We here at Digital Trends love cars, but we also love games. Thankfully the two go together hand-in-hand (wheel-in-wheel?). While it’s not always easy compiling a list of our favorite things — be it smartphones, TVs, laptops or even iPhone cases — we do enjoy it. Sometimes our lists cause frustration, other times they evoke anger (like when we ranked our favorite co-workers and posted the list in the breakroom for everyone to see). Whatever the case may be, check out our list of top racing games of all time and be sure to let us know what games you think deserved to make the cut.
Each game was chosen based on a combination of how innovative, influential, and – above all else – fun they were. Note that we also tried to populate this list with more “realistic” (sorry Mario Kart) games where possible, although a few more “arcadey” titles snuck in.
San Francisco Rush asked a very poignant question on its box-art: “Is it real? Or is it RUSH?” to which we clearly don’t know. Do you? And despite the fact that this question has haunted our dreams for the better part of a decade, we happily include Atari Games/ Midway Games San Franciso Rush: Extreme Racing to our list. This game was fun personified, and despite its less than realistic physics and more arcade-focused gameplay, we credit it with establishing our deep-rooted love of all things on four wheels. Throw in a vortex-like time wasting game mode, such as the skate park where the goal was to perform insane stunts, and you have a simple recipe for awesome.
While it was certainly not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch, the first Fast and Furious film debuted back in 2001 and can be credited for helping take the racing genre from the track to the “streetz “(yes, with a “Z”). Although the first Midnight Club from Rockstar Games preceded that film, the second entry in the series embraced its cinematic inspiration, even going so far as to sport its own Vin Diesel doppelganger on the box art. Still, Midnight Club II was both a critical and commercial success. Races took place in massive cities where drivers were presented with numerous shortcuts and paths to accomplish each race. Sadly, Midnight Club did not offer licensed cars (We can’t imagine why automakers wouldn’t want their vehicles to be seen taking part in illegal street races), but did allow players to race on supped-up street bikes. But perhaps the greatest thing about Midnight Club II was its sheer depiction of speed. Each cityscape morphed into a blur as you maneuvered through neon-glittering avenues, and whizzed past tight alleyways at breakneck speeds. That — and it was just so darn fun. The series may be gone (at least for now), but the driving mechanics can still be experienced in Rockstar’s flagship franchise, Grand Theft Auto.
Born from the slightly obscure, but beloved, Dreamcast game Metropolis Street Racer, this series went on to gain a modicum of fame with Project Gotham Racing, an undeniable hit on the original Xbox second only to a little game you may have heard of called Halo: Combat Evolved. Building on its success, developers Bizarre Creations set forth in making Project Gotham Racing 2 an even better experience than the predecessor — and they succeeded. While technically more arcade-like than a true racing simulator, Project Gotham Racing 2 drove in a different lane as far as racing mechanics are concerned. Players were tasked with not only driving with speed and skill, but more importantly with style and flair, which was then scored and ranked based on how many Kudos points you earned during each race. Project Gotham Racing 2 also introduced online racing to the series, which for console-only gamers back in 2003 was akin to the invention of the wheel and the printing press.
While there were a lot of great racing games that came before Gran Turismo, none came close to capturing the painstaking realism or authenticity the GT series provided. If we had to credit a single series for making the racing sim genre what it is today, it would be Gran Turismo. And while the first two GT’s were spectacular in their own right, it wasn’t until the franchise debuted on the PlayStation 2 in the form of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec that the series truly reached its stride. Developers Polyphony have tried to build on its success in the form of Gran Turismo 4 and 5 (which spent over five years in dedicated development) on the PlayStation 3, but have yet to raise the bar higher than it did with Gran Turismo 3.
There have been A LOT of Need for Speed games over the years; some have been great, while others have just been. Amazingly, the series is about to churn out its 20th installment, so it should come as no surprise that the franchise has dipped in quality over the years. The series has struggled so much that publisher EA turned to Criterion Games, makers of the rival Burnout series, to take the reins of the upcoming Need for Speed: Most Wanted. But with so many great titles in the NFS library to choose from, it’s difficult to pin-point which one is our favorite. That being said, we’re going to cheat a little and give that honor to both the ridiculously fun Need for Speed: Underground and the more recent Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. The first game marked a major departure for the franchise and looked to capitalize on the purveying tuner-culture at the turn of the century, while the second is credited for bringing the series back to its roots by including the much-loved (and missed) pursuit aspect that tasked gamers with chasing down speeders in exotic cop cars.
Before the first Forza Motorsport released on the original Xbox back in 2005, it was hard not to think of Microsoft’s first true racing sim as a feeble attempt to cash in on Gran Turismo’s success and popularity. Had we not suffered through the (at times good but mostly terrible) XSN sports games series we might have had more faith. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and Forza Motorsport debuted with some impressive features, namely its realistic damage to cars that affected your ride not just cosmetically, but its performance as well. Throw in excellent online racing modes and Forza was already a force to be reckoned with. Not surprisingly, things have only gotten better three iterations on, with the current racing sim king Forza laps ahead of the competition.
While other racing games were looking to streets and the import-tuner scene in 2001 to revitalize the genre, Criterion Games was pioneering a new path with an entirely new racing style. Up until Burnout’s release, the mechanics of a racing game were pretty standard: Race from point A to point B (occasionally point C) in the fastest time or before your opponents; Burnout changed that. Sure you still had the requisite checkpoints and position battle, but Burnout encouraged you to inflict diabolic destruction and damage to everything and everyone around you, and needless to say it was pretty awesome.
Road Rash (Sega Genesis, N64)
Because taking part in illegal motorcycle races is only made more responsible while wielding crowbars and nunchakus and emphatically introducing them to your opponents face.
DiRT 3 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)
If paved roads are not your thing, then the DiRT (formerly Colin McRae Rally) series is the best scratch for your racing itch. The series has long delivered the technical intricacies and subtle nuances of the rallying world while at the same time offering up accessible and fun gameplay.