The driving game genre has been consistently among the most competitive and innovative styles in the history of video gaming, changing dynamically to take advantage of new technologies and leaps in imagination. Having their origins in the toy industry with simple slot racers, it was simply a natural evolutionary step that would take the driving game onto home consoles.
So what qualifies a driving game as great? What makes it stand out above its peers, wind blowing through its slick pixilated hair? While driving games do rely on graphical power to an extent, it’s that unexplainable thrill and feel that sets a truly great game apart from the rest of the pack. The best games give players the ecstasy of accelerating in million dollar machines, slamming them into walls at over 300km/h and simply restarting, a feeling that few would ever experience, without a full-body cast or worse being the end result.
Like the fighting game genre, racing games were born in the arcades. Rising through the seedy, smoke-filled eighties and emerging as a dominant force in sucking twenty cent pieces by the nineties, the first, great titles would be provided by two powerhouses that still remain dominant today: Namco and Sega. Namco gave the world one of the first legendary games: 1982’s Pole Position, with Sega following shortly after with Outrun in 1986.
Namco first began its mammoth Ridge Racer series in 1993, fourteen years later and the games remain as popular as ever. Forever linked with the birth of the PlayStation, Ridge Racer would be present at the launch of every Sony console to date. The title sits at the extreme edge of the arcade racer, substituting realism for over-exaggerated drifting and flat-out speed. The game was hard to swallow for many but found an enormous fan base by creating gorgeous visuals and building the rest of the game around them.
Sega is not only home to some of the greatest gaming properties around, think Sonic, Shinobi and Panzer Dragoon, but also supplies an enormous range of classic driving games that remain eminently playable today. Daytona USA eventually found its arcade perfect way onto the Dreamcast in 2001, those who managed to pick up a copy before the subsequent demise of the console would have found all the arcade brilliance and more awaiting them. Most crucially, the home version featured the classic Daytona theme note perfect, sing it with me “Daytona let’s go away, Day-e-to-na!”
The behemoth of video game publishing, EA, has managed to maintain a large stable of racing games, many of which can now be considered all time classics. Home to the hugely popular Need for Speed series, Need for Speed lingered long in the bottom end of racing game pedigree until 2003’s Need for Speed Underground took it to a whole new level. Underground brought the street back into the forefront of driving games and focused on the modification arena to differentiate itself from its peers. The change in focus breathed a whole hurricane of fresh air into the tired franchise and saw a huge upswing in popular appeal, it also helped tie together EA establish themselves as the dominant force in linking music and video games together with a brilliant soundtrack closely tying in with the street feel.
Many saw Forza Motorsport as Microsoft’s cynical attempt to duplicate the massive success of Gran Turismo on PlayStation. While this may actually be the case, few would argue against Forza being a great game in its own right. One point of difference that differentiated the two titles was the damage that could be accumulated on the vehicles and the impact that smashing into other cars actually had on your handling, something Gran Turismo sacrificed to gain more prestige car licenses.
Spawning an entire sub-genre in itself, Super Mario Kart on the SNES was the first karting game to take the obscure niche racing style to the masses. Using the universally recognizable characters of the Mario galaxy, Super Mario Kart harnessed the same simple fun and party atmosphere associated with the core Mario titles. With a reasonably simple set of mechanics, layered upon tight and efficient graphics, the title was responsible for some of the greatest multiplayer racing in any driving game, setting the standard for literally HUNDREDS of subsequent karting games, none of which could claim to surpass the original.
Gran Turismo showcased the reasons why so many people play video games, it offered the most realistic and expressive representation of driving in history. Gran Turismo 3 is what many consider to be the greatest driving game to grace any console. It’s hard to argue against the quality and sheer depth that the game possesses. Any gamer to actually achieve 100% in Gran Turismo 3 without relying on cheats or codes deserves applause, a medal and the key to the city. The game gives hardcore driving fans the ability to tune and modify to their hearts content one of the 150+ cars available.
The driving game genre has grown in staggering amounts over the last twenty years and few can imagine how far they will go in the next twenty. The next year alone sees the return of numerous franchises to the next-gen consoles. Yet the classic titles shall always remain timeless, forever associated with a particular point in a gamer’s life and forever blessed with the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia. So remember the next time you fire up the new console, it’s the way they play that makes them great.