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20 of our favourite retro racing games

  1. Nowadays car games are more than light entertainment to give you square eyes and burn the day away. They’re big business.

    If you’re a decent gamer, you now have a licence to be a racing driver, or develop real life cars like the McLaren P1.

    Games even form the basis for big Hollywood movies, something the Need for Speed franchise - which celebrates its 20th birthday this year - knows all too well.

    Over the last 20 years, NFS has released 23 instalments, sold 150 million copies worldwide, conjured up some big, drifty marketing campaigns… and of course a CGI-free film with lots of fire, lots of explosions, and a healthy dose of cars crashing in slow motion starring our favourite fictional meth cook, Aaron Paul.

    But it all started back in 1994 with The Need for Speed, a simple racing game for the 3DO.

    Back then, with only a smattering of pixels to smear around the screen, the developers didn’t have the processing power to create photo-realistic games we’re used to now.

    Even so, those square pixels were mindblowing at the time, recreating eight, (yes, eight!) cars vaguely recognisable as a Toyota Supra, Dodge Viper and Lamborghini Diablo VT. They even sounded realistic, too. A bit.

    But with closed-circuit racing, point-to-points and police pursuits, the premise of the game was very much as we recognise NFS today. Though unfortunately we had to wait another decade for nitrous.

    So with NFS blowing its birthday candles out, we thought we’d offer you 20 of our favourite retro racing titles ever. Have a nostalgic click through and then tell us: what did we miss?

  2. 20. F-Zero

    The Citizen Kane of the 16-bit era. The sheer mental effort involved in racing spaceships 50 times faster than is normal meant that it could be played for no more than twenty minutes before it caused chronic eye-ache and lasting fatigue.  

    Watch it here

  3. 19. Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco Grand Prix II

    Billed as boasting the “most realistic physics”, ASSGP was widely regarded as the least realistic GP game on the market at the time. Before each race, a pixelated Senna would cheerily offer sage advice about the track you were about to drive, which made it brilliant.  

    Watch it here

  4. 18. Rock n' Roll Racing

    Featuring more ROCK per pixel than any other racing game, this married Megadriverized electro versions of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Steppenwolf to blow-‘em’up 4x4 racing. There was also a villain called Butcher Icebone, which surely ranks alongside Snake Pliskin as the Best Name of All Time.

    Watch it here

  5. 17. R.C. Pro-Am

    Possibly the most realistic game of its era, it actually felt like you were driving a radio-controlled car in three glorious, isometric dimensions. Though the overwhelmingly irritating soundtrack made you want scratch your ears off.  

    Watch it here

  6. 16. Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road

    Tough, wobbly 4x4 action endorsed by tough, wobbly 4x4 racer Ivan Stewart. Provided superb multi-player fun, though it was a little Toyotafied - all the trucks were Toyotas, the tracks were plastered with Toyota branding and the pre-race music was a synthed-out version of the “I love what you do for me Toyota” jingle.

    Watch it here

  7. 15. Night Driver

    Probably the earliest first-person racing game in history, you had to put a plastic car at the bottom of your cathode ray telescreen before tumbling forward between two rows of white dots. It doesn’t sound it, but this was genesis. 

    Watch it here

  8. 14. Enduro Racer

    Massively difficult, but became hugely famous in 1980s arcades for being the first cabinet where you could pretend to do wheelies on a full-size replica dirt bike. Was therefore the last word in cool.

    Watch it here

  9. 13. Top Gear

    You can’t have a list like this without mentioning the “in no way affiliated to the show you know and love called Top Gear” game called Top Gear. One of the first racing games on the Super Nintendo, it was mainly notable for a bug that let you hit the finishing post to finish the race, bounce off, and finish the race again, thereby bagging “double points”. It was therefore suitably ambitious and rubbish.

    Watch it here

  10. 12. Rad Racer

    Basically Nintendo’s copy of the superior Out Run, this came with 3D glasses, which gave you a headache and didn’t really work properly. Much like today’s 3D tech, really.

    Watch it here

  11. 11. Spy Hunter

    Another example of how pleased we were by simple innovations back in the early days. The super-speedy Spy Hunter had CARS THAT TURNED INTO BOATS, as well as WEAPONS and MACHINE GUNS and OIL SLICKS, which was TREMENDOUSLY EXCITING. It also never seemed to end.

    Watch it here 

  12. 10. Pole Position (1982)

    Eye-melting F1 game. Inspired equally rubbish cartoon. Gives you a headache if you play for more than 40 seconds.

    Watch it here

  13. 9. Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (1990)

    Unsurprisingly, car selection’s limited to Lotus Espirit Turbos. Features enjoyable computer-controlled driver names, including Ayrton Sendup, Nijel Mainsail and Alain Phosphate.

    Watch it here

  14. 8. Hard Drivin' (1989)

    Painfully difficult sim that features the first 3D polygon driving environment. Only clever kids were any good at it. Which includes none of the Top Gear office.

    Watch it here

  15. 7. Pitstop II (1984)

    Dangerously moreish 3D F1-style effort and the first to offer split-screen two-player gaming. You even had to stop for fuel and tyres.

    Watch it here

  16. 6. Stunt Car Racer (1989)

    There are dragsters. There are jumps. There are turbo boosts. There’s not a lot to hate here. You could even connect two computers and take on another player. Awesome.

    Watch it here

  17. 5. Road Rash (1992)

    Motorcycling game that allows you to punch other riders in the face. Infinitely satisfying to send Gunther spiraling towards a car at 100mph.

    Watch it here

  18. 4. Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament (1994)

    Furiously addictive and immeasurably fun. Also had a funky cartridge so you could plug in two extra controllers for four-player goodness. Eight if you shared. You could even do 360s. 

    Watch it here

  19. 3. Chase HQ (1998)

    Chasing down baddies in a Porsche 928 - save for their very own Violet Berlin, this is what every young race gamer dreamed of. Scrolly, pursuity brilliance.

    Watch it here

  20. 2. Mario Kart (1992)

    Creative, ingenious and hilarious karting game that makes all but the soulless smile. Battle Mode invariably ends in the administration of a dead arm.

    Watch it here

  21. 1. Out Run (1986)

    Better than Chase HQ for three reasons: the Ferrari Testarossa, ‘cause you’re a street racer and that lovely blonde passenger. You even got four radio stations to choose from, each synthing out their own lasersdance electroperas.

    Watch it here

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