There’s a 40-year history of some of the best car racing games of all time

Car racing is one of the backbone genres of the video game world. That’s been the case since Pole Position arrived in arcade parlors in the early 1980s. Forty years later and the pixelated days of car racing games have morphed into a world of beyond-realistic racing simulators that have become more and more realistic as new titles are released. In that span, several classic games entered our lives, leaving their mark in several different ways. We pay homage to these ten iconic car racing game titles, or as I like to call them, the ten best racing games of all time.

Daytona USA

You can’t have a list of the top race car games of all time without having a spot for Daytona USA.

Anybody who grew up in the 1990s knows about Daytona USA. It was the definitive arcade racing game of that decade, and no other game even comes close. Daytona USA didn’t just give you a chance to test your driving skills against up seven of your friends, but it was one of the first car games that made you feel like you were driving the car and not just haphazardly pressing random buttons on your controller. How many of us played this game and subconsciously steered our bodies in the direction of our sliding cars, as if some imaginary g force was pushing us in that direction? Daytona USA changed people’s expectations of what an arcade car racing game could be, and the fact that you can still find this game in random arcade parlors speaks to its staying power, not just as a pioneer in the arcade car racing community, but as an important part of our early education in car racing video games.

Grand Prix Legends

Someone once told me that car racing games of today are a lot more sophisticated than car racing games of the past, making them more difficult to learn and get a hold of. While there is some truth to that, the sophisticated nature of today’s games is more due to the advancement of technology in the gaming sphere. The game difficulty, on the other hand, is subjective, because there is no single car racing game that remains as difficult to master as Papyrus Design Groups’ Grand Prix Legends.

Released in 1999, Grand Prix Legends earned praise for its ahead-of-its-time graphics, excellent gameplay, and accurate depiction of the 1967 Formula One season.

The game is most notable, though, for how infuriatingly difficult it is to play. The cars are period-correct in how difficult they are to control, and while that may be frustrating for gamers who prefer today’s hand-holding methods, those who took the time to really learn about Grand Prix Legends’ controls will attest to how satisfying it is to post a clean lap on any one of the available race tracks in the game. Car racing games are meant to be challenging; if they’re not, then what’s the point of playing them? Grand Prix Legends doesn’t give gamers an inch; everything has to be earned.

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec

The Gran Turismo franchise is properly recognized as the greatest car racing game franchise of all time — fans of the Forza franchise will probably have a go at that claim — and that status is well-earned. It’s been 23 years since the first Gran Turismo on the original PlayStation arrived. Since then, seven main releases have come out, to go with eight secondary releases.

It’s hard to pick which among these titles is the best Gran Turismo game, but we’re picking Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec., which arrived in 2001 for the Sony PlayStation 2, as the best of all GT games.

The OG title will always have a special place in our hearts for popularizing the car simulator genre while the follow-up, Gran Turismo 2 enjoyed tremendous success, too. But we’re going with Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, which became the flagship GT game for the Sony PlayStation 2 when the console arrived in 2001. A-Spec had it all, folks. It didn’t carry as robust a lineup of cars as GT2 — “only” 184 cars — but the game did set new standards for graphics and realistic gameplay, taking what we were immersed to with the first two games to an entirely different level of gameplay and all-around enjoyment. Sure, succeeding Gran Turismo titles have better graphics and features, but none of these games could compete with the leap in quality that came with the arrival of A-Spec in 2001. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the best-selling Gran Turismo game of all time also happens to be A-Spec. It’s not even close, either.

Mario Kart DS

As our car racing game palettes become more sophisticated with the arrival of virtual reality racing, it’s nice to have a game like Mario Kart to fall back on when we need to be reminded that video games are supposed to be fun. Just like the Gran Turismo franchise, Nintendo’s Mario Kart franchise has been around since the 1990s. Nine titles have been released since, including the most recent offering, 2017’s Mario Kart 8: Deluxe, and picking which title in the go-kart racing game franchise counts as the best proved to be far more difficult than we thought it would be. In the end, we picked 2005’s Mario Kart DS as the best title of the bunch for several reasons. At the time of its rollout, Nintendo had already rolled out four successful games in the franchise. Double Dash, in particular, introduced weight classes and the co-op driving experience that took Mario Kart to new heights.

What Mario Kart DS accomplished, though, was open the game to the online multiplayer world on top of introducing dual-screen playability and adding a lot of the retro tracks from past titles of the series.

It’s also the first game in the franchise to feature mission mode. All these factors came into play in our decision to give Mario Kart DS the nod over Mario Kart: Double Dash as the best game of the highly successful franchise.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2

We’re deep into car racing franchise territory here, and it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the best car racing games of all time without mentioning a title from the Need for Speed franchise. Granted, not every title from NFS is worth mentioning, but there are a handful of games from the series that have stood the test of time, including Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2.

For our money, Hot Pursuit 2 is the best NFS title, in part because of how it managed to perfectly balance the two things that define any NFS game: running away from the law and trying to finish first.

Hot Pursuit 2 also injected elements of arcade racing fundamentals with an open-world element that made it one of the most fun car racing games of its era. It’s a pity that the NFS franchise has been hit or miss with its game titles, but, fortunately, Hot Pursuit 2 was a hit. A big one at that, too.

Burnout

Sometimes, car racing games are less about performing the perfect lap or beating your friends in a heated race and more about enjoying all-out destruction in the confines of what still constitutes a “race” in someone’s imagination. The Burnout franchise prides itself on being rough around the edges, and the way you play it fits that mold, too. It’s not just about winning races; it’s how you destroy your opponents as you win these races. The first two Burnout games laid that foundation, but it was Burnout 3, which was launched in 2004, that made the series a household name in the car racing game world. A big part of Burnout 3’s success revolves around its name, specifically the “Takedown” move that was introduced in the game and has come to define the franchise since. The arcade-type driving style of Burnout 3 may not be everyone’s taste these days, but there remains a population of the car gaming world that can spend hours on end playing this game just to send an opponent’s car crumpled to a heap on the side of the road.

Forza Motorsport 3

The Forza franchise is the only series on this list that has two entries, and deservedly so. Launched in 2005 with the arrival of Forza Motorsport, the franchise had to claw its way out of Gran Turismo’s shadow in the early years of its existence. It took a while, but the game that really put the franchise on the map was Forza 3, and, ironically, it was able to do it by “out-Gran-Turismo-ing” Gran Turismo.

No game has ever dropped such a diverse mix of cars in a jaw-droopingly beautiful setting like the Australian Outback. Forza 3 not only did that, but it also set the tone of the franchise in a way that it hasn’t looked back since.

Fans of Gran Turismo will always tout the franchise’s technical superiority over Forza, and while that may have kernels of truth in it, Forza managed to take the fun factor of playing car racing games to a level that not even Gran Turismo has been able to do. You play Gran Turismo to improve your driving skills; you play Forza to have fun. Sometimes, we just want to do the latter.

Project Cars

Imagine living in a world where you’re spoiled with your choice of car racing games. You actually don’t have to imagine that because that’s exactly the world we live in now. Just as Gran Turismo and Forza continue their battle for car simulation supremacy, other titles from PC origins have been making waves in recent years. Project Cars is one of those games that traces its roots in the PC world but has also found steady footing in the console universe. This game is incredible, and I say that without a hint of hyperbole. From its strong single-player career mode that packs plenty of substance to a graphics package that rivals the best that Gran Turismo and Forza have to offer, Project Cars is making a pretty darn good claim that the car simulation battle is more than just a two-name race.

Dirt Rally

There’s a certain segment of the car racing game population that cares little about open-world simulators or the abundance of exotics that are offered in those games. For these people, the true test of a great car game is the way it immerses you into its world. Dirt Rally achieves that handily, in part because it’s the first game in the Dirt video game franchise that really puts the focus on the spirit of rally racing. See, rally racing is difficult; it takes a certain set of skills to be good at it, even if it’s just a video game. Whereas past rally games, including some of the Dirt franchise’s earlier titles, prioritized bravado over everything else, Dirt Rally is a return-to-roots game that requires a tremendous amount of skill, patience, and perseverance to be good at. You’re not just going to buy this game and assume you’ll be good at it. You’ll have to earn your keep through hours upon hours of practice. But the payoff is great because when you cross that finish line ahead of the field, you’ll feel like you actually won a real rally race. That’s realism, folks.

Forza Motorsport 4

The sentimental in me wanted to include Rage Racer in this list. It was the first racing game that I really sunk my teeth into, so I’m biased to it, no matter what others say. But this list means something, too, and it’d be an injustice to a lot of these games if I put Rage Racer in their company. The game that does belong on top of this list is Forza Motorsport 4. If Forza 3 was the game that put the franchise on level footing with Gran Turismo, Forza 4 was the game that pulled the Forza franchise ahead of its rival. Simply put, this was the premier racing simulator of the previous console generation. Gran Turismo 5 and Gran Turismo 6 could lay claims to that title, but both games had glaring flaws that Forza 4 just didn’t have.

If you wanted a game that provided incredible graphics and realism with gameplay that balanced technical simulation with arcade-style debauchery, Forza 4 was that game. It was fun, difficult, challenging, and exhilarating, and, most importantly, it had a graphics package that was second-to-none.

Were there subsequent games that provide better graphics than Forza 4? Yes. Were there games that “trained” your skills better than Forza 4? Yes. But there was no game that combined all of these elements together in one package better than Forza 4.

Which console is best for racing games?

The Sony PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One remain the two most important consoles for racing games. That said, both consoles are in the last stages of their lives as both Sony and Microsoft are gearing up for the arrival of their next-generation consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Series X, respectively.

What are the best racing games for PC?

The best racing games for PC include the following titles: Forza Motorsport 7, Project CARS 2, Dirt Rally 2, iRacing, and Assetto Corsa. Each game brings something unique to the table, but all share one thing in common: they’re the best racing games you can play in your PC

What Are the Best Racing Games with Car Customization?

Assetto Corsa, iRacing, and Forza Horizon 4 stand out as three games that offer the best in car customization experience. Play any of these three games and you not only get to tweak your car to your sensibilities, but, more importantly, you learn about the trade of car customization that you can apply in the real world.

What are the best racing games for 2020?

The same titles serve as the same answers to this question, but if you’re looking for another game apart from Assetto Corsa, Forza Horizon 4, Project CARS 2, or iRacing, you can check out Wreckfest, TT Isle of Man Ride on the Edge, Burnout Paradise Remastered, and F1 2019. These games all stand out in their own way.

What are the best racing games for Xbox?

The obvious answer is whatever is the latest Forza game in the franchise. It’s one of Microsoft’s flagship game franchises for the Xbox. Beyond the titles from the series, Project CARS 2 also stands out as one of the best racing games for the Xbox.

What are the best racing games for PS4?

Just like Forza with the Xbox, the Gran Turismo series is Sony’s flagship car racing game title for the PlayStation. Other than that, some standout car racing games for the PS4 include Driveclub, F1 2019, and Need for Speed: Heat.

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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