It's safe to say that the modern car-loving gamer is spoiled for choice these days. We have Gran Turismo, Forza (along with the open-world Horizon), Assetto Corsa, Need for Speed, and so many more. But where did it all start?
You could point out that it all began with the good ol' arcade and, in many ways, we agree with you. The arcade racers that so enthusiastically accepted tokens (or coins) of the past paved the way for the even more serious racing titles to exist on PC and console. Without these, racing games probably won't be as realistic (or as fun) as they are today.
So now we pay tribute to these games with five great arcade racers from the 80's and early 90's that we feel have shaped the games of today.
Pole Position (1982)
So I guess by saying that I was actually able to play the Formula One-inspired (or perhaps Indy?) Pole Position as a kid makes me the oldest amongst the other two guys who wrote about the 4 succeeding games below. And yeah, that's quite accurate; I was able to try one when I was about 10 at a Japanese arcade, but by then the game was already a decade old.
Pole Position cannot be excluded from a list of great, coin-operated arcade racing games ever because many of its features became the standards by which many other games had to follow. Things like the third-person, behind-the-car view, the sound effects (the sound changed when you went off track), and the fact that you were racing on a “real” Formula One circuit: in this case, a pixellated version of the Fuji Speedway with Mount Fuji in the background at a few corners. You even had to qualify for your grid position and for bonus points before the main grand prix.
The game was originally made by Namco in Japan, but international versions were made by Atari. What surprised us when we did some research on it was that the same guy who designed Pac-Man was the same one that made Pole Position.
Pole Position was so successful that it spawned a second version, one that had more tracks like the Suzuka Circuit, as well as unnamed (perhaps due to the cost of the rights) tracks that were clearly interpretations of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Long Beach street circuit. Sadly, most of these games are no longer in arcades. If you know of a working example, do let us know. - Vince Pornelos
Out Run (1986)
Out Run is possibly one of the most iconic and memorable games I have ever played as a kid, but truth be told, I have yet to complete the game. Back then I kept on crashing into traffic or obstacles and would always run out of time halfway through the third stage
Despite looking relatively simple by having only a Hi-Low shifter, it is still a very hard game to play as an adult, more so as a kid. Starting the game, you are placed behind the wheel of a red Ferrari Testarossa Spider with your only opponent being the time. The goal? Reach the final stage before the time runs out. To make it more challenging, traffic and obstacles that you hit slow you down.
Though Out Run wasn't the most realistic game (by a long shot) or had the most choices of vehicles to choose from, it was still one of the best games to play at the time. It has spawned a number of sequels and is said to have influenced some of the more modern racing games we play today. - Jose Altoveros
Virtua Racing (1992)
The 90's was really almost all about Sega, which is why many of the games in this list are from them. But arguably, of the cars in the list, few are as groundbreaking as the game known as Virtua Racing; an arcade game that was based on an open-wheel formula car.
Now what made Virtua Racing fun was that you could choose from a variety of fantasy tracks to race on with banked corners, flat corners, long straights, and even tunnels (like Monaco) or even a long suspension bridge (Bay Bridge track, anyone?). Players can actually choose the view they wanted from the third person (behind the car) view to even an in-cockpit view. By today's or even late 90's standards, the graphics aren't great, but when it was introduced, Virtua Racer was incredible.
What got us the most with V.R. was the experience: arcades often linked 4 or even 8 players together, meaning you can race up to 7 of your buddies, and the light on top of the arcade game flashes if you're in the lead, indicating who was the -uh- boss. Also, Virtua Racing had one of the earliest (if not the first) applications of two important gaming technologies: force feedback for the steering wheel and paddleshifters. - Vince Pornelos
Daytona USA (1993)
As someone who grew up continuously visiting arcades – even until now – one of the most iconic arcade cabinets I grew up with was Daytona USA. Like most driving/racing games at the time, one is put behind the wheel of a stock car, similar to those of NASCAR at the time, and choose a track from easy to hard. You would then have to outrun other competing cars and complete the race before the time finishes.
Sounds like any other arcade racing game then. But it wasn't.
What made Daytona USA unique, was the fact it had a 4-speed shifter rather than the traditional Up-Down shifter other arcade racing cabinets had at the time. It made choosing the manual tranmission in-game much more fun and involving than simply blipping it up and down. There were also multiple views that could be chosen aside from the usual third-person or first person views. In fact, some select arcades had four pairs of cabinets setup, allowing for eight-player battles.
To be quick, most drivers typically shifted from 4th directly to either 2nd or even 1st around the corners to initiate a drift. It's not accurate or real-life, but it sure was fun.
The game was so successful that it went on to spawn two more sequels. Should you want to bring back some 90's arcade nostaliga, some arcades in town still have working original Daytona USA cabinets until today. - Jose Altoveros
Sega Rally (1994)
Sega Rally is perhaps best remembered for two things, namely the star cars of the game. It featured two iconic rally cars from the era which were the Lancia Delta Integrale and the Toyota Celica GT-Four. It was revolutionary for its time, featuring officially-licensed cars and it's pretty safe to say that it was the first rally game out there as most were emulating open-wheel racers (Pole Position) or simply just for fun (Outrun).
A fun fact: The sounds you hear (or hear) being pumped out of the speakers were actual recordings of the cars. It's also been said that the sound from the Lancia Delta Integrale was recorded from the game's designer, Tetsuya Miziguchi. In the early days of racing games, this was among the more realistic ones and paved the way for other rally games such as the Colin McRae series, which eventually evolved into the Dirt series. Also, like a real rally, a pre-recorded set of instructions by the "co-driver" let the player know what corner is coming up ahead (long medium right, maybe?).
Either that or I was too young when I repeatedly tried finishing the stages within the time limit. The time-based rally game felt like one of the more serious arcade racers at the time, with the machine providing force feedback and even vibrations. Personally, I never got past the second stage so if anyone's completed the game, do let me know what the final stage looked like. - Anton Andres