Growing up, the release of a new racing game was pretty much the most exciting thing that could happen in my life, so that’s how I marked big milestones. I went to Toys ‘R Us the first week or so of my freshman year of high school and picked up Sega Rally Revo and Project Gotham Racing 4 on the same September day in 2007. On Christmas Eve 2000, I unwrapped a Dreamcast game and asked my brother what a “Le Mans” was. In 2010, I used my recently acquired license to drive to the closest Best Buy with my best friend because GTPlanet said the retailer had a demo of Gran Turismo 5. I convinced myself that game was going to be perfect; how young and stupid I was.
This reflective, rose-tinted time of year caused me to look back and ask myself “what was the best year for racing games?” Approximately 45 minutes of vigorous Google searching and poking through Wikipedia’s list of racing video games and has given me an answer: it was 2005.
Here are just some of the racing games released in North America in 2005, in no particular order:
- Gran Turismo 4
- Forza Motorsport
- Need for Speed: Most Wanted
- Project Gotham Racing 3
- Burnout Revenge
- Mario Kart DS
- Enthusia Professional Racing
- Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition
- Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2
- Ridge Racers
- Wipeout Pure
This isn’t counting WRC Rally Evolved — Evolution Studios’ final officially-licensed WRC game before going off to make Motorstorm. That, like most of the studio’s games, missed North America. It’s also not counting rFactor, GTR and GT Legends — a trio of PC sims that released long before my days of PC sim racing, that have informed so much of the racers that still matter today.
But damn, 2005 was so good. You had Gran Turismo 4, arguably still the pinnacle of that series. Forza getting its start, and giving GT its first legitimate challenger. Most Wanted, often regarded as the best Need for Speed. Project Gotham Racing 3 which, in my opinion, is the finest launch racing game of all time. It absolutely blew me away, and still looks gorgeous even as we enter 2023.
We haven’t even discussed half the list yet. Burnout Revenge wasn’t quite Takedown, but it was still great. Mario Kart DS pretty much held the mantle for that franchise’s zenith, at least until 8 Deluxe. And Midnight Club 3? Depending on the day, I might rank it even above Most Wanted. What a fun, ginormous game.
We have to talk about the two PlayStation Portable releases at the bottom of the list, too. I don’t think I could ever properly convey in words how astonishing Ridge Racers — a fully polygonal, 60 frame-per-second, console-quality racing game — was on a handheld in 2005. You’ve gotta remember, months earlier the best we had was V-Rally 3 or Top Gear Rally on the GameBoy Advance. Excellent titles that managed something unthinkable on meager hardware, but nothing like this. Firing up Ridge Racers or Wipeout Pure on the PSP in March 2005 was like being given a lightbulb after toiling under oil lamps and candles your entire life.
To a lesser extent, so too was the “HD era” ushered in by the Xbox 360. PGR3 gave us the most detailed car interiors we’d ever seen, and demonstrated to me for the first time how good motion blur could look. Every enduringly pretty racing game since has employed it.
Technology is a big part of the story in 2005, and perhaps that’s no surprise. This was a time when developers were maxing out the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, while also getting to grips with capable mobile hardware like the PSP and Nintendo DS, and high-definition displays on the 360. It seemed like everything was moving so quickly, and that was exciting.
In trying to decide on the best year for racers, I considered 1999 for similar reasons. That year we got Gran Turismo 2, Ridge Racer Type 4 and Wipeout 3 — a trio of PlayStation racers that pushed Sony’s first console further than anyone would’ve ever imagined it could go, back in the early days of Destruction Derby and Jet Moto. Decent games, but unlike R4, I’d never describe them as “cinematic.”
Indeed, ’99 was close. Beetle Adventure Racing released that year, as did the imperfect-but-still-fun port of Sega Rally 2 on the Dreamcast. Racing Lagoon, too. 2003 was another one that deserves an honorable mention, thanks to F-Zero GX, Midnight Club II, Project Gotham Racing 2, Burnout 2, Mario Kart: Double Dash and Auto Modellista, which looked so good I could easily put up with the weird handling. ’03 was also smack-dab in the middle of Codemasters’ most prolific era, giving us three years in a row of peerless, punishing (for the time, anyway) rally games, alongside the TOCA Race Driver series.
But for me, 2005 just had too many heavy hitters to beat. Do you agree? I’d love to hear your nominations in the comments. And I hope you get a good racer under the tree this year.