A brief history of racing video games

Man playing a racing video game

Whether you love video games or think they’re the reserve of acne-ridden teenage boys, played only in malodourous bedrooms, there’s no medium quite like it for showing just how quickly technology moves on. And while video game trends have come and gone and audiences have changed, there are some video game staples which have remained popular since the very start.

One of these mainstays is the racing game genre. From its humble beginnings to the photo-realistic visuals of today’s racers, we take a look at the amazing history of racing video games.

In the beginning, Atari created Gran Trak 10…

The year was 1974… It was the year Nixon would resign following the Watergate scandal, the year the Rubik’s Cube would be invented and the year in which Atari would release perhaps the first car-racing video game. 

That game was Gran Trak 10, a pretty rudimentary, coin-operated arcade game which saw the player drive a car around bendy track from a top-down perspective, attempting to beat the clock. Gamers controlled the black and white action using a steering wheel, pedals and a gearstick on the arcade cabinet.

The concept moved on over the next couple of years, and in 1976, Atari made a pseudo-3D racing game called Night Driver, powered by an 8-bit microprocessor. Side note: 8 bits is roughly the same amount of data as a single letter/character in this article.

Night Driver is considered to be the first racing game with a first person perspective – the ‘camera’ sitting behind the car as the player navigates it down a pitch-black road, attempting not to hit the barriers at either side of the road. As the game progresses, the track becomes more complex and the game moves faster, making it more difficult for the player not to crash.

Again, the coin-op arcade game was controlled with a wheel, a pedal for acceleration and a gearstick. The ‘on-screen’ car isn’t actually rendered by the machine – it’s a plastic insert laid underneath the screen, and players simply move the track around it - creating the illusion that the unmoving car is turning through each bend.

As the seventies drew to a close, Vectorbeam tried something different with Speed Freak, giving us a glimpse of the future with its 3D (albeit vector-based) graphics. The 1979 black and white, coin-op racer had a first-person view and saw players avoiding other cars and roadblocks, while attempting to reach the finish line before the clock ran out.

The decade of excess… and sprites

Technology really started ramping up in the eighties, producing the genre’s first ‘golden age’. Games were more graphically immersive using sprites (2D images or animations) and gameplay became more interesting. Starting with a bang, Namco’s Pole Position (1982) amazed gamers with its colourful sprite-based presentation, pseudo-3D graphics and an arcade cabinet shaped like a real racing car.

Scaling sprites and a vanishing point which moved left and right as the driver navigated the course created the illusion of both side-to-side and forward motion, which hadn’t really been done until then. It became the most popular arcade game of 1983 in America, and has been called the “most important racing game ever made” by video game historians.

Players drove a Formula 1 car around a time trial lap before racing against other, computer-controlled cars for the championship. It was possibly the first racing game to use a real-life circuit – the Fuji International Speedway. Pole Position was also one of the first video games to dip its toes into the murky waters of product placement, with track-side banners promoting Pepsi, Canon and even Martini!

While not specifically a racing game, 1983’s Spy Hunter played with the genre by introducing weapons. Players were tasked with shooting at enemy vehicles while driving and protecting civilians in this vertical-scrolling game, which would go on to be considered another classic. As the genre became more popular, developers each began to put their own spin on it – which seemed to lead to an insurgence of motorcycle racing games in the early to mid-eighties.

One particularly successful example was Sega’s Hang On (pictured)in 1985, which was probably made famous by its 16-bit graphics and it’s a version of its arcade cabinet which involved an almost full-sized motorcycle players would sit on and control by leaning, revving the throttle and using brake levers. As well as its impressive frame rate and controller vibration feedback, the game was praised for the sophistication of its computer controlled opponents’ artificial intelligence.

Sega would unleash another future classic in 1986 with Out Run – a Ferrari-driving game with perhaps the most impressive graphics of its day and, uniquely, branching circuits which offered the player a degree of choice in their route. Players could even change the radio station on the car’s stereo to hear different background music as they raced through each course, avoiding traffic and attempting to record the fastest time possible. Using Sega’s Super-Scaler technology, the game allowed a large number of sprites to be shown on screen at a time, which brought the scenery to life with other vehicles, road signs and even windsurfers.

Racing games didn’t get much more impressive than Out Run for the rest of the eighties, though many other developers attempted to ape Sega’s hit, mashing up Out Run’s graphical prowess with more action-based games like Spy Hunter. Chase HQ (1988) is a good example, and was a kind of buddy cop chase-‘em-up which saw players in hot pursuit of fleeing bad guys like ‘Carlos The Armed Robber’ and ‘Eastern Bloc Spy’, in a bid to stop them before running out of time.

Polygon in sixty seconds

As the 1990’s began, video gaming at home was really taking off as consoles allowed gamers to bring the arcade into their living rooms. Technology moved on, both in hardware and software, and racing games moved on with it. Sprites’ days were numbered as developers explored polygon-based 3D graphics, and while poly-counts were low, racing games were becoming more realistic all the time.

Sega’s Virtua Racing (1992) wasn’t the first racing game to use polygonal 3D graphics – that had already been tried by Namco and Atari with Winning Run (1988) and Hard Drivin’ (1989) respectively, but Virtua Racing upped the poly count for more realistic graphics.

Virtua Racing is credited as popularising 3D graphics and created the familiar camera change system that almost every racer that followed would employ – allowing gamers to choose whether to play in first or third person views. Namco created its own rival called Ridge Racer (1993) and the pace with which graphics were improving seemed to hit the accelerator.

Originally released in arcades and then on both the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation, Ridge Racer offered players a range of play modes, circuits and cars. Namco said its 3D graphics and texture-mapping tech made Ridge Racer “the most realistic driving game ever”, but it was released to mix reviews. That didn’t stop it going on to be a franchise of more than 20 titles over various platforms, though.

Sega put a twist on the genre in 1995 with Sega Rally, creating a different experience for gamers by having different types of terrain affect play.

In 1997, Sony and Polyphony Digital launched Gran Turismo, which it dubbed ‘The Real Driving Simulator’. Released on the PlayStation, Gran Turismo placed an emphasis on realism – even going so far as to make players first pass a series of virtual driving tests before racing. The original featured 140 cars, each with its own true-to-life spec, and 11 circuits. 

Players could use credits earned by winning races and tournaments to add parts to and tune their vehicles, tweaking horse power, torque, weight, distribution and a whole other spectrum of variables that a generation of teenage boys would pretend to understand.

But the late nineties wasn’t all about realism, as Sega’s Crazy Taxi (1999) proved. The arcade-style racer was once of the first open-world, ‘sandbox’ games, where the player was free to travel wherever they chose in the game world. The aim of the game, which was released in arcades and later on the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast and various other consoles, was to pick up fares and deliver them to their destination against an increasingly punitive clock.

2001, a race odyssey

Video gaming was fairly mainstream at this point, with Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony competing for gamers’ attention with their GameCube, Xbox and Playstation 2 consoles. Sony was on its third Gran Turismo game by 2001, but it had more competition than ever as the Xbox gained popularity.

Project Gotham Racing (2001) offered an alternative for Xbox gamers in the early 2000’s. With its realistically-rendered real-world locales and ‘kudos’ system to encourage flashy power slides and the like, the Xbox had something for racing fans right from the start.

In 2003, EA took the street racing concept further with the multi-platform Need For Speed: Underground. 

It also contributed towards the trend of racing games having ‘stories’ for the player to follow as they progressed through the game – apparently inspired by the Fast and Furious series of films.

In 2005, Xbox’s most revered racing game Forza Motorsport made its debut. With 231 licensed vehicles and both cosmetic and mechanical damage which would affect the performance of your car – something that Sony’s Gran Turismo never did – it became a hit. The game also allowed players to customise their vehicles, and was lauded for its true-to-life physics engine, making driving its virtual cars more realistic.

With the release of the Playstation 3, Sony went with something a little different in 2006, in the form of off-road buggy racing game MotorStorm. Its graphics were a notable step up from the graphics of the PlayStation 2. 

It was a generation plagued by sequels, not least in the racing genre. In the latter part of the noughties’ first decade we saw iterative follow-ups for Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, Burnout, Need For Speed, MotorStorm and countless others. Graphical standards continue to improve and continue to be surpassed by their rivals, edging ever closer to the holy grail of photo-realism. Just last week, Sony released a demo for Gran Turismo 6 – the last iteration of the series on the PlayStation 3, launching later this year.

Microsoft too is continuing to blur the line between what’s real and computer generated with Forza Motorsport 5, due out on Xbox One later this year.

From Gran Trak 10 to today’s racing games, we’ve certainly come a long, long way.

Honourable mentions

With about 40 years’ worth of history, it’s difficult to mention every important racing game in the genre’s history - but there are some notable omissions to this list, including:

  • Micro Machines – a 1991 top-down racer featuring the tiny toy cars racing along tracks like your kitchen table, and snooker tables.
  • Super Mario Kart – the seminal 1992 karting game released on the Super Nintendo which would go on to spawn decades of sequels.
  • Wipeout – the futuristic racer featuring zero-gravity aircraft, released on the PlayStation in 1995.
  • Colin McRae Rally, the 1998 rally driving simulator featuring real-world cars and drivers from the ’98 World Rally Championship season.
  • Burnout – the 2001 crash-‘em-up with stylised, over-the-top crashes.

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