The best racing games of all time
You either love or hate racing games. Even if you’re already a hardcore gamer, some people just don’t get on with the genre, while those observing from outside can still see racing games as something for kids. If that’s you, then there are plenty of other articles on this website you could be reading right now – but you’re also missing out. Racing titles will never replace the thrill of real driving, but they’re arguably more fun than vegging in front of the sofa watching F1, and there’s been such variety over the years that almost everyone should find something to enjoy.
You don’t necessarily need the latest hardware to run some of the best-ever titles either, which make some of the games below a great, and accessible way to get your racing kicks. Some have stood the test of time better than others, but all were hugely important in their day.
Colin McRae Rally
We wanted to make sure we got this one out of the way early. You’d have a hard time arguing that Colin McRae Rally wasn’t an utter masterpiece of racing-game goodness. Put together by Codemasters back in 1998, it was one of the first ‘modern’ racing games that could truly take advantage of the toolset a more powerful games console offered.
At the time, it was graphically hugely impressive, but what made Colin McRae so excellent was the level of detail involved in the way the rally cars drove. This was a game you had to master, one that represented a genuine challenge that took time and patience in order to start going quicker.
It was also one of the first racing games to blur the lines between simulation and arcade-style racing. Rather than endless pages of setup and menus, Colin McRae Rally threw you into the action but then punished you for not mastering its handling. A true classic, and one that set the standard for things to come.
Gran Turismo 4
An earlier version of this list featured Gran Turismo 2, but as the years pass we’ve a sneaking suspicion that GT4 deserves a spot more than any GT game before or since. No, it doesn’t have the highest car tally of a GT game (with nearly 1200, GT6 wins that contest – though the majority were repurposed GT4 cars…) but it had remarkable depth.
It also featured almost double the number of circuits of GT2, at 51 courses, but by virtue of GT4 existing, like its predecessor, on the PS2 rather than original PlayStation, both its graphics and its physics have better stood the test of time. The variety is remarkable and it’s still replayable today, with some challenging locations and of course, the first appearance of the Nordschleife in a GT game.
Later GTs have featured more realistic handling and better graphics still, and GT3 arguably moved the game on further from its predecessor than any other in the series, but GT4 was perhaps the ultimate single-player GT game – the subsequent focus on online play (and now competition) means the series is now moving in a very different direction.
Forza Horizon 4
Like GT4 above, Forza Horizon 4 has displaced an earlier version on this list. The original Forza Horizon was a remarkable game in its day, but the latest free-roaming Forza title simply gives you more of everything – more cars, more things to do, and more beautiful graphics.
FH4’s masterstroke is its seasonal changes, periodically refreshing the entire UK-based map. While the changes through spring, summer, autumn and winter are stunningly-rendered, it’s their effects on car handling, the terrain, and the different events you can enter that makes it really special.
If we have one criticism of the game, it’s that the fictitious UK presented is perhaps far more idyllic than the real thing. Still, if the developers had simply rendered four seasons of drizzle, we understand how that may have limited the game’s appeal…
Daytona USA is one of the most iconic arcade racing games. The source of many a pound wasted, it featured pioneering 3D graphics and a competitive multiplayer that linked arcade machines together.
Above all else, it was incredibly fun. All you had to do was to outrun competing cars before a timer ran out. Up to eight players could game simultaneously, while some cabinets even featured a camera that would project the driver’s face onto the screen. The definitive arcade racing game?
“It’s Williams Number One!” Murray would scream as your low-polygon Williams would career into another car or skid across the grass. He meant Jacques Villeneuve of course, the only driver whose name wasn’t licensed for Bizarre Creations’ and Psygnosis’ seminal Formula One game, and thus the only driver who got a number rather than a name.
Murray’s commentary and realistic screen graphics made the game, to our young minds, feel just like watching the real sport on TV. It’s easy to look back now and realise just how rudimentary the graphics were, how short the draw distance and how irritatingly whiny the cars, but it felt immersive at the time and you could, perhaps unwisely, do full-length races. Unwise for us, mostly, because your engine always seemed to expire thirty laps in…
Perhaps the most iconic game ever to involve cars, Out Run remains a classic to this day. Released by Sega back in 1986, it was ground-breaking. The arcade cabinet moved, the track curved and undulated and players could choose the soundtrack to their race.
Above all else, it featured a Ferrari Testarossa Spider, a car that never really existed. Yes, Ferrari did commission Pininfarina to build one, but it was never sold by Ferrari as a full production car. As such, Out Run is just about the only way you can drive a Testarossa Spider, no matter how much money you have.
Worth a special mention is the PS2 and Xbox title Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast – an underrated arcade title with an even greater roster of Ferrari soft-tops, including another never-created model, based on the F40 LM.
Here’s another choice we’ve updated after further consideration, and it’s a choice here from nostalgia as much as anything. 2003’s Need For Speed Underground tapped right into Fast and the Furious fever and the modification culture of the time, and features some of the most iconic vehicles of the era, including Integras, Supras, Civics and Skylines.
All could be modified to a ludicrous degree, and winning races would award you cover-car status in some of the top car modification magazines of the time. The graphics looked good too and the car handling was just right, whether competing in drag races or circuit events. When early-2000s nostalgia comes into fashion (give it another decade) here’s one we’d not mind seeing a remake of.
The original and in many ways the best. Forza Motorsport was Microsoft’s answer to Gran Turismo, and as such was backed by a physics engine that has continued to be perfected up until this day.
The physics engine that Turn 10 Studios developed for the game is incredibly complex. It based a car’s handling on everything from weight to drag coefficient and at launch was heralded as the most realistic console racing game ever made. Since then, Forza has grown into a gargantuan franchise, with the latest installment offering huge amounts of choice, incredible graphics and unparalleled online multiplayer support.
Fiendishly difficult, Dirt Rally was a return to form for Codemasters’ rallying games. Ever since the “Dirt” title was adopted following the death of Colin McRae and the end of that series, things, for us, began to go downhill – the focus moved away from stage rallying and timed competition and away from the simple joy of piling through a forest at high speed.
But Dirt Rally was (and still is) a convincing simulation game, which doesn’t overcomplicate things in terms of options but makes you think very hard about how best to drive a stage. It’s much like Colin McRae Rally in that respect, but much further towards the sim side of the spectrum. A sequel is on the way soon, and it’ll no doubt take the series even further.
Assetto Corsa is part of a new breed of racing games that continue to develop over time thanks to an extensive modding community. Initially released back in 2013 for PC, the game has been in constant development since then. It’s played by a large number of hardcore simulation fans online and has an e-Sports title, Assetto Corsa Competizione, on the way too.
It’s one of the most realistic titles on our list, it’s entirely simulation-focused, and boasts a set of race tracks that have been laser scanned so that every single bump and undulation is entirely accurate. And that modding community means the list of cars and tracks is growing by the day, often mixing in some of the best elements of previous favourites of ours, like TOCA 2 and Grand Prix Legends.
Undoubtedly the most serious simulation out there, and therefore not for everybody – but no racing game list would be complete without it. It hosts serious competition leagues around the world and while the price of entry is high – usually $110 a year, with monthly fees for additional cars – no other simulation title is as realistic.
While iRacing doesn’t top some here graphically (though it’s improving all the time), its car handling is about as close to the real thing as you’re likely to get. The high cost also means iRacing drivers tend to be pretty serious about their hobby, so if you’re looking for competitive racing, there’s no better title.
TOCA 2 Touring Cars
Displacing the original TOCA title on the latest iteration of this list, TOCA 2 took that British Touring Car Championship formula and turned it into a true PlayStation and PC classic.
Handling was a little trickier than the first game, but a little more realistic too – high-speed tracks like Thruxton became real nail-biting events. Support series races were introduced for the first time too, which proved both a nice introduction to the game (you started out with either Fiestas or Formula Fords), but also an even greater challenge once you’d found your feet (with TVR Speed 12s and Lister Storms).
Throw in more realistic versions of the original TOCA’s tracks, plus a longer list of fictitious courses – Loch Rannoch, with its dam, humpback bridge and short-cuts was our favourite – and there was plenty of fun to be had.
Early racers like Pole Position will never rival modern games for realism, graphical fidelity or longevity, but few modern racers are as influential. Originally a cabinet title and later ported to Atari consoles and home computers, it was the first racer to tout a track based on a real circuit – Fuji – and a qualifying run. It captured another essential element of racing games, too: A fantastic sense of speed.
Grand Prix Legends
Fun as they were, other racing games released towards the end of the 1990s were still fairly rudimentary in terms of their handling models. They don’t really stand up to scrutiny today – unlike Grand Prix Legends, which remains one of the most challenging yet satisfying racing games ever made.
With a racing wheel and pedals there’s fantastic immersion and the game’s sounds really capture the howl of their 1967 equivalents. Trying to navigate your way around the original Spa, Nurburgring or Rouen-les-Essarts is appropriately terrifying. Like many other PC games on this list, a healthy modding community has allowed for improvements in graphics and content, too.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season
Anyone familiar with NASCAR games will no doubt understand the frustration at how poor the genre has been for far too long. Really, it’s all been downhill since NASCAR 2003, created by Papyrus.
The studio had been responsible for the much-respected Indianapolis 500 in the late 80s, and later Grand Prix Legends above. It’s no surprise then that NASCAR 2003 was fiendishly realistic both in terms of physics, and in replicating the sport’s rules. Sadly, it was the last NASCAR game to be created by the studio as EA acquired exclusive rights to the game series in 2004. And immediately ruined it…
Mobil 1 Rally Championship
Rally games were a rapidly improving genre in 1999 when Mobil 1 debuted, but it was still a unique proposition among the Colin McRaes and V-Rally games for concentrating on the British Rally Championship. The series itself was hugely exciting – with powerful F2 machines dominating – and the game captured it perfectly.
Unlike many games before or since, it wasn’t unusual to find punishing full-length stages of dozens of miles, and at the time its physics engine bettered that of many competitors too. Its simulation appeal wasn’t as wide as Colin McRae Rally’s more accessible format, but for some this was the best available at the time.
Enthusia Professional Racing
Gran Turismo 3 and 4 might have been the PlayStation 2’s big sellers but those after more serious physics and even greater car variety also had the option of Enthusia Professional Racing.
It was very much a game in the mould of GT: real cars (with a strong Japanese focus, but plenty of other options too), a large number of original circuits, and a few real-world tracks for good measure. But Enthusia’s handling was generally more realistic (even if some cars felt a little numb) and a structure that rewarded precise, clean racing. If you have a PS2, it’s well worth seeking out.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
You might scoff at the inclusion of a cartoony Mario Kart game on this list, but the elephant in the room is that if you have a few friends around, there are few racing games that have ever been so much fun to play. And fun, ultimately, is why we play these games.
The latest, on the Nintendo Switch, is probably the best in this regard too. From the original SNES Mario Kart it’s always been a game best played with others, but the benefits brought with improved graphics and processing power mean the latest courses are stunning works of art, and the game’s difficulty is well-judged to make it accessible to newcomers and challenging to pros alike. Being destroyed by a blue shell is something we can all bond over, too.
Ridge Racer Type 4
Ridge Racer is another game with a history so long it’s tricky to pin down a favourite, but Ridge Racer Type 4 on the original PlayStation might just seal it.
For one, it pushed that console to its limit graphically, and today it actually looks better than the contemporary Gran Turismo 2 – albeit less vibrant, with a subdued tone to the game’s graphics. The grip or slip car handling was still ever-present, while there was a huge roster of vehicles to win through competition, and a slightly cheesy but progressive story line depending on which team you opted to race for. An arcade classic.