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The Top 5 Most Influential Racing Games of All Time

Racing has been a staple genre for as long as video games have existed. In fact, the three main genres that started it all are still amongst the strongest today; racing, shooter, and sports. For nearly 50 years these games have stood the test of time, but why is that? Why are they the longest-running gaming genres? We take a look at The Top 5 Most Influential Racing Games of All Time to find out.

Aside from the fact that they never stopped being fun, with each passing generation came an opportunity for innovation. Since the simplicity of Pole Position in 1982, technology has grown massively allowing software to grow alongside it, leading us to present-day simulator games such as Gran Turismo 7 where adjusting the frequency of your suspension and length of your gear ratios can mean the difference between finishing in first and second place.

Adding to that there are a lot of different styles of racing games, so we will be taking a look at the most influential games that paved the way for them all.

Pole Position

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Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco/Atari
Year: 1982

Pole Position was by no means the first racing game to exist, but it has certainly earned its title as one of the most important, introducing elements still present today. Although it didn’t introduce the third-person viewpoint, Pole Position certainly popularised it, making sure it was present in many other games.

The game did introduce the qualifying lap though, determining your start position at the beginning of the big race. Additionally to this, we saw the inclusion of checkpoints. Graphically it was quite remarkable for the time with sprite scaling and the inclusion of a digitised voice.

The arcade machine had you sit in an enclosed cockpit-style cabinet complete with a steering wheel and pedals to make it all the more authentic. You sat in it feeling like you are a real Indycar driver driving the real-world circuit of Fuji (again, this was a first), it’s no wonder it was the highest-grossing arcade game in America in 1983 and 84. The game was so popular it even spawned a cartoon of the same name licensed by Namco.

In 1982, Pole Position was laying the foundations for the future of racing games.


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Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Year: 1986

Yu Suzuki’s OutRun took a pinch of Pole Position, added a little splash wave, and became an instant classic. Once again, opting for the third-person viewpoint, OutRun put you behind the wheel of the iconic Ferarri Testarossa. And with a special game, you need a special arcade cabinet tight. The one I remember using the most was the one shaped like a car, complete with Prancing Horse emblazoned steering wheel, pedals, and gearstick. Why this cab was so great though was that it was built with a movement simulator, rocking left to right and shaking as you would turn the wheel.

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The game saw you racing from checkpoint to checkpoint against the clock. At each checkpoint, you would be given a choice of one to two paths to take. Each of the five destinations represented difficulty levels, so if you take the left route, you would be opting for the easy way, as opposed to the right being harder.

OutRun was so popular that in 1987 it was the highest-grossing arcade game not just in Japan, or America, but the best in the world. The game was ported to nearly every home system going at the time, spawned a few sequels (big shoutout to OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast), featured in many compilations, and was even fully playable in the arcades of Kamurocho in the popular Yakuza series.

I feel the need to give a little nod to Super Hang-On which was released in 1987. This game followed a similar checkpoint system without the branching paths but on a superbike. And yes, you were literally on a superbike with the arcade cab. You would sit on the bike rocking left and right to control your racer on the screen built into the bike’s cockpit. What a time to be alive!

Super Mario Kart

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Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Year: 1992

Racing games are continually looking for ways to reinvent the genre. Whether it’s anime girls transforming in cars, or racing Chocobos…it exists. But what Nintendo did with Super Mario Kart was unprecedented. Remarkably it created an entirely new racing genre that inspired a number of similar games in its wake. For sure Crash Team Racing, Muppet RaceMania, and many other kart racers would never reach the dizzying heights of Super Mario Kart, but they are truly valiant efforts.

So, what was Nintendo’s secret? It was simple, addictive fun that you could have with your friends. The game took full advantage of the SNES’s Mode 7 graphics system so it was really pretty too. It took your favourite characters from Super Mario games and threw in some cute vehicular combat. This was a recipe for success.

For 30 years now, this series has been breaking up friendships all over the globe. There are eight main entries in the series, fifteen in total. The most recent has to be the most far out, turning your home into a circuit and using the Nintendo Switch to control radio-controlled cars equipped with cameras. We have come a long way in 30 years!

Ridge Racer

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Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco
Year: 1993

Moving into the realm of 3D racing games with Namco’s second entry on this list – Ridge Racer. I can hear you screaming at the screen now, “Why not Hard Drivin’ or Virtua racer“. Well, I’ll tell you why. Sure they were outstanding achievements of 3D graphics in a 2D world, but it was Ridge Racer that kickstarted the war of polygonal racing games. Maybe the likes of Sega Rally and Daytona USA were more popular at the time, but Namco just kept on making great Ridge Racer games, one after another.

Namco also went all out on one of their arcade units, putting you in the driving seat of an actual Mazda Eunos Roadster for the Full Scale version.

Ridge racer full scale stockton

Ridge Racer was originally intended to be an F1 game, but thanks to an emerging market of car enthusiasts in Japan, what we got was the widely lauded drift-style gameplay with 3D texture-mapped graphics and awesome music.

Yozo Sakagami, General Manager at Namco at the time said;

They liked racing on mountain roads and did not want to slow down around corners, so drifted around them instead. Therefore, the team decided to create a game which allowed players to test their driving skills and experience cars’ manipulation at high speeds while mastering drifting.

So with all this in mind, it comes as no surprise that it was the most popular arcade game in Japan during 1994. Console ports were inevitable and Ridge Racer found its home on PlayStation. So much so that with each new generation of console, a Ridge Racer game was a launch title until Ridge Racer 7 on PlayStation 3. Namco would eventually publish on other systems but we haven’t had a proper new game since Ridge Racer Unbounded in 2012. Come on Bandai Namco, the world needs a new Ridge Racer game!

Gran Turismo

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Developer: Polyphony Digital
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Year: 1997

So here we are, we have inevitably reached the grandfather of sim racers – Gran Turismo. A game that was five years in the making, and you just had to be there to really appreciate what it was. It looked and played like nothing ever before. So much so that creator Kazunori Yamauchi thought it would not do so well because it was not arcade-style gameplay, but it would appeal to a more select group of gamers. Well, he could not be more wrong. Final Fantasy VII found itself in a bit of a Gran Turismo sandwich when it came to overall sales, occupying second place while Gran Turismo would be the highest-selling PlayStation game of all time, with Gran Turismo 2 taking third on the podium. Pretty impressive for a team of fewer than 20 people.

The level of realism was unparalleled at the time,  and later down the line, the GT Academy was founded which would take players and put them in real cars. Some of these gamers have gone on to have successful racing careers in the real world thanks to this. With 140 vehicles, some manufacturers released data to the team so they could accurately model them. The behaviour of these cars would change too, depending on the alterations you made to certain components or additional body parts.

Another standout feature was the graphical use of light. This was best seen in replay mode as you would see your car racing around and the light reflecting off the bodywork and moving position as it went around the track. This doesn’t sound impressive now, but it was unheard of 25 years ago.

Close up of the Mitsubishi GTO

The real hook of the game for me was the more you race, the more money you earn, and the more cars you could buy. But to take part in races, you had to go through the licence tests first, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds and carried its own rewards.

The series is still going strong today with its most recent release, Gran Turismo 7 being released earlier this year. If I was to recommend any game from the series, it would be Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2 which was the third best-selling game on the system, beaten only by Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I mean, it had over 720 cars and 51 circuits including real-world ones. That’s 32 more tracks than its predecessor.

Sim racing is now a huge thing with international esports competitions where if you’re good enough, you can win big money and fame. None of this would have been possible without the grandfather, Gran Turismo.

So, that’s the list. Sure there are other influential games, but maybe we will save that for another list. Is there anything you think I missed or you would have rather seen in this list? Lets us know on Twitter at Controller Nerds, or even myself at Nostalgic Gamer. Until next time, drive safe and have fun.

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