Our real-life cars are great, but we can't usually use them to catch funky crooks or evil spies, and we can't race them in Formula One — or in 2560 or 1967. Luckily, there's video games! Here's our twenty favorites.

Start your journey though our top 20 auto-themed video games by clicking next on the right and give us what you think we missed in the comments below.

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Spy Hunter
Creator: Midway
Release Date: 1983
Original Platform: Arcade

Why We Love It: Elegantly designed and incredibly well-balanced, but all we cared about in 1983 is that we had a Z28 with guns on it. Unlimited ammo machine guns. Also oil slicks, smokescreen, anti-air missles, and support infrastructure in the form of the weapons and replacement vans, and what else do you need from life as long as you had access to the sit-down version? Even the Peter Gunn theme never seemed to get old.

Photo: Wikipedia

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Pole Position
Creator: Namco
Release Date: 1982
Original Platform: Arcade

Why We Love It: The faux-3D graphics, the inclusion of the more-or-less actual Fuji Racetrack circuit and the qualify-to-race format allowed certain junior car geeks to act aloof and superior to everyone else in the arcades. Hey, we all thought we were going to be nuked at any moment, and we were living for the moment, okay? Pole Position also featured in-game advertising, which seemed cool in those more innocent times.

Photo: Videogamecritic.net

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: F-Zero
Creator: Nintendo
Release Date: 1991
Original Platform: SNES

Why We Love It: Listen, Mario Kart is great and all, but F-Zero was hardcore stuff. In the 27th century, gigaillionaires race cars which hover a foot over a track lined with damaging walls and festooned with magnets, mines, and slip zones. Unlock the Super Jet boost by putting in a good lap and you're in a for a combination of Pole Position and Sonic the Hedgehog, meaning that it was fun, colorful, and difficult as hell.

Photo: Wikipedia

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Newman/Haas Racing Featuring Nigel Mansell
Creator: Acclaim
Release Date: 1994
Original Platform: SNES

Why We Love It: Now YOU can be Nigel Mansell! Er…great? Well, there weren't a lot of licensed games based on actual series for console owners in those days, and Nigel Mansell was pretty much the most complete. In the early '90s Mansell came over to the States from Formula 1, proceeded to trounce everyone on the Indy-series ovals with a combination of talent and stupefying bravery, and then put his intimidating Brit-stache on this perfectly adequate game. Interestingly, you could retire from a race, or a few in a row, with injuries to the driver, which was perhaps a nod to Mansell's 1993 injury at Phoenix, or perhaps just a really silly idea.

Photo: SNESclassics

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Daytona USA
Creator: Sega
Release Date: 1995
Original Platform: Arcade

Why We Love It: Hey, you could race against up to eight of your friends! Or most likely the guy in the one other cabinet who has $14 in quarters up there, won't leave, and smells like gerbil bedding. Still, it was cool, and several different oval, road, and street courses were on offer, plus the option of manual transmissions, so you could actually get pretty wrapped up in it. And it ran extremely fast and smooth for the time. Sadly, instead of an evolved version, Buck Hunter and Golden Tee rule today's bowling alleys and bars.

Photo: Softpedia

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Twisted Metal
Creator: SingleTrac
Release Date: 1995
Original Platform: PlayStation

Why We Love It: Mario Kart was cute and all, but character-based car games were going away from races and more towards the fighting-game model. Twisted Metal was the car-combat result, and it was a huge success, even though its evil boss character was the already played-out evil clown. More importantly it had surprising tactical depth and a decent variety of stages and vehicles. Plus you could drop the Eiffel Tower on people, always a must for any fantastical demolition derby. Sadly, the series got "darker," supposedly, and less fun as time went on and people got bored by scary clowns.

Photo: SCEA

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: WipEout series
Creator: Psygnosis/SCE Liverpool
Release Date: 1995
Original Platform: PlayStation, PC

Why We Love It: Rave on, racers! While in many respects these games hew close to the F-Zero hovering rocket-car format, the production design is extremely 90s and the throbbing electronic soundtrack is extremely throbbing. It also happens to be very good arcade racing, if you can tolerate the well-executed if psychedelic atmosphere. Still popular among people who like their racing alternate and futuristic, their music futuristic and throbbing, and their consciousness throbbing and altered.

Photo: consolewars

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Formula 1
Creator: Psygnosis
Release Date: 1996
Original Platform: PlayStation

Why We Love It: It may not have been a true simulation, but the first in-depth racing game for the PlayStation was a very good one indeed. Formula 1 featured the entire field and all the tracks from the 1995 season, full practice and qualifying sessions, and commentary by Murray Walker himself. Graphically, and in most other ways, it was a big step beyond anything else commonly available, and was arguably better than any of the next couple follow-ups in the series, which eventually bogged down somewhat in gimcrackery and tacked-on arcade modes.

Photo: rscnet

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Streets Of Sim City
Creator: Maxis
Release Date: 1997
Original Platform: PC

Why We Love It: Before anyone figured out that manipulating simulated people were where it's at, simulated civil service and urban planning were a huge genre. Streets allowed you to be a puppet master by day and an automotive vigilante puppet by night; the streets you raced and fought on were the very ones you designed. It seemed like a novelty, but besides the racing and car combat it was remarkably absorbing to just cruise the streets of your very own metropolis, consider raising taxes again, and wonder why all your slums were invariably down by your stadium.

Photo: Gosugamers

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Interstate '76
Creator: Activision
Release Date: 1997
Original Platform: PC

Why We Dig It The Most, Baby: It's car combat set against a malaise-era oil crisis with a 'sploitation sensibility, and it is funny and it rocks. You play as "Groove Champion," and you fight to stop OPEC from nuking Texas—for reasons that certainly must have seemed sound at the time—from behind the wheel and trigger of an alternate-universe Plymouth Barracuda. The combat mechanics are surprisingly detailed, the driving engine is consistent if unremarkable, and the soundtrack is huge, bass-heavy and fretless. There were sequels, but they didn't have the same magic. A great reason to own an older PC or to emulate.

Photo: Wikipedia

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Grand Prix Legends
Creator: Papyrus
Release Date: 1998
Original Platform: PC

Why We Absolutely Adore It: A gem that slowly evolved into a masterpiece and ten years after its release is verging on a magnum opus. You want to talk cult hits and rabid fans? This little game, which started out as an extremely solid simulation of the 1967 Grand Prix season, still has a dedicated playing and modding community today, and when we say dedicated, we mean they're almost done putting together the entire Targa Florio course-all 45 miles of it. It's a classic example of a looks-okay-but-plays-amazing game, and if you're remotely interested in the game type and want to play alongside a passionate, dedicated group, this is exactly what you've been looking for.

Photo: Softpedia

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Gran Turismo series
Creator: Polyphony Digital
Release Date: 1998
Original Platform: PlayStation

Why We Love It: Without this game, would people still crave RHD JDM R34 Skylines, we wonder? Probably, but not with the same intensity. Aside from the 176-car menu, Gran Turismo introduced the joy of simulation, with its emphasis on careful setup and car control (if not damage modeling) to consoles. A great racing-school component, challenging event stages, and tantalizing unlockables kept a new generation of digital gearheads playing all night. It was five years in the making, but it was worth it, as every edition since has been a stunner, and there's every reason to suspect that long-delayed GT5 will be astounding as well. As for developer Polyphony Digital, who changed motoring culture by putting Skylines in their product, they now put their product in the Skyline; they famously do the dash graphics for Nissan's GTR.

Photo: Polyphony Digital

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Crazy Taxi
Creator: Sega
Release Date: 1999
Original Platform: Arcade

Why We Love It: It's perhaps the last truly great arcade driver, Crazy Taxi is a roaming mission-based game of fare deliver with an odd but consistent physics engine and a great sense of humor. It was simple, buy there was a lot of depth and plenty to enjoy, including the sights and folks of coastal pseudo-California, the ever-present KFC ads, and the jaunty punk soundtrack. It nibbled away your time in happy 90-second bites, and it only got better when it evolved into The Simpsons Hit And Run.

Photo: Loot Ninja

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Midnight Club
Creator: Angel Studios
Release Date: 2000
Original Platform: PlayStation2

Why We Love It: The PS2's debut was a revelation, and aptly-named publisher Rockstar Games was there to capitalize with an open-world off-road free-for-all called Smuggler's Run and this free-roaming street racer. The setting was Manhattan, a semi-open world which seemed huge at the time and provided great choose-your-own-course point-to-point racing. The series continues to evolve and has become even more challenging; it may be the arcade racer with the steepest difficulty curve.

Photo: Gamespy

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Colin McRae Rally/ DiRT
Creator: Codemasters
Release Date: 2000
Original Platform: PlayStation, PC

Why We Love It: As indescribably cool as rallying is, there aren't many rally games to choose from. Therefore it's fortunate that the McRae games are very good indeed. Although they trend towards the arcadey side in later editions, all of them are fun, challenging , and smooth, and a fitting pop-culture tribute to one of the greatest drivers of all time. They're also some of the best-looking car games out there regardless of genre, and the sound must be heard to be believed; motorsport, and rallying in particular, is not a quiet activity, and this title does a better job than any other game s of bringing it home to the vicarious driver.

Photo: Gamespot

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Grand Theft Auto III-IV
Creator: Rockstar
Release Date: 2001
Original Platform: PlayStation2

Why We Love It: Okay, so it isn't purely or even primarily a car game, despite its title. Yet the driving aspects of these satirical mayhem simulators are so much evil-hearted cinematic fun that it can't be left off this list. Much thought has been put into the cars that populate GTA's hilariously mean-tempered cities, and every model is meticulously detailed and clearly inspired by some real-world counterpart. They all blow up real good, too. And the latest installment finally looks good enough to make the first-person view worth using during police chases, which adds an almost frightening level of immediacy to your inevitable brutal demise.

Photo: IGNl

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Burnout series
Creator: Criterion
Release Date: 2002
Original Platform: PlayStation2, Xbox, GameCube

Why We Love It: The problem with many racing games, even the less realistic ones, is that one little crash can render the entire race a moot point. Burnout's genius solution was to make crashing just as important as racing, and just as skill-intensive. All the titles were fun, and though the most recent edition, Burnout Paradise, lost the bowling-for-cars Crash Mode, it added a free-roaming component that more than made up for it. One of the great Neanderthal time-wasters of the videogame world.

Photo: Wikipedia

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Need for Speed Most Wanted
Creator: Electronic Arts Canada
Release Date: 2005
Original Platform: PlayStation2, Xbox

Why We Love It: The Need For Speed series has been around just about forever, but frankly not all its editions have been worthwhile. Of the many good ones, we prefer Most Wanted, because if you're going to have a glossy, unrealistic, over-the-top street racer, you should really try to outrun the cops as well. The police pursuits are the best part of this game, which is set in a world where the entire focus of the United States government is apparently dedicated to preventing you from speeding, which results in some wonderfully fun and over-the-top chases, all of them treated with deadly serious attitude. Oooh, those street racers and their pesky nitrouses!

Photo: NFSAddons

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Forza Motorsport series
Creator: Forza Motorsport series
Release Date: 2005
Original Platform: Xbox

Why We Love It: While the Xbox had a very pretty and enjoyable arcade racer in Project Gotham, it badly needed a sim-based game. It got a great one in Forza, which had hundreds of cars, very deep graphic customization, extended replays, the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and damage modeling. Finally, a gorgeous, deep console racer where you couldn't just berm off other racers without consequences! Happily, the series continues to evolve in a positive direction, and we have high hopes for the debut of Forza 3 in a couple months.

Photo: Kotaku

The 20 Greatest Car Video Games

Game: Test Drive Unlimited
Creator: Eden Games
Release Date: 2006
Original Platform: PC, Xbox360, PlayStation2, PSP

Why We Love It: The Test Drive series began in 1987-1987!-and like NFS, has varied widely in quality. But it's always featured exotic hardware raced in traffic on public roads, and Unlimited does that wonderfully. The developers took a map of Oahu, simplified it down to a mere thousand miles of road, and modeled it for free roaming. The MOOR system, or Massively Open Online Racing, allowed players to race against friends or just cruise with them, which was much more popular than you might think. Your customizable character was visible to other players at the car clubs, although they couldn't come hang out at your mansion and check out your ever-growing collection of undamagable exotics. There was even an in-game photography mode that allowed players to live out their buff-book fantasies. It was really an automotive lifestyle game as much as a racer, and a pretty decent piece of escapism to zone out with.

There's a lot of good games out there, and it was tough to keep this one to just twenty titles. Think we missed big? Know something we should try? Enraged at the omission of Big Rig Racing? Let us know in the comments.

Photo: Gamerhell