It’s the summer of the road trip, says everyone in the media. Even around cities, rush-hour traffic has been down and driving has almost seemed fun again. But short of being a professional racer or setting new Cannonball Run records, actual driving is rarely as fun as it is in video games.
With that in mind, what are the best driving video games of all time? There are some legends out there: Pole Position, OutRun and obviously Mario Kart — a first-ballot video game hall of famer. There are a lot of hardcore racing simulators out there, too. But what do actual drivers say? We got answers!
Conor Daly, IndyCar driver: The ones that stick out to me are Andretti Racing for the original PlayStation — that was super memorable for me because when I was a kid I loved video games. As I started to get older, Project Gotham Racing 2, Forza Motorsport 2, those were two games I played a lot.
Everyone loves Mario Kart 64 — that’s a classic and we still play that. A lot of the IndyCar drivers actually play that together, we do tournaments if we’re bored, like really aggressively. Like, really aggressively. Marco Andretti actually has a Nintendo 64 in his motorhome at all times. Alex Rossi, an Indy 500 champion, and our buddy Tim once brought their own television onto a plane along with a Nintendo 64 in first class, playing Mario Kart.
What makes a good racing game? I think the physics, which makes it fun to race, or the coolest graphics at the time. Something that was really cool about Project Gotham Racing 2 was the drifting. They got it so right, the control of the car and what it was doing. Likewise, the fun of Mario Kart is still there. The creativity of the tracks and the hilariousness of what you can do, that still registers and is still fun.
Need for Speed: High Stakes
Ian Kitterman, UPS truck driver: Racing games have always been my favorite genre, so it’s kind of a complicated subject for me, but if I had to pick one it would be Need for Speed: High Stakes for the PC that came out in 1999.
My first racing game was Need for Speed 2, which released way back in 1997. I fell in love with the franchise after that. Unlike most people, though, I kinda fell off with the release of Need for Speed: Underground. It’s a great game, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always preferred exotic cars over tuners and that’s where the series switched gears, no pun intended.
After that, another great series was Midnight Club by Rockstar. That series has such staying power: I and a lot of other people wish that Rockstar would revive it.
For about the past five years I’ve been into a subgenre of racing games called racing simulators — just a way more hardcore version of racing games. What I love about those is that you can basically think of them as the Microsoft Flight Simulator of racing games. Everything is modeled accurately — track temperature, tire temperature, ambient temperature, aerodynamics, weight, just about any variable you find in real life is modeled virtually in these kinds of games.
A lot of the world’s larger racetracks have been laser-scanned by the developers of the games so that every detail of the track is accurate, down to every dip and imperfection. To get the most out of the simulators, though, you have to invest some money. I just have a cheap Fanatec wheel and pedal combo, but some people get triple monitor setups, virtual reality headsets, even full-motion rigs. It can easily get into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what you want.
Pixar’s ‘Cars’ Game
Bernard Bernardo, proud minivan-driving dad: I usually play role-playing games, but I got the Pixar Cars game as a gift from somebody. I’ve enjoyed the Cars franchise of movies, and the game is great too. Like any good racing game you can modify tracks, choose different cars and build up and customize your cars, so the more you play, the faster your cars will get. My kid and I race split-screen.
Sometimes I beat him, and other times I let him beat me — he’s eight, so he’ll get frustrated, while I’ve been gaming my entire life. He likes playing it, though there are still some things he has to learn in terms of hand-eye coordination and control. Overall, it’s a great game to play with your family or kids.
Burnout 3: Takedown
Chris Alaimo, Classic Gaming Quarterly: The racing genre is nearly as old as video gaming itself. Atari’s 1976 arcade release Night Driver was the first game to employ the third-person point-of-view that would for years be the standard, and in 1983, Namco’s Pole Position arguably brought driving games to the forefront, blazing the trail for later smash hits like OutRun (1986) and Daytona USA (1993), both from Sega.
At some point, advances in computer technology created a simulation subgenre, allowing driving enthusiasts to experience some semblance of real-world racing in the virtual realm with varying levels of realism. This gave birth to franchises like Gran Turismo, Project CARS and Forza Motorsport, alongside hyper-realistic racing simulators including iRacing and rFactor. While great for the true enthusiast, many of these games are simply too “hardcore” to be enjoyed by the masses, who prefer the casual fun and approachability of arcade-style racing games like the Mario Kart series.
One attribute common to most arcade racing games is the ability to play with a certain reckless abandon. While bumping into a fellow racer or going off the track might cost the player a few precious seconds, unlike a proper simulator, there are no real consequences for making mistakes. But while games like the pseudo-simulation Gran Turismo franchise allow for reckless gameplay due to the lack of any car damage, other racing titles feature it as a key component of their core gameplay, and no racing franchise better encapsulates this than the Burnout series.
The original Burnout was released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube in 2001. Races take place on crowded roads rather than tracks, and the key to success is the use of “boost,” which gives the player’s car extra speed primarily earned by driving recklessly, including driving on the wrong side of the road, avoiding collisions at the last minute or drifting through turns. Burnout 2: Point of Impact was released the following year and introduced a “crash” mode — a set piece that involved causing a wreck so as to do as much damage as possible.
But with the third installment, 2004’s Burnout 3: Takedown for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, Criterion games elevated the franchise to its zenith. Here, boost is still a central component of the game, but it can now be earned by forcing other drivers into crashing, a move called a “takedown.” As the title suggests, the takedown is the marquee feature of Burnout 3. Some of the game’s challenges involve not winning a point A to point B race, but simply driving through a course at high speed while performing as many takedowns as possible. And even when racing to the finish line, takedowns become the primary way to gain time over rivals; crash out the guy riding your bumper and you won’t be seeing him again for a while. The game’s “World Tour” career mode features more than 170 individual stages, offering countless hours of gameplay and allows the player to earn new vehicles, including a Formula 1 car.
Burnout 3: Takedown strikes the perfect balance between the exhilaration of high-speed racing and the aggressive nature of a vehicular combat game, and I believe it’s not only one of the greatest video games from its generation of consoles, but also the greatest arcade racing game of all time.
Devon Morgan, kart, dirt and stock car racer: My favorite driving game of all time would have to be NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona by far, and then probably the most realistic one out of them would have to be iRacing.
In Dirt to Daytona, you start out in a dirt stock, then you move your way up into a modified, then through a truck and into the Cup series, and you have to buy parts and upgrade your car and everything. It was really fun and a bit time consuming, but that’s part of what made it enjoyable.
I’d go through it a lot — I’d win the championship then restart it and go through it again. Just to be able to go back and restart your career and work your way back up through there again and again, it may not always be the same experience every time.
I also like iRacing. It’s more of a simulator than a video game. Some people get upset when it’s called a video game — for me, I don’t care, it’s still a game in the end. It’s the closest thing you can get to without actually being inside a racecar. iRacing’s physics and everything are spot on; they’ve done an amazing job with everything from their dirt and asphalt ovals to road courses. It’s got a lot of professional racers around my age, 16 to 24, playing it, but you still have a lot of older folks that may be retired from racing or may not ever have gotten to get into a race car because of funding, and this is something they can afford. You race real time with real people door-to-door. I can’t say enough about it.
I also played a lot of Mario Kart on the Wii —my brother and I would always battle it out. That’s another top game.
Does professional driving translate to video games? I wouldn’t say it does at all. But the real-life racing definitely makes it a whole lot more competitive — and makes it more frustrating when you mess up.