in-game navigation.

Colin McRae Rally became a franchise of its own, with new versions released every year until, sadly, McRae was killed in a helicopter crash in 2007.

By that time the game had evolved to be known as Colin McRae: Dirt, so the game developers decided to drop his name from the series and future versions were simply known as Dirt or Dirt Rally.

Dirt 5 is the most recent version of the series, but since its release in 2020 the developers behind the game have focused on the official WRC game; which was released in late 2023.

 

1. Gran Turismo (1997)

No other game could top this list of cool car racing games, because, to be frank, Gran Turismo is the coolest of them all.

The key to its success is that it manages to blend elements of so many different games, while simultaneously offering two different modes - simulation and arcade - to cater to the broadest possible audience.

A whopping 140 cars were developed for the first iteration of the game, along with 11 tracks offered. And while you can just race around for fun in the arcade mode, the simulation option allows you to earn and upgrade a driver’s licence and allows you to earn in-game prizes and money.

A whopping 140 cars were developed for the first iteration of the game, along with 11 tracks offered. A whopping 140 cars were developed for the first iteration of the game, along with 11 tracks offered.

You can then spend these in-game credits upgrading your car to help you win more races.

Gran Turismo became so popular that Nissan partnered with the games developers and PlayStation to run a program to convert the best gamers into real-life racers.

This was the basis for the 2023 movie, Gran Turismo, that centred on Jann Mardenborough’s rise from PlayStation to Le Mans. But the program actually produces several very successful drivers over its eight year run.

It demonstrated just how far gaming had come since 1974 and proved it isn't just for kids to have fun with anymore but can be a genuine way for drivers to get their start in the real-life sport.