I love video games. No matter what activity you can think of, there’s a game for it. Everything from the life of an archeologist to scoring a touchdown on the football field is fair game. One activity that’s been omnipotent in video games since arcades became a thing is racing. Despite never having a deep love for sitting down and watching auto races on TV, I also can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have at least one racing game.
Today, I invite you to join me as we take a look at the evolution of racing games, from the early days of the gaming industry to the latest installment in the Forza franchise.
Racing Games in the 1970s
The origins of racing games stretch back almost to the beginning of the commercial video game industry.
Space Race was developed by Atari and released on Jul. 16, 1973. It was only the second game the company had done, being preceded by Pong in 1972. The gameplay itself was simple. Despite taking place in outer space, it shared many similarities to the structure of modern racing games. Space Race saw two players take control of spaceships in an attempt to be the first to cross the screen and get to the finish line, all while avoiding asteroids.
The same year, developer Taito released a similar game called Astro Race. Their entry into the racing game market would prove to be important the following year. Released in 1974, Speed Race brought the gameplay of Space Race down to Earth. Utilizing scrolling graphics, the game presented an overhead view of a race track. A steering wheel was used to control the car sprite. This was a vast departure from the volume knob controls of games past.
Over the remaining years in the decade, a variety of racing games came out. Some of them featured cars while others featured motorcycles. One game in particular was even rebranded as a Happy Days tie-in to entice American audiences.
Racing Games in the 1980s
Even in the eighties, the game industry was still developing. There were still many firsts to be had. In 1980, Namco released a title called Rally-X. The game holds the distinction of being the first video game to feature background music, Something that became an essential part of games to come.
Sega also contributed to the development of video game technology with their released of Turbo. Turbo wasn’t just the first third-person racing game. It was also the first to utilize sprite scaling with full-color graphics.
It was in 1982 that one of the most influential racing games of the eighties was released. Pole Position was developed by Namco and published by Atari. The game was not the first third-person racing game. It was the first to feature a qualifying lap before throwing players into the grand prix, though.
Up to this point, most racing games had leaned heavily towards an arcade style of gameplay. This was mostly due to the still developing market. With the release of Pole Position, there was finally a racing game that was actually based heavily on a real life circuit.
The following years saw more racing games come out, with varying features. In 1987 Square released Rad Racer for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was their attempt at a 3D racing game.
Pole Position was arguably one of the most important racing games of the 1980s. In addition to winning numerous awards in the year following its release, it was also the top grossing arcade game of 1983. Conversely, Rad Racer, while well-reviewed and enjoyed by gamers, didn’t see the same accolades as its arcade counterpart.
The last major enhancement to racing games in the eighties came when Atari released Hard Drivin’, notable for being one of the first racing game to use polygonal 3D graphics. By today’s standards, the graphics are rather rudimentary, but for the time period, they were rather impressive.
Racing Games in the 1990s
When the 90s first began, racing games continued to be spread out on the spectrum of realistic to arcade. Games like Formula One Grand Prix and IndyCar Racing gave gamers a taste of the realistic racing circuit, while games like Sega’s Virtua Racer went for something a bit more arcade-like.
In the early half of the decade, Nintendo even entered into the market with two iconic titles. F-Zero was released in 1990 and featured a sci-fi inspired aesthetic and futuristic vehicles. 1992’s Super Mario Kart, on the other hand, took aspects of racing and combined them with vehicular combat with Mario-style weapons, such as banana peels and Koopa shells. Kart racing games would really pick up in the following decade on next generation consoles.
The most important part of the nineties for racing games was in the birth of long-running franchises. Many of them are still around to this day. Between 1993 and 1997, Namco’s Ridge Racer, EA’s Need for Speed, Midway’s Cruis’n series, and Sony’s Gran Turismo were all born.
All of these franchises were 3D racers, despite varying methods to get to that point. All of these franchises would also go on to be popular with gamers. Most of the series saw a large volume of games released well up into dates close to the modern day.
Racing Games in the 2000s
The new millennium saw little in terms of new developments for racing games. By this point, they had pretty much found their style. Still, new franchises would emerge from time to time, like Rockstar’s Midnight Club.
This time period did see a number of kart racers released featuring various popular characters of the time, with one of the more notable ones being Shrek Smash and Crash Racing. The Mario Kart franchise, of course, kept running since its inception in 1992 and still sees a new installment released every few years.
At the end of the decade, aside from the occasional iconic series like Mario Kart, racing games moved more towards the realistic end of the spectrum, thanks to hardware that is much more powerful now than it has ever been before.
Racing Games in the Modern Day
So where are we now with racing games? Thankfully, we’re still in a good place. Even Sony’s Gran Turismo still sees new games added to the series, though there is one series on the market that is currently king: Forza Motorsport.
First released for Microsoft’s Xbox in 2005, Forza Motorsport is a very realistic racing series that continues to see its empire grow. The game is currently on its seventh installment and features a number of specially licensed cars from major car manufacturers. With the release of the Xbox One X, the franchise made its way over to 4K gaming. While racing games won’t be going away anytime soon, it’ll be surprising if anyone can dethrone Forza for the time being.
Much like platformers have always had the Mario vs Sonic debate, racing game fans have developed a bit of a rivalry between the Forza franchise and Gran Turismo. Its not uncommon to see articles online that give the two games a deep comparison to see which is best. Many online have praised Forza for having a more consistent release schedule as well as wider appeal. On the other side, many think Gran Turismo is better with its more focused appearance and larger roster of vehicles.
Furthermore, in the modern age of gaming, there are more racing simulation games than ever before. Games like Burnout and Project Cars have aimed to create quality simulations without trying to directly take on Sony and Microsoft’s key racing franchises.
Dirt is another popular racing simulation franchise that takes on the sport of rally racing. Originally released for the PlayStation as Colin McRae Rally, the series is another long-running racing game franchise that remains popular today.
One genre of racing that’s lost some popularity in the modern day despite being crucial to the early days of racing games is formula one racing. It’s no secret that sport is kept alive in the video game community with an F1 racing title that gets released each year to little fanfare there are still a group of gamers keeping the genre alive.
There really is a vast history when it comes to racing games. There are so many other games released that also helped contribute to the evolution of racing games. Since the release of Space Race, there have been over 800 racing games released across of the various platforms in existence.
One of the things that’s great about racing games is that even if you don’t want to play a game that’s as realistic as Forza, there’s always going to be a Mario Kart title to have some fun with friends. Even if you aren’t a fan of racing in your everyday life, I firmly believe there’s a racing game for everyone.
What’s your favorite racing game to play? Let us know in the comments below. And while you’re at it, be sure to take a look at the first piece in our Evolution of Gaming Series: The Evolution of Video Game Graphics.