I’m not, nor have I ever been, a “car guy.” I can’t drive stick, I can’t identity makes and models on sight, and the only services I know how to perform on a car are checking and filling basic fluids. Extensive automobile knowledge is not necessarily a prerequisite for enjoying a good racing game, but it does make me shy away from most of the more realistic racing sims and stick mainly with ones that involve exaggerated car behaviors like jumping, drifting, and not braking. There doesn’t seem to be a universal agreement as to what qualifies as a “racing game”; many people think that games like Mario Kart and WipeOut should be put in there own seperate subgenres. To me, any game that is centered around a competitive racing experience as its primary mechanic is classifiable as a racing game and was eligible to be considered for this list.
5 – R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 (1999, PlayStation)
I loved the original Ridge Racer in the arcade, but I just couldn’t justify buying the home version of a racing game that only had two variations of one track. Subsequent entries in the series made great rentals for me but nothing more. That is, until R4. Built from the ground up as a home console release for the first time in the series’ history, R4 finally took the Ridge Racer formula and blew it out it into a fully-featured racing title. With the option to choose between classic “drift” handling and more realistic “grip” handling – the latter of which did away with powerslides – and seamlessly integrating them both into the game, arcade and sim racing fans could both enjoy the game and even compete with each other on equal ground. That was great for me because it allowed me to get brave and dabble in more realistic racing, but still within the safe confines of a Ridge Racer game rather the big scary world of Gran Turismo or Forza. The career mode was very substantial for its time, as were the eight different tracks to choose from. Also available for the first time in Ridge Racer history was a two-player splitscreen mode, which meant that more than a select few would be actually be able to play the game with a friend without fussing with multiple TVs and consoles. I personally never found the whole system link thing worth the set-up trouble just for the simple act of playing a racing game with a friend. Add in beautiful visuals that pushed the PS1 to its absolute limits and some of the best original techno and drum-and-bass music ever produced for a game and you have a title that simultaneously served as both the perfect swan song for the 90’s arcade era of the racing genre and an usher of the new home console-focused racing game market that would become the standard going into the new millennium.
4 – Beetle Adventure Racing (1999 Nintendo 64)
While I usually won’t go out of my way to click on reviews for games I didn’t previously have an interest in on a gaming website, when I’m reading a magazine I usually pour over the entire reviews section from start to finish. One of the upshots to this is finding out about games that weren’t previously on my radar and becoming interested in them thanks to an enthusiastic review. A cartoony-looking racing game exclusively featuring VW Beetles and having a title like “Adventure Racing” would’ve normally been a game I wouldn’t have given a second thought to, but after seeing it raved about in EGM (one reviewer even said he almost gave it a 10), I had to give the game a shot. And I am so glad that I did, as it became a personal favorite within hours. The game has a very pleasant aesthetic, bright and colorful (but not over-the-top or cheesy), with some nice, catchy tunes. The handling is perfect for my tastes: Not too crazy and drift-happy, but also far from being a sim. The real star of the show, though, are the brilliantly-designed tracks, still some of the best I have ever seen. Each track is chock full of branching paths and clever shortcuts, and there are so many different routes to take through each track that you could play the same one ten times without duplicating your exact path (or even finding all of the available shortcuts). It gives the game fantastic replay value without relying on some convoluted, repetitive career mode. It’s a shame that developer Paradigm Entertainment got stuck cranking out licensed garbage and cash-in sequels for THQ in later years (eventually leading to the studio’s closure), because between Beetle Adventure Racing, and their fantastic 2001 reboot of Spy Hunter, I really had high hopes for what they could’ve gone on to accomplish. They made some real four-wheeled magic in those couple of years, though.
3 – Mario Kart DS (2005, Nintendo DS)
While each Mario Kart has its own merits, in terms of a pure racing experience the franchise has so far been at its best with the DS iteration. The original new tracks give even Mario Kart 8 some stiff competition for the best overall collection of new courses in a single game – not to mention the 16 classic tracks culled from previous Mario Karts, making for an impressive 32 in all (it was the first MK to do this, making it feel novel in a way that none of the games since have been able to replicate by default). While the two MK games that sandwiched it each had some major innovation to the series’ formula – Double Dash featured two drivers per kart and Mario Kart Wii introduced motion control – Mario Kart DS is simple, classic, ground-based Mario Kart at its best. While it’s multiplayer lacked the user friendliness of MK64’s 4-player splitscreen, Mario Kart DS does up the ante by allowing up to 8 players to compete simultaneously, even if only one person actually has the game cartridge (although some sacrifices are made, such as a limited track selection and a generic default racer for the other 7 players. An impressive technical feat nonetheless.). Mario Kart is a series I tend to love almost unconditionally, and each and every entry has features that make it better (or worse) than other games in the franchise – but even when they are on cruise control a bit – I’m looking at you, Mario Kart 7 - MK is always guaranteed hours of fun with and/or without friends. However, the one that I have enjoyed the most as a racing game is, by far, Mario Kart DS.
2 – Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 (2002, PlayStation 2)
The Need for Speed franchise has struggled to find its identity in the last ten years or so, bouncing between underground street racing, action movie-style car chases, games that play exactly like Burnout, and the classic point-to-point racing with American and European sports cars in expansive environments, never quite knowing where to settle. Although EA Black Box was responsible for the series’ first major shift when it introduced tuner culture with the original Need for Speed: Underground, its first crack at the series was actually Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, the last of the original classic-style Need for Speed games, and my favorite of the bunch. Like its PS1 predecessor, Hot Pursuit 2 was a just a traditional racer with an added cops-and-robbers dynamic that had you avoiding the police while racing to the finish line. You could also play as the police chasing down speeders in the “You’re The Cop” mode, with tools at your disposal like spiked strips, road blocks, and helicopter assistance. While that was a fun diversion, it was just the core racing experience that I love so much about this game. It’s hard to really even say what it is about this game that I enjoy so much, but it just seems to hit this sweet spot for me that makes it a really satisfying experience. The control feels great, the tracks are nice and varied, the police dynamic adds a nice layer of challenge without being too intrusive or gimmicky, and the overall challenge seems to ramp up at a perfect pace for my abilities. As I said, “You’re the Cop” is more of a novelty than anything else, but it’s a neat mode to just have some fun with when you want a break from regular racing. However, with two players – one as the cop, one as the speeder – the mode does develop into a great competitive multiplayer experience, especially if you keep taking turns being the cop and the speeder. More than anything, though, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 isn’t a great title because of its list of features or any single aspect of its package. It’s one of those games that is just plain fun to play, and it doesn’t matter whether or not I can accurately articulate why.
1 – Burnout 3: Takedown (2004, Xbox)
Burnout started out as a solid, technically impressive racing series known primarily for its incredible crashes, but it wasn’t until the third installment that developer Criterion achieved pure racing nirvana. Flying through narrow, obstacle-laden courses with hairpin curves while avoiding bystander traffic at a million miles an hour, it doesn’t seem like it should be possible to keep from crashing for more than three consecutive seconds. Yet the game is so expertly designed and the control is so pitch-perfect that you find yourself somehow making it work, and left wondering how the hell you just managed to do that. While the core racing system in and of itself would’ve been enough to make Burnout 3 a triple-A title, it’s in the “Takedown” part that the truly set the game apart from its contemporaries. In addition to just fighting for first place, you can also take out other racers by running them into buildings, obstacles, or other cars, which results in a spectacular slow-motion cutscene of the destruction that never ceases to be among of the most satisfying sights and feelings in all of gaming, even after you’ve done it 100 times. You can also compete in events that focus solely on takedowns, where the last man standing wins. There is even a crash mode where you take off at full speed, hit a ramp, and go barreling into and bouncing off of a multitude of vehicles minding their own business on a crowded street. What keeps that from being a complete game of random chance is a gameplay mechanic called Aftertouch, which allows you to control the trajectory of your car once you’ve initiated getting into a wreck. Aftertouch isn’t just limited to crash mode, however, and can also be used in the other modes, which creates the opportunity to send your flying mass of twisted steel into the other racers, effectively taking them down with you. The game is just pure, adrenaline-pumping fun that is almost impossible to play without having a constant smile on your face. The icing on this already delicious cakes is in an incredibly flexible career mode that lets you pick and choose which types of events you want to do and skip the ones you don’t, or let you go back to them later when you do feel like it, avoiding the usual “Oh man, not this type of race again!” feeling that you get so often during the career modes of most other racing games. The Burnout series has since had several excellent sequels that have done a lot of great things with the basic Burnout formula and taken it in some really interesting places, but Takedown remains my favorite, both of the series and of racing games in general. It is one of those rare games where I basically can’t think of a single negative thing to say about it. I’m not implying that it’s perfect, but if I have to try that hard just to come up with a flaw, why even bother? I’d rather use that energy to play the game some more.