Today’s realistic 3D racing video games are one of the most popular gaming genres. It took decades of technological progress to make those beautiful renditions possible, though. Way back when GameRang thought arcade games were all the rage, even the use of color impressed players.
Slowly but surely, video gaming made steady progress on all fronts. Nearly 50 years after the first driving simulator was released, the difference between the early racing games and today’s iterations is simply unbelievable.
From arcade cabinets to virtual reality headsets, we explore the incredible journey of racing video games.
The Humble Beginning
In 1972, Atari released Space Race, the first racing video game ever. As the name suggests, the game took place in space, where two players move their space crafts up the screen while avoiding asteroids. Featuring monochrome graphics and simple gameplay, the game bears no resemblance to the gaming masterpieces of our day.
Only a year later, Atari produced Gran Track 10, another arcade video game and the first car racing game. It was yet another monochrome game where players drive along a track, avoiding obstacles while attempting to pass the highest number of checkpoints.
What was the next big thing?
Well, it came in 1976 with the release of Night Driver, one of the earliest pseudo-3D racing games. The game was also among the first to feature real-time graphics from the first-person perspective.
In 1979, the racing video game genre achieved another major milestone with Spead Freak. The game was the first to use vector graphics, which made many deem the driving game ahead of its time. Little did anyone know that this would become only a tiny blip on the racing video game timeline.
The Golden Age
The 1980s transformed gaming from a dull, black and white screen to interesting, colorful playing experience. In 1980, Namco’s Rally-X took the world by surprise, featuring background music, multidirectional scrolling, and radar showing the car’s location.
A couple of years later, Namco also developed one of the most popular arcade games of its era. Pole Position brought a real racing circuit, colorful pseudo-3D graphics, and checkpoints. It was so successful that it spawned sequels, inspired future games, and even made appearances on TV and in film.
Better things were yet to come, though.
In 1985, Sega took it up a notch and released Hang On. The motorbike racer had an arcade cabinet with nearly a full-size motorcycle replica, which allowed players to use a throttle, brakes, and leaning movement to control the bike. The game also featured 16-bit graphics, computer-controlled opponents, and controller vibrations feedback.
Sega took only a year to create yet another hit. With sensational graphics, nonlinear gameplay, and changeable radio stations, Out Run was arguably the top arcade game of its day. It was Sega’s best-selling arcade game of the 1980s, and it was so impressive that nothing better came for the remainder of the decade.
The Home Gaming Era
In the 1990s, technology advanced enough for players to bring arcade games to their homes. With the advent of consoles such as the Atari ST and Amiga, the decade marked the birth of gaming at home.
In 1992, Formula One Grand Prix elevated clunky driving games to authentic racing experiences. The racing simulator featured Formula One cars, tracks, and even team liveries. In the same year, Nintendo released Super Mario Kart on their home video game console. The game was such a huge commercial success that it launched the Mario Kart series, which lasted for over two decades.
But the 90s had more in store for gamers.
Revolutionizing video games, Sony produced The Play Station in 1994. The video game console took the world by storm selling millions of units and becoming one of the most iconic gaming platforms of all time. Moreover, it made home consoles mainstream, which significantly increased the popularity of video games.
1994 also brought The Need for Speed, the first edition of the world’s most influential racing game series. It included closed circuits, police pursuits, and racing tournaments with impressive graphics, thrilling gameplay, and impressive full-motion videos.
In 1997, and after five years in development, Gran Turismo hit the markets. Dubbed the most realistic racing game of its era, the game raised the bar for the racing genre. From stellar graphics to tuning options, the race simulator offered a superb gaming experience that few other games could match at the time.
The Turn of a Century
Remember the Y2K scare? Many thought it would bring the world to an end. Luckily, that didn’t happen and it didn’t stop the gaming industry from moving forward.
The 2000s marked the biggest development in both hardware and software, which allowed the manufacture of modern game consoles like the Xbox, GameCube, and Playstation 2. At this point in time, technology was so far advanced that nearly anything was possible.
So what did this mean for video games? Well, a lot.
By this point, technology made it possible to create life-like virtual recreations of cars, tracks, and even whole cities. At the beginning of the century, Project Gotham Racing offered players the chance to drive in real-life locales while performing exhilarating stunts to advance to the next round.
Other racing game franchises continued to gain popularity with the release of state of the art editions, including Mario Kart, Gran Tourismo and Need for Speed. In particular, Need for Speed: Underground, which was released in 2003, brought new elements to the genre including a storyline, car customization, and multiple playing modes.
A couple of years down the line, Forza Motorsport became a hit as it pioneered performance degradation when the car sustains exterior or interior damage. Its graphics were better than ever, delivering a truly realistic racing experience.
Around the middle of the decade, Sony released the Play Station 3 and Microsoft produced the Xbox 360. In an effort to compete with those popular consoles, Nintendo created the Wii, which featured a remote controller. The handheld pointing device made video gaming even more convenient and accessible.
This meant prettier graphics, faster processors, and better gameplay. Racing games continued to improve throughout the 2000s, with every iteration attempting to surpass the standard its predecessor or rival has set.
Today’s Racing Games
For almost three decades, gaming technology continued to improve, allowing games to become more realistic, visually appealing, and fun to play. However, today’s games took things to a whole different level.
What many considered impossible a couple of decades ago became commonplace these days. Virtual Reality made a significant change in many fields, including racing video games.
Nowadays, many games blur the line between simulation and reality. A set of VR headset, pedal panel, and steering wheel takes the concept of virtual racing to a new height. The player actually drives a car instead of simply pushing buttons on a controller.
Racing games like Need for Speed: No Limits VR, Gran Turismo Sport, and Project Cars produce an exceptionally authentic gaming experience. You might even get scared to hurt yourself while driving at insane speeds. It feels so real.
The Top Three
To wrap it up, we take a look at the top 3 racing games series of all time. It’s tough to achieve fan appeal and commercial success together, but those franchises made it happen.
The Need for Speed franchise holds the title of the most successful racing game ever made, both commercially and critically. With over 20 installments, the series continued to gain popularity for over 25 years. It sold over 150 million units and won multiple awards and accolades. EA, along with DreamWorks Pictures, even created a movie based on the game, which was released in 2014 and made over 200 million at the worldwide box office.
With over 130 million units sold, Mario Kart comes in second only to Need for Speed. Since 1992, the go-kart style video game spawned several sequels and appeared on numerous platforms for nearly three decades while receiving high praise from critics and players alike.
Gran Turismo takes third place with over 80 million units in sales. The game started off strong in 1997, bringing what many players regard as the most realistic racing game of the 1990s. The game’s goal was to emulate the appearance and performance, which it did in grand style.
The Bottom Line
Racing video games have made a huge leap since the days of archaic, white graphics. Through technological advancement, you can now immerse yourself in a life-like driving experience, which was a dream only a few decades ago.
But does the journey end here? Time will tell, but judging by how far we came, it seems likely that racing game, and video games in general, will continue to evolve in the foreseeable future.
You might wonder what the future holds for racing video games, but who knows? GameRang has watched as the gaming industry continued to grow and delight gamers with outstanding racing simulators year after year. There’s little doubt that players will be pleasantly surprised by what comes next.