Winner’s circle: The best racing games of all time


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 box racing game nintendo 64 playstation 1San Francisco Rush: Extreme Racing (N64, PSone)

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.

san francisco rush screenshot racing game nintendo 64 playstation 1

Midnight Club II playstation 2 xbox windows racing gameMidnight Club II (PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)

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.

midnight club 2 screenshot2 playstation 2 racing game

project gotham racing 2 racing game xboxProject Gotham Racing 2 (Xbox)

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.

project gotham racing screenshot xbox racing game

gran turismo a spec racing game playstation 2Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (PlayStation 2)

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.

gran turismo a spec screenshot playstation 2 racing game

need for speed underground racing game playstation 2 xbox pcNeed for Speed: Underground and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, PC)

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.

need for speed underground xbox pc playstation racing game

forza motorsport xbox racing gameForza Motorsport (Xbox)

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.

forza motorsport screenshot racing game xbox

burnout icon playstation 2Burnout (PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube)

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.

burnout playstation screenshot playstation xbox gamecube racing game

Honorable mentions:

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.

road rash screenshot sega

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. 

dirt 3 playstation xbox pc racing game colin mcrae

‘Forza Horizon 4’ reportedly includes famous ‘Halo’ level

Playground Games' upcoming racing game Forza Horizon 4 will reportedly include a race based on Silent Cartographer, a mission from the original Halo game. The racer is out on October 2.

Check out the best Xbox One deals and bundles for August 2018

Microsoft's consoles are just as capable of streaming movies as they are of playing the latest games. Check out our top Xbox One deals and bundles, which include games like Middle-earth: Shadow of War and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.

The best Xbox One games (August 2018)

More than four years into its lifespan, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From 'Cuphead' to 'Halo 5,' the best Xbox One games offer something for everyone.
Home Theater

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

So what is HDR TV? In a nutshell, it’s the best thing to happen to TV since the arrival of 4K. Here's everything you need to know about the technology, what it can do, and why it’s a must-have.

These are the best 2019 wagons on sale today in the U.S.

While minivans seemed to have fallen out of favor for the SUV and the crossover SUV with just a few available today, wagons remain relatively popular, particularly with a strong cult following. These are the best wagons on sale today that…

You’ll need $68,000 to land a tech-rich 2019 Audi A7 in your driveway

Have you been eyeing the latest rendition of Audi’s tech-savvy A7 Sportback? Well the deal just got a little sweeter as Ingolstadt’s finest just announced the pricing list for the new 2019 Audi A7.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robo sidekicks, AC for your bed, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

Alfa Romeo’s working on a new 8C plug-in hybrid supercar

Despite the untimely and sad death of former FCA CEO, Sergio Marchionne, the show must go on and Alfa Romeo's reportedly working on a new mid-engined, gas-electric plug-in hybrid supercar called the 8C.

Head Tesla engineer leaves for Apple to possibly reboot self-driving car

Apple's self-driving car project could get the reboot as a former chief engineer for Tesla Motors left the company to go back to Apple. Doug Field, who worked at Tesla from 2013 until last month, will go back to Apple.

NYC just dealt a major blow to Uber and Lyft

New York City regulators placed a cap on operational licenses it grants for Uber and Lyft drivers. The city says it's an attempt to try and save the city’s integral Yellow Cab system after several cab drivers committed suicide.

Take a Don Draper-worthy road trip in this vintage $225,000 RV

Everything from the unique shape down to the luxury finishes makes this fully restored travel trailer worth the price. It's even been signed by Chuck Pelly.

How autonomous ridesharing will reshape our cars, cities, and lives

Ridesharing is a growing phenomenon, and it’s closely linked with developments in autonomous and connectivity technology. In the coming decades, shared mobility will even change the way cities around the world develop.

NHTSA investigating Ford F-150 seat belt fires, may recall 1.4 million trucks

The NHTSA is investigating reports of fires in five Ford F-150 pickup trucks. The NHTSA's Office of Defect Investigation is exploring whether seatbelt pretensioners caused the fires during crashes and if a recall is necessary.

2019 Honda Civic sedan and coupe add more standard driver-assist tech

The 2019 Honda Civic compact sedan and coupe get a handful of updates to stay fresh, including exterior styling tweaks, standard Honda Sensing driver aids, and a new Sport trim level.