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The best racing games of all time

Plenty of people rely on action-packed video games to improve their reflexes, but a lot of gamers will tell you that nothing tugs at their competitive streak like a racing game. 

Even if you don’t get to speed down the racetrack in real life, there’s no reason why you can’t do it in the virtual world. There’s an entire genre of racing games available, but we’ve managed to highlight some of the best ones of all time.

Burnout 3: Takedown (PS2, Xbox)

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In terms of over-the-top arcade racing action, no game has done it better than Burnout 3: Takedown. The 2004 title from Criterion Games for PS2 and Xbox upped the carnage from the first two entries in the series to create a constantly riveting experience. Sure, Burnout 3 had traditional races, but rather than trying to steer clear of other racers, the main fun came from slamming into their vehicles.

As damage accrued, you could eventually total their vehicle and in turn, increase your chances of winning. The takedown mechanic thrived in the new Road Rage mode, which tasked you with totaling a set number of cars within a time limit.

Burnout 3 was at its best, however, when playing multiplayer with friends to see who could rack up the most takedowns in a single event. With slick arcade handling, bombastic crashes, and a wide variety of game modes for both solo and multiplayer play, Burnout 3: Takedown remains one of the best PS2 games ever.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo Switch)

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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the brilliant culmination of 25 years of Nintendo cart racing games. Featuring a wondrous collection of tracks both old and new, a large roster of customizable characters, and enough cheap items to ruin friendships, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is easily the best Mario Kart game ever made. It’s also, undoubtedly, the best racing game on the Switch.

While the Grand Prix mode offers four different difficulty levels to master, Mario Kart has always gotten its legs from being a multiplayer game. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has both local and online multiplayer for both traditional races and the battle mode. Yes, it’s a port of a Wii U game, but it contains all of the DLC as well as new characters and battle mode variants.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe launched on Switch in 2017, but it remains one of the top sellers on the console today. In fact, nearly 50 percent of Switch owners have purchased Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. That number seems low to us. If you own a Switch, you should have a copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe among other great Nintendo Switch games.

Read our full Mario Kart 8 Deluxe review

Diddy Kong Racing (N64)

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Diddy Kong Racing was the best cart racer on Nintendo 64 and one of the best N64 games outright. Yes, even better than Mario Kart 64. Starring characters from Rare franchises, Diddy Kong Racing had a novel single player campaign at the time. Set in an open world called Timber’s Island, you visited five different biomes, completing four races and a boss fight in each world.

While the cart controls weren’t as slick as those seen in Mario Kart, the tracks were more varied, including ones designed for water hovercrafts and small planes. The boss fights were set up as obstacle courses, where getting hit too many times while driving would squash your attempt. Even though the single player is what stood out, the multiplayer, especially the battle mode, gave Diddy Kong Racing some serious legs.

Forza Motorsport 7 (Xbox One, PC)

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Forza Motorsport 7 is the ultimate simulation racing game for Xbox One. The team at Turn 10 Studios really outdid themselves with features sure to delight any and all gearheads. With more than 700 vehicles and a wealth of customization options, Forza Motorsport 7 has arguably the most impressive catalog of cars available in a racing game thus far.

On top of the car list, Motorsport 7 has more than 30 locations scattered throughout the world. What makes these locations even better is the dynamic weather system that affects track conditions in new and surprising ways. If you want a realistic racing game on Xbox One or PC, look no further than Forza Motorsport 7.

Read our full Forza Motorsport 7 review

Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One, PC)

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The Horizon sub-series offers a decidedly different experience than the super-serious Motorsport mainline series. Developed by Playground Games, Forza Horizon 4 substitutes hyper-realism for an experience that falls halfway between simulator game and arcade.

Set in a beautiful open world version of the UK, Horizon 4 has a stellar lineup of more than 400 cars and tons of racing activities to partake in. In the main online mode, each server hosts 72 players, with competing cars controlled by “Drivatars,” AI racers that model their strategies and racing capabilities off of real players.

Horizon 4 also has a dynamic weather system that leans into the extreme, such as freezing surfaces and torrential storms. The track editor lets users create and share their own races online, upping the replay value significantly. If Motorsport 7 is a bit too serious for you, Horizon 4 lightens the mood on Xbox One and PC.

Read our full Forza Horizon 4 review

Mario Kart: Double Dash (GameCube)

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Although Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the best game in the series, Mario Kart: Double Dash earns a spot on our list for its willingness to take inspired risks. The GameCube game added an extra seat to each cart, opening up the door for the first, and still only, cooperative gameplay seen in the series.

With one player steering and the other handling the items, Mario Kart: Double Dash made multiplayer races far more interesting than ever before, especially with the special items that each character had in their arsenal.

Double Dash, despite the innovation, could still be played conventionally as a solo player for the Grand Prix and multiplayer modes. We’d love to see Double Dash‘s two-seat carts return in a future Mario Kart game, or maybe even as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe DLC.

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (PS2)

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Sony’s Gran Turismo series is still burning rubber today, but Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec still represents a high water mark for the racing sim. Launching during the first year of the PS2’s lifecycle, Gran Turismo 3 was the most realistic racing game ever released at the time. The Simulation mode saw players gradually work their way through different license classes, refining their skills and unlocking new cars.

Gran Turismo 3 was one of the first racing games that really got you thinking about the nitty gritty of the vehicles you controlled. The wide variety of event types, including some incredibly daunting endurance races, made Gran Turismo 3 more of a grind than most racers. Mastering the ins and outs of Gran Turismo 3‘s tough but realistic controls took patience and time, but when it all clicked, it was more than worth it.

Blur (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

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2010’s Blur from Activision was the closest game to the Burnout franchise we’ve seen. Using real world cars, Blur’s arcade racing had an emphasis on stunts, pleasing the fans, and running other racers off the road. But Blur also had a feature typically reserved for cart racers: items — making it a great PS3 game.

Acquiring power-ups throughout the match allowed you to do things like shoot other racers and Blur introduced these mechanics in fun ways. Running through designated icons would force you to perform a specific action in order to earn a powerful boost. Sometimes you’d have to perform an airborne trick, and other times you’d have to test your drifting skills.

Slick, forgiving handling made Blur easy to pick up. The diversity and unexpectedness of the gameplay gave Blur that sense of excitement typically reserved for Burnout and cart racers.

Need for Speed Rivals (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC)

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The most prolific racing game franchise of all time, Need for Speed titles have almost always been good and this one happened to be a cross-platform game. Few have been great, though. Need for Speed Rivals, a game that straddled the line between two console generations, proved to be the most impressive entry yet.

Set in an open world, Rivals refined the cops and robbers mechanic from Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted, implementing unique narratives depending on which role you took. An RPG of sorts, with each stunt-fueled objective completed, your driver leveled up. Rivals blurred the line between single player and multiplayer by letting you join up with friends without leaving an instance of your game.

Burnout Paradise (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC)

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Only three racing franchises earned multiple spots on this list. Burnout Paradise, the most recent entry in the basically dormant series, took the high octane arcade racer into the open world. Set in Paradise City, Burnout Paradise benefited from better hardware when it launched on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2008. Featuring similar stunt-fueled gameplay seen in previous entries, the newfound freedom helped highlight Burnout’s strengths.

While Paradise City was littered with various events and objectives, much of the fun was created by you, the player, in the playground setting. The new Cops and Robbers game mode showed off how Burnout’s dazzling crash formula could thrive in the open world. A remastered version was released for PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2018. So if you’re looking for an excellent arcade racer with tons of value, Burnout Paradise is a great option.

F1 2018 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

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The F1 series has been developed by Codemasters for the last decade. With each entry, the series has gotten better and better. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that F1 2018 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC earns a spot on our list.

An exact replica of the 2018 Formula One World Championship, F1 2018 has the 21 circuits, ten teams, and 20 drivers that participated in the 2018 season. In short, there’s no better way to feel closer to Formula One action than with F1 2018. The photo-realistic visuals are particularly impressive.

With a stable of luxury F1 cars, including the McLaren M23, and a progression system that forces you to make choices about car upgrades that will affect the rest of the season, F1 2018 is an enthralling and well-made approximation of Formula One racing that shouldn’t be missed.

Read our full F1 2018 review

Dirt Rally 2.0 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

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Codemasters is one of the premier racing game companies of the modern era and Dirt Rally 2.0 continues that success. A sequel to the acclaimed spinoff, Dirt Rally 2.0 features more than 50 vehicles built for off-road racing and six different locations to burn … dirt, including New Zealand, Poland, Australia, and Argentina. With some of the most realistic racing controls and physics in any series, Dirty Rally 2.0 isn’t for casual players, but it’s perfect for gearheads looking for something other than the standard street and track races.

Because it’s the official game of the FIA World Rallycross Championship, Dirty Rally 2.0 features several different racing series. These take place in legendary locations like Holjes and Barcelona, letting drivers feel like they’re truly the best of the best. With a team to customize, it isn’t a solo effort, either.

Excite Truck (Wii)

Remember Excitebike for NES? Great. How about Excite Truck, the Nintendo Wii launch game and the third entry to the series? Though not as well known and largely overshadowed by other Wii launch games (Wii Sports, Twilight Princess), Excite Truck made excellent use of Wii’s motion controls to provide a fast and incredibly fun off-road racing game.

Featuring a star system that rewards both fast and flashy play, Excite Truck always compelled you to revisit tracks to find new shortcuts and execute more tricks. At the time, Wiimote motion controls were brand new, but Excite Truck controlled like a dream, from drifting around winding turns to performing full spins off of the tracks’ many jumps.

Trackmania Turbo (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

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Trackmania Turbo for PS4, Xbox One, and PC is perfect for short bursts, whether you want to play solo or multiplayer. Unlike many other racing games on this list, Trackmania Turbo‘s tracks are very short.

With more than 200 in all, your goal in many of the single-player events is to beat a clock while performing tricks. It’s a challenging endeavor that forces you to quickly learn the twists and turns of each track.

A novel co-op mode sees two players controlling one car simultaneously and unlike most racing games nowadays, it also supports local multiplayer for up to four players. Trackmania Turbo also has a track editor that lets you create and share new tracks.

Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

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Wipeout Omega Collection compiles two of the best PS4 games in the anti-gravity, futuristic racing series: Wipeout HD (PS3) and Wipeout 2048 (PS Vita). The name of the game in Wipeout is speed. Zipping around the 26 tracks in Omega Collection has never looked better with high definition visuals and a crisp 60fps.

Since it contains two games, Omega Collection is brimming with content, from tournament modes to time trials to the battle variants that turn Wipeout into a dazzling action game. If you want to feel like you’re racing in the future, Wipeout Omega Collection for PS4 is well worth your time.

Star Wars Episode 1: Racer (N64, Game Boy Color, Dreamcast, PC, Mac)

Star Wars Episode 1: Racer was the best thing to come out of The Phantom Menace. The pod racing title for N64, Dreamcast, and PC lets you relive the best moments of the movie across several planets. With 23 unlockable racers and 25 tracks, Racer had a ton of content for a racing game released in 1999.

The pods were fairly easy to control and zipped along at blazing speeds. Episode 1: Racer is one of the best licensed Star Wars games, and that’s saying a lot considering how many have been released over the years.

Driver: San Francisco (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC, Mac)

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Driver: San Francisco for PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii had more of a storyline than most games on this list. An action adventure racing game set in an open world, its campaign included several different types of events, but the standout feature was Shift.

In a change from previous entries, the ability to exit your vehicle was removed in favor of an instant shift ability that bounced you from car to car. The mechanic worked as seamlessly as advertised and added to the versatility of missions, injecting them with new layers of strategy.

The local and online multiplayer modes also stood out thanks to a lavish list of about 20 different variants, from regular races to vehicular tag to cops and robbers.

F-Zero GX (GameCube)

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While the F-Zero series has fallen off in recent years, we still have incredibly fond memories of zooming around as Captain Falcon in the 2003 GameCube title, F-Zero GX. Like other F-Zero games, GX excelled by offering one of the most thrillingly fast experiences in the genre.

With 30 ships on the winding, obstacle-ridden tracks at once, coming out on top was always an immense challenge. F-Zero GX was essentially the twitchy-fingered precision platformer of racing games. Anyone who could memorize the track layout had an edge, but players utilized power-ups and boosts that usually left everyone in the dust.

Out Run (Arcade)

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Out Run has been around since 1986, when it first popped up in arcades. While it’s the most senior game on our list, Out Run was an innovation in its time extremely visually advanced with the Ferrari Testarossa Spider that almost looked 3D.

While it was ahead of its time, Out Run is also a class speed racing game. Gamers play against the clock, hugging the curves of busy roads and dodging obstacles to cross the finish line first. 

Racing games have come a long way since 1986, but we still love Out Run’s nostalgic charm. For a throwback gaming experience, download Sega Ages: Out Run from Nintendo Switch.

Editors' Recommendations

Gabe Gurwin
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Gabe Gurwin has been playing games since 1997, beginning with the N64 and the Super Nintendo. He began his journalism career…
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