Video games take years to develop, but in reality it took decades for the likes of Gran Turismo 7, Need For Speed Unbound and Forza Horizon 5 to get in front of us. Decades of technological breakthroughs, design innovations and, of course, trial and error. It’s almost impossible to precisely identify all those moments that changed the course of the genre for good, but we’re going to do our best. Today we’re paying tribute to 10 of gaming’s most influential racing titles, spanning three decades. And just to stave off any inherent nostalgia bias, this list has been ordered chronologically. Let’s get to it.
Pole Position (1982)
Namco pretty much wrote the blueprint for the racing game as we know it today with 1982's Pole Position. Before it, there was barely a precedent for racing games with a three-dimensional perspective. Sega beat Namco to market by a year with 1981's Turbo — which also situated the camera behind the car — though Turbo was a decidedly less immersive affair. Pole Position brought the player right down to the asphalt, with faster, smoother gameplay that rewarded speedy driving, rather than just avoiding wrecks. Also unlike almost anything else at the time, Pole Position required you to master a real circuit — Fuji Speedway. It’d be the better part of a decade before anything on a home console would touch it.
Out Run (1986)
Four years after Pole Position changed everything, Sega’s Yu Suzuki created a game that was less about white-knuckle, wheel-to-wheel racing, and more about the beauty of the ride, influenced by one of his favorite films, The Cannonball Run. Out Run’s state-of-the-art, postcard-esque Sprite Scaler visuals, memorable soundtrack and innovative branching pathway difficulty system were all key additions to the genre that evolved simulation into art. This was the game that made Ferrari’s Testarossa an even bigger star, and gave rise to a musical aesthetic that continues to inspire pretenders almost 40 years on.
Test Drive (1987)
Meanwhile at home, Distinctive Software’s Test Drive brought the magic of driving real cars, complete with manufacturer-sourced specifications, to your computer. As with Out Run, in Test Drive you weren’t so much racing others as perfecting your run — in this case on a mountain road, to the dismay of local law enforcement. But it isn’t just Test Drive’s authenticity that lands it on this list. A legal row between Distinctive and publisher Accolade led to Distinctive being purchased by Electronic Arts a few years later, where the soul of Test Drive was reincarnated in a little game called The Need For Speed.
Indianapolis 500: The Simulation (1989)
Technically speaking every game leading up to this point was integral to the development of sim racing, because developers were quite literally defining how cars should behave in a digital space from scratch. Realism was always the objective. But Indianapolis 500: The Simulation, from Papyrus Design Group, marked an inflection point.
This was one track and one event — the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsport — recreated with stunning attention to detail. From the full 33-car grid and order of the 1989 running, to the ability to tweak settings like suspension, aero, and fuel load, even to replicating flag rules, Papyrus’ debut title basically drew a line in the sand for the genre and its fans that, for better or worse, still persists today. You’d better know the development team today as the minds behind iRacing.
Super Mario Kart (1992)
Unless you count Grand Theft Auto V, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the best-selling racing game of all time, with more than 60 million copies sold between its first release on the ill-fated Wii U console and its second, infinitely more successful life on the Nintendo Switch. That’s because it’s the apex of a formula that started way back in 1992, with the release of the very first Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Kart racing exploded as a subgenre in the years following, and it’s not difficult to see why. Cute characters, easy-to-learn, hard-to-master gameplay and field-evening weapons make for the perfect party game.
Daytona USA (1994)
I’ll admit, this one was a bit of a toss up. See, Daytona USA was not the first texture-mapped 3D polygonal racing game. That distinction goes to Namco’s little-known SimDrive — a continuation of that eternal Sega v. Namco rivalry that we touched on at the top of this list, that made arcades so wonderful through the ’90s. Daytona was even beaten to market by a matter of weeks by Namco’s Ridge Racer, which blew everyone away again when it launched in near-arcade perfect form on the PlayStation in 1994.
But Daytona was the one that demonstrated staying power. To this very day, there’s approximately a 50/50 chance you will find a Daytona cab in any arcade in this country that’s still kicking — and those odds are better if the establishment in question serves alcohol. This was that arcade racer with the rare capability to delight newcomers and satisfy seasoned pros alike, thanks to a combination of easy courses, hectic, crash-prone gameplay, and advanced techniques like gear drifting that weren’t necessary enjoy the game, but certainly critical to mastering it.
Gran Turismo (1997)
Nissan GT-R. Lancer Evolution. WRX STI. Regrettably, two of those cars are no longer on sale and one is unattainable for the vast majority of us. Nevertheless, they may never have been sold in the U.S. at all if not for Gran Turismo, the PlayStation driving sim that informed a budding generation of car enthusiasts what they’d been missing out on.
There are other reasons GT’s placement here is deserved, of course. No game before had ever included such a vast number of licensed models, nor had any game let you modify and upgrade all of them to this extent. The rags-to-riches gameplay loop, starting you off grinding for prize money in a Japanese compact on the way to fielding Vipers and legitimate touring cars, was novel in its own right, too. But don’t take my word for it. You don’t outsell every other game on the PS1 without revolutionizing a genre.
Need For Speed: Underground (2003)
On the surface, there’s nothing strictly revolutionary about Need For Speed: Underground, the series’ big street racing-themed reboot for 2003. The driving itself is linear and serviceable; the progression doesn’t advance the Gran Turismo formula in any significant way; and the strength of the artificial intelligence’s catch-up system makes the gameplay downright infuriating at times. No, NFSU isn’t on this list because of any of that; it’s here for what it did for car culture. And in the shadow of The Fast and the Furious opening eyes to a new expression of automotive enthusiasm and storytelling, what it did was explode and inspire a litany of subpar copycats. Whether you liked cars or not, if you wanted to be cool, you had a copy.
Richard Burns Rally (2004)
Until Codemasters released Dirt Rally back in 2015, anyone looking for a rally simulation that didn’t spare players the full brunt of the discipline’s brutal, punishing nature was invariably told to go find a PC, fire up Richard Burns Rally and like it. I mean, this game is still seeing mods 19 years after launch because its most ardent fans refuse to play anything else. It’s not like many more rally titles haven’t been made in the intervening two decades, though none can quite match the nuance of RBR’s physics model, nor its claustrophobia-inducing stages. If history is any indication, it won’t be unseated as the gold standard by which all off-road racing games are measured against anytime soon.
Forza Horizon 2 (2014)
The first Forza Horizon came and went as an experiment of what would happen if you applied a sophisticated, semi-realistic driving model to an open-world context. At first it didn’t really seem to stick, but then Forza Horizon 2 happened and ever since, it’s been the biggest racing game that doesn’t contain target-locking red shells.
Forza Horizon 2 and its successors have realized the potential that games like Test Drive Unlimited and Need For Speed World were sniffing at: that driving games can be inclusive spaces for every type of gearhead, explorer or content creator that comprises car culture. Casual or hardcore, it doesn’t matter. Horizon trusts you to make your own fun in cars, with the people you want to share that experience with. Hasn’t that always been the dream?
And so ends our list of 10 of the most influential racing games of all time. Which have you played? Which have you yet to play? And which did we fail to mention that would earn a spot on your own ranking? Tell us in the comments.