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The Best Car Video Games of All Time

From arcade games to Nintendo, Sega, PlayStation, Xbox, and computer games, these are the best car video games of all time.

The Best of the Best

Kids playing a racing video game
Kids playing a racing video game

This was a tough list to compile! There are some honorable mentions below, but it all comes down to personal preference, gaming systems, a little bit of nostalgia in some cases, and which games are the most playable. Some can be more of a one-time play. Others can be revisited over and over.

Through all the yelling at the TV and the Band-Aids for thumb blisters, these games created a lot of memories. Maybe not for the parents in the household. They may have also intruded on my studying for important tests and quizzes, but, in that moment, it was all about making it to the next phase of the game!

Off Road Challenge

Off Road Challenge - GameplayPS9 on youtube.com
Off Road Challenge - GameplayPS9 on youtube.com

This game was fun, especially with a racing wheel. The racing wheel was probably more aggravating than using a regular controller, but it was a good challenge to take on. After deciding between a handful of buggies or monster trucks, it was time to hit one of the six tracks, from intermediate to difficult. There’s circuit mode, working your way up, or there’s the option of playing tracks for fun and trying to best yourself.

With water, asphalt, dirt, sand, rocks, mud, and snow, there was a variety of terrain to cover with this game. The Mojave Desert, Las Vegas, and Pike’s Peak were a few of the tracks. My favorite was probably Pike’s Peak, with the portions of snow-covered road with the patches of ice. Using the collected Nitro boosts in the right parts of the track was key on that level. It may have been the most aggravating course because I wiped out on so many of those evergreen trees!

Released in 1998, the graphics can be glitchy. They don’t stand the test of time, but the game does. It’s still fun after all these years.

Sega Rally Championship

Sega Rally Championship - EspritGTB on youtube.com
Sega Rally Championship - EspritGTB on youtube.com

Some of the Sega Rally games were released on actual gaming consoles, but my experience with this game was sitting in the arcade, with low lighting, popcorn on the floor, and a pocket full of quarters jangling in my pocket. Turning that physical wheel and pressing on pedals is such a different experience than hitting ‘A’ and ‘B’ on a controller. That’s probably why I wasn’t actually very good at those arcade games. I wanted to enter my three initials into a top score position, but it never happened. Still, no matter how many times I lost, another few quarters ended up back in that coin slot.

The graphics were obviously very 90s and the options were minimal, but what made this game so good was the experience itself, especially in the arcade. It wasn’t that realistic. I did my fair share of basically using those race cars as bumper cars, but they were pretty much indestructible. It was fun though.

Driver

Driver - imdb.com
Driver - imdb.com

This isn’t a racing game, but it is a chance for the player to put her or himself into a movie situation. Similar to Grand Theft Auto, but tamer, Driver allows players to dart around the streets of San Francisco, New York City, Miami, or Los Angeles with enemies not far behind. The driving aspect of this game, the bit of danger involved, and the freedom to explore as desired made for an entertaining combination.

Of course, just like with movies, once there’s a hit, there are going to be sequels. There are now seven entries in the Driver video game franchise. My favorite is the original, released in 1999. The makers got it all right with this game, from the John Tanner storyline to having everything take place in the vehicles to the unlockable Newcastle upon Tyne. I don’t care whether it’s just nostalgia or whether it’s actually better than the rest of the series. It’s one that’s easy to revisit.

Rad Racer II

Rad Racer II - World of Longplays on youtube.com
Rad Racer II - World of Longplays on youtube.com

Oh, the old graphics! How far we’ve come from the days of a cluster of pixels. If you play this game on a 65″ TV, it’s even more obvious how much detail was lacking in some of the original games. That being said, some games put a smile on your face, regardless of the older technology. One has to appreciate where we started to appreciate how far we’ve come. It’s still fun to drive that pixelated Ferrari 328 GTS twin turbo through each level.

The beat-the-clock concept of the game is simple enough, but, after a few rounds of gameplay, there’s an obvious order to the computer programming. To the right, then to the left, then a car darts out in the roadway. If the player doesn’t hit the left button enough times or hit the curves at the right speed, then making it to the first checkpoint (and getting the additional needed time to finish the course) isn’t possible. Then, it’s back to the start.

I’ve had quite a few blisters on my thumbs, trying to make it to the first or second checkpoints before I ran out of gas!

Burnout Paradise

Burnout Paradise - TirexiHD on youtube.com
Burnout Paradise - TirexiHD on youtube.com

A lot of people are going to choose Burnout 3: Takedown as the premiere game of the Burnout series. That’s an understandable choice, but I have to go with Burnout Paradise from 2008. This game definitely went a different direction, giving up the closed tracks for an open world experience. It maybe isn’t the best strictly traditional racing game, but, by this point in the series, I respect them trying something new.

What’s great about it is the new elements, like starting a race by just sitting at a traffic light or customizing traffic and race routes. It was like one giant playground! Map knowledge is a bigger part of this game. There are hours of driving and routes available with over 60 stock cars to choose from. Yep, this is still a good game. Don’t forget the awesome use of ‘Paradise City.’ Bonus point for using a Guns N’ Roses song here!

Mario Kart

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - IGN on youtube.com
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - IGN on youtube.com

There’s no doubt that Mario Kart had to make this list. Who doesn’t love the hijinks that two Italian plumbing brothers and other oddball characters can get into … with go karts?! The only question is: which version to go with?

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The nostalgic part of me wants to choose Mario Kart Double Dash for Nintendo GameCube, but, realistically, Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is pretty epic. It’s got a great collection of tracks for new fans and older ones. There’s a large roster of characters to select from and a bunch of tricks up all of their sleeves. On top of all of that, it’s a good actual racing game as well.

After some 20+ years, the makers of Mario Kart 8: Deluxe have the formula figured out. A little of the old. A little bit of new. It’s a game that can be played with a living room full of friends on a Friday night or alone on a boring, rainy, weekend afternoon.

iRacing

iRacing - epicgames.com
iRacing - epicgames.com

Easily one of the most realistic racing simulators, this game has the options of competing on dirt, on asphalt, or other terrains. The subscription service required to play iRacing has been around since 2008, but it’s really taken off over the past few years with actual NASCAR drivers competing against each other.

This game requires dedication though. It costs money for a car and track. It costs more to unlock certain cars, like the NASCAR Cup Series car. The price gets cheaper with each purchase, but the game itself is more for an avid racing fan than someone who wants to play a few laps. It’s probably not very cost effective that way. The tracks are so detailed because the developers use laser-scanning technology, creating models so accurate that actual drivers can use it to train on.

I guess you get what you pay for because it’s an incredibly realistic experience!

Forza Horizon 4

Forza Horizon 4 - Gematsu on youtube.com
Forza Horizon 4 - Gematsu on youtube.com

Each of the dozen Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon games, there are plenty to choose from, but one stands out from the rest: Forza Horizon 4. Why? Let’s start with the Great Britain setting. Being able to explore it in an open world setting, with the changing seasons and driving conditions, is a huge plus for this game. Some of the scenery is almost distracting because it looks so real and captivating.

There are so many options here: from racing to buying houses to simply driving around and sightseeing. There’s a focus on off-roading here and the eliminator mode, a battle royale type of environment, is a great time. Of course, there are plenty of muscle cars, like the 1969 Chevrolet Nova, to choose from, but the Hot Wheels and James Bond-themed expansion packs make Forza Horizon 4 that much better!

Need for Speed: Underground 2 / Need for Speed: Most Wanted

Need for Speed: Underground 2 - Wishery on youtube.com
Need for Speed: Underground 2 - Wishery on youtube.com

There’s an entire list that could be made off of the 24 Need for Speed games alone, but only one earns a spot here. Well, two. They tied. With so many to choose from, it’s hard to narrow it down.

Need for Speed: Underground 2 was the first game of the series to offer players an open-world map, expanding the possibilities of gameplay. Drivers had to find their way to events to activate them. Like Burnout Paradise, from earlier, the open-world map provided endless content.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted - Official EA UK on youtube.com
Need for Speed: Most Wanted - Official EA UK on youtube.com

Other reasons it’s on the list are simple: a decent soundtrack, more vehicle options (being able to drive a SUV was a nice add), and more overall customization than before. Sprint X, circuit, drift, and drag were some of the optional race formats. A good list of real branded cars was available, like the 2004 Infiniti G35 or the 2004 Pontiac GTO. Those could be played in career mode or quick race mode. At the time, the game could be played in online multiplayer mode as well.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted, from 2005, was equally exciting. The interactive open world, unique race tracks, solid collection of cars, improved graphics, and sound effects all made this game an instant hit. As the game progressed, it certainly got tougher to stay ahead in the pursuits, especially with various road blocks like helicopters swooping down to get involved!

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec - igcompany on youtube.com
Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec - igcompany on youtube.com

We can’t talk about racing games or car video games and not talk about Gran Turismo. There’s little doubt that it’s the greatest car racing game franchise ever. There’s a bunch of Gran Turismo titles to choose from, but Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec has a special place among them. It was the first in the Gran Turismo series to be released on PlayStation 2.

The best part about this game at the time was the standout graphics. Talk about a giant leap forward in realistic looking racing simulation! Released in 2001, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec was the first Gran Turismo released on PlayStation 2. 200 fully-detailed, real-world cars and different modes of play set the standard from that point on. The realism was turned up. As was the actual racing experience in the game.

Trying to win all the races, championships, and complete license tests (while getting 100%) was the ultimate goal and also a hard challenge. Getting higher licenses and unlocking new cars felt like such an achievement! You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes you can make it better. That’s what Gran Turismo did with this third installment. There’s a reason it’s one of the best-selling video games of all time.

The Unmentioned

Playing a video game
Playing a video game

There are so many awesome games out there! Rocket League, Star Wars Episode I: Racer, Daytona USA, Monster Truck Madness 64, and a bunch of others were close to making the list. Whether you’re an old school gamer, just starting, or somewhere in between, these games will provide challenges, annoyances, and enjoyment. I have to quit typing now because after talking about all these games, I’ve got the itch to turn on one of my systems and master a few courses before the day is gone!

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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