Big list of cool games for cool gamers!
I put together a list of games I’ve enjoyed playing over the years. It’s a devoted hobby of mine to play racing games, and a severe majority of them are awful, however, within that heap of trash racing games are a few really good games. I’ve loosely organised these both by my own interest or nostalgia, but it’s also likely the order you should play them in? Sure.
If any of these titles appeal to you, then it’s suggested to play them whatever means you can.
-Datsun 280 ZZZAP
This game is first for a reason. If you’ve never played a racing game before then start here with this 1976 arcade title. Although this game went by a few names, the tie-in with the 280zx is obscurely one of the earliest examples of sponsored games and just happens to be a pretty sweet car on a very creative game for the hardware.
Although this list is not chronological, Midtown Madness caught me before I ever had my drivers licence. What made this late DOS game notable wasn’t the physics, maps, or car selection, but the fact I was freely able to roam around the city. I had an early chance to role play my driving interests in a sandbox environment that at the time was most believable as an open roaming regular city with regular cars.
All games on this list are strongly recommended as they are all games I enjoy, just the ones closer to the bottom of this article I enjoy the most. There are no bad games on this list. iRacing is made by Papyrus who is featured a few times on this list. iRacing is a cultural staple in 2023, and if you are truly serious about simulating a racing career virtually, this is the game for it. The community is so dense and professional, mixed with the strongest anti-cheating and online game play structure that it consumes people, their time and their wallets. It is the E-sport leader in PC racing simulations.
-Touge Densetsu - Saisoku Battle
If you’ve never played the original Mario Kart for the SNES or F-Zero, then perhaps you should taste those a little bit before trying any of the games that feature Mode 7 style graphics on this list. Touge Densetsu is a game meant for 16-18 year olds in Japan, who during those years, can only get their motorcycle licence and not their car licence. So these youths take to the mountains to learn that their not god’s gift to motorsports by battling each other on the Touge mountain roads. This game's creativity of capturing this niche is extremely creative and accurate to the real life experience and culture.
Not every car game needs to be about racing. In drifting we often run into people who like building their cars more than driving them. GearHead Garage was a fun simulation of running your own repair shop. Later sponsored by Snap On, it’s a good introduction to diagnosis, wrenching, money management and dealing with customers. It’s also one of the most relaxing games you can toodle with on your PC.
You’ll find Gran Turismo games further down this list. Tourist Trophy is a very often overlooked PS2 game that takes all of the assets and game structure of Gran Turismo but allows you to race a variety of motorcycles on it. If you enjoy the feeling and vibes of GT but need more content, this one is just a fun play.
Tycoon games are often enduring, but ultimately cheap. Automation I think started as a love letter to Car Tycoon and then evolved into a full on car design suite. The level of depth into the car design software concepts are boggling for this PC game and they’re only rivalled by the business management side of the game which is a love it or hate it feature. You can spend hundreds of hours playing in this sandbox tweaking and fiddling to create the perfect car, but what’s more impressive, is you can then simulate selling or furthermore export it BeamNG physics simulator and actually drive and test your creations.
-Gran Turismo 4
The Gran Turismo series as a whole is special to many including me. We’ll find some more titles further down, but this one makes the list because it’s the best overall experience in a GT game and the last good one. This PS2 game for me ended the GT series, and although there are many titles afterwards, none had the variety of tracks and cars like GT4 does nor do they have the iconic aesthetic which has spawned it’s own subculture of music creators. Even the menus in this game are so memorable for their comfortable and welcoming vibes that it’s become a timeless classic.
-Bike Daisuki! Hashiriya Kon - Rider's Spirits
Yet another mode 7 SNES title, this game is cute and further draws from the touge culture. Riders Spirits lives up to it’s name by being a Mario Kart clone with a Touge motorcycle theme. The races are short, but fun and the artwork is culturally relevant to my interests.
This game was introduced to me through a birthday party where we rented an SNES. I remember boring all my friends with how excited I was to drive around, jump and crash cars in a 3D space. I was never introduced to the DOS or arcade versions, but they are nearly identical to the game Stunts which is further down on our list. Likely a happenstance of the technology at the time. Race Drivin’ was the only one I could play with an SNES controller at home though. Purely on here for my Nostalgia.
Invictus made a variety of PC racing games around this time that were so far ahead of the rest of the world both in physics, but also real car culture. 1nsane was the offroading game everyone else was trying to build, but couldn’t. Not only is it some of my earliest multiplayer memories, but the game is one of the first to use soft body collisions that actually damaged the car accurately to the collision. This ability to actually damage your vehicle realistically, and the ability to play online with friends, brewed this strange sense of competitiveness to actually drive well to be competitive.
I’m quite angry I only found this last year. This DOS game was so ambitious that it’s unfathomable that it’s real. Set in an actual map of San Francisco, you had the open world freedom to just drive around, wherever you wanted on real life streets in real life corvettes! Not only did this game feature OEM Corvettes but it also featured modified versions from well known tuning companies. Additionally, it featured gas stations, street racing and even hitting pedestrians. What's even crazier is there is political references to Tianamen Square in the original code. It’s so wacky. Had I been introduced to this sooner it might be deeper on my life.
The only gameboy advance game on this list. It’s not made by the Gran Turismo series, but you can tell it’s designed to be spiritually part of the series. It’s such a good game of fun driving physics and good car culture where if you dial in your setup and get some seat time you can achieve a “flow” in races few other games achieve. This mastery of the games abuse of oversteer makes it very fun to drive.
Assetto Corsa is not on this list. It’s not something I recommend. However, saying that, this next statement is confusing. Rfactor is Assetto Corsa, before Assetto Corsa existed. AC is a true successor to Rfactor as they achieved the literal exact same thing: A horrible base game with awful physics, bad cars and stupid design that gets completely bandaided by the modding community on the PC. A huge chunk of AC mods, even today, are just ports of old Rfactor content. This content for me was mostly drift related, and getting to do tandems with friends in cool cars on cool tracks made Rfactor the popular father of AC.
-Shutokō Battle '94 & 2
Yet more SNES mode 7! But this time it’s the origin point of a long running series called Shutoku Battle. This game features street racing in an accurate way for the limitations of the SNES system. It also captured the culture of street racing in Japan at the time and conveys that culture well. The driving physics are tricky to say the least, but it’s great reward when you beat the local and later Keiichi Tsuchiya on some well known Japanese courses in some famous street cars of the era.
This DOS game is likely the earliest car design game. It's endearing in its simplicity to build, further customise and test a car of your own creation. Other games on this list are indebted to it’s pioneering even if it’s only 5-10 minutes of game play.
-CarX Drift Racing Online (PC/Console version)
Drifting is popular enough to have it’s own games. Beginning as a Russian mobile game, CarX seemed to keep evolving and is the only cross platform game on this list. I play on PC against friends on a variety of consoles, and that’s really it’s main purpose. The driving is almost identical to drifting RWD RC cars, but you get the benefit of never running out of batteries or tires. The popularity of CarX is the ease to which you can pickup and drift with your friends quickly and easily. It’s other redeeming feature is the customization of the cars, with culturally relevant chassis and culturally relevant visual mods. The livery editor is the best in any game and allows you to truly flex on strangers in multiplayer lobbies.
-Test Drive: The Duel
I couldn’t believe I could go street racing, get chased by the cops, have a crash with oncoming cars, run out of gas or drive off a cliff all on my Sega Genesis. This game did things even many arcade games at the time couldn’t. It’s sense of situational realism enthralled me when I was younger and allowed me to role play as the automotive deviant I desired to be.
I’m not a Nascar guy, it’s been 30+ years and I still don’t get it. I even pit crewed on an oval track team, but ultimately, it still boggles me. However, Papyrus’s Nascar for DOS is amazing. This is some of the earliest true racing simulation software. Of course as a kid I was more excited about driving the wrong way on the track and watching the unique crashing design the game has, but even now I’m impressed how they managed to even capture the TV broadcast feelings of watching Nascar on TV at the time.
-Grand Prix Legends
Good luck. Seriously, good luck if you think you’re good at racing games. GPL destroyed the world of racing sims when it launched. At the time, it was the most accurate racing simulation to date. iRacing? You know those guys? Yeah, this is also a Papyrus title. This game not only tried to simulate racing accurately, but it tried to simulate some of the most treacherous racing in the history of the automobile: 60’s Formula 1. This was one of the first racing sims ever released that was unplayable without a good quality racing steering wheel. This game is what made thrustmaster a known brand, as I guarantee sales jumped when GPL dropped. There is still a huge community keeping GPL alive even 25 years after it’s release. It’s still really hard, so good luck.
-Street Rod 1 & 2
Street racing seems to be a theme in many of the games I covet. The Street Rod series was true American car culture of the 60s and 70s packaged into a video game. You buy a used car from the newspaper, fix it up in your shop, and cruise down to the local drive-in burger joint to challenge the locals to street races. Not only does it feature tuning, tweaking and customization of your car, it has one of the few and earliest references to Mullholland drive and the Aqueducts of Los Angeles car culture.
Not the oldest game on this list, but it’s my own very first racing game. Atari 2600 was my first video game system and I spent much time moving the square block of a car left and right on the screen to avoid the other square blocks. Pole position was barely an upgrade to my Tomy Racing Turbo toy, but it was a video game!
-Kat's Run - Zen-Nihon K-Car Senshuken
Girls like cars too, and I happen to like girls. Kat’s Run is a strongly obscure game. There is no official statement declaring it, but it’s my guess that it’s a racing game designed for girls. There are certain design aspects of it that are far less traditionally masculine than most other racing games, but it’s only a guess. It features Japanese Kei designation cars only, which is already obscure enough as it is and more so it’s one of the first ever car games to feature a variety of officially licensed cars to boot. The artwork is gorgeous and the game play isn’t too tough, but the real gem on this stack of gems, is the marathon mode specifically the manner in which it loads levels. Instead of finishing a race and kicking you back to the menu, the tracks are non-looping. Instead they are point A to point B style races somehow depicted on a mode 7 SNES game. When you get to Point B the game just loads the next level, maintains your momentum and voila, you’re on the next track as if the road never ended. It’s one big race! Again, I like it because it’s on public roads. Oh, and to further nail home my point; it’s the only racing game I’ve ever played where you can throw a high heel at your opponents.
This is the first game that made crashing fun and rewarding. There were a slew of DOS games around this time that were very similar, but this was the one I got to play. The big appeal was that you got to design your own automotive stunt course with ice, jumps, loops and banked corners. Then you’d pick a well known super car and throw yourself into the side of a mountain.
Fuck horizon. I hate the horizon series, but the motorsports series was such a good rival to Gran Turismo and Forza motorsport 4 happened to be the best one. The biggest selection of cars and tracks, great customization, but also really believable driving physics. This makes the list as it was so hot at the time, multiplayer, accessible to many people with Xbox360s but also was actually really fun and featured decent car culture and customization. I also have a video of me doing some of the earliest, purposeful, backward entries that I know of in video games. NERD
-Gran Turismo 1
Sim racing was only available to hardcore PC nerds who had wads of cash to build fancy computers until GT1 dropped. I was accidentally at the store the day they released Gran Turismo 1 for the PSX. I had been a good boy somehow and mom was going to grant me the desire of a new game, which was a rare occurrence in my poor upbringing. I liked cars, so we bought the car game and it fucked up my life! I call it simulation, but by todays standards it’s truly a sim-cade, but this half step was more than enough to tickle me in a special way. There was something so much more real in Gran Turismo, and you could feel that through the controller. I played this ad nauseam. Not only could I finally play real life cars, but there was so many to choose from, and I could customise them to go even faster! A core memory of my life was lending this game to a friend, and strongly trying to teach him to brake “in a straight line” before the corner. It may be my first ever moment of racing instruction.
-Street Legal 1
Customise! I must customise and street race! I must! Street Legal 1 further played into my niche lust for Japanese cars and tuning culture. I got my own garage space where I could pull apart my car piece by piece. I mean everything came apart, the engine, transmission, body panels, suspension and interior, all came apart and were customizable individually. It was so crazy as you could change out different parts of the engine, and it would have an effect on the output the engine produced. It was so much closer to real life than I’d been before in a game. Additionally it too had the soft body physics of 1nsane, so there were consequences to driving poorly. SL1 is my first foray into PC video game modding. When the content of the game became stale from my obsessive abuse of the game, the craving was too much and I had to modify it. I taught myself 3D design and some basic coding so I could build cars exactly to my own liking, and have a claim to fame being the first purpose-built drift cars.
Yeah I know, more street racing. The whole RoadRash series is great, but the third one was the best. I spent an entire summer alone with this game as a kid and it left a memorable impact in my mind. The music, characters and cutscenes live rent free in my mind forever and will likely even survive my expected Alzheimer's. I’ll just be an old clump of man humming the tunes of the England and Italy stage level tunes over and over. Oh, this is a motorcycle racing game for Sega Genesis. It’s street racing and you physically fight your opponents off with weapons.
Imagine the same game above, but this time on a set of roller blades, holding onto the bumper of cars on the highway. Skitchin’ took me forever as a kid to find a copy for my Sega and it was everything I dreamed of; more of the same of RoadRash. It’s memorable also for its music but also for it’s Vancouver level, as there is not much Canadian representation in racing games.
-Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3
This $5 game is an exposé of Japanese kaido racing culture. It’s such a snapshot of the mood and trends in the culture that it even includes the technologies that people communicated to each other at the time as part of the game's features. Consider it a interactive documentary of how wangan and kaido racing as the level of detail isn’t just in the models of the game, but recreating the emotions that should be evoked. It’s a master class in capturing nuance and aesthetic, and you could dig it out of the discount PS2 bin at walmart. And yes, this is a continuation of the Shutoku series mentioned earlier.
-Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2
You thought the highway racing was good? Now take that whole game just mentioned and retool it for the culture and driving of touge drifting. Perhaps on the third sunday of every month if it’s raining you can meet the one missing character battle you’ve been looking for to move on to the next challenge. Although the physics are a bit wonky, the sheer car culture this game sweats will leave you frustrated you didn’t exist in the moment the game tries to document on the PS2.
-Mercedes Benz World Racing 1
It’s funny when shovelware is accidentally good. This was a licensed game to advertise mercedes benz products and history. It wasn’t intended to be a good game, nor to really sell outside of the expected Mercedes fan base. I stumbled on a demo long ago and noticed two interesting things. Firstly, the cars drove really well, they would understeer and oversteer in really predictable and controllable manners which made sliding around really rewarding. Furthermore the game was really smart about drifting and would compliment you accurately on well executed drifts. Secondly, the tracks were huge spaghetti’s of freeroam roads all linked together. Many of the tracks featured complex mountain road layouts and with the multiplayer and PC modding community, it was easy to build some really cool cars and do tandems with your friends.
-D1 Professional Drift Grand Prix Series
I’m one of the few people in the world who’s played this both on PS2, but also on one of the extremely rare arcade machines. Not only was my favourite drifter of all time sponsored by Yukes, but to have your hero in a game about the professional league of your favourite hobby, is a very niche pleasure. Although the game physics are completely broken, the imagery, vibe and aesthetic are so on point with the culture of D1GP that you can’t help but muscle through the awkward control to enjoy the illusion you’re a D1 driver in the early 2000’s.
-LFS Live For Speed
We’re really deep on this list and we’re into the final stretch. I know this because we’re finally on Live For Speed. This racing simulation was so far ahead of it’s time that not only is it still relevant to this day, but it’s still the leading title to me in accurately portraying the true feeling of driving a real car. People continue to overlook it because the graphics are so simplistic, but the true of the matter is, it’s the most connected feeling to racing I’ve ever gotten from a racing game and nothing has ever compared. Get yourself a PC and a steering wheel, as I believe in it so much, I am an official dealer of the licences for the game.
-Street Legal Redline Racing
SL1 taught me how to design and create mods for games. When I couldn’t do something in real life I really wanted to, I’d turn the modding tools on and build unique and cool cars virtually instead. SLRR dropped and overnight SL1 was obsolete. They captured the exact feel and mechanics of the first game, but with a wild variety of improvements. SLRR was a really good sequel and lent itself really well to being a modders sandbox. Tools were created and the community exploded into content. The game became the hub of virtual car shows. It was such a well designed host for modders that it was a perfect place to assemble and build cars, not just from the games stock assets but primarily from user created ones. This virtual stanceworks continues to this day and many still use the PC game to assemble and showcase their automotive artworks.
-Richard Burns Rally
If LFS was the gold standard of racing simulation for the PC, then RBR is still the gold standard of rally simulation. This game achieved the same groundbreaking impact as Grand Prix Legends did. Good luck again to you as this game will punish you for even the slightest of driving errors. Although at first I liked the game, I could never place well in the races. It was only 10 years later when I returned to the game understanding left foot braking and further race craft that I finally unlocked the speed. Even to this day, professional sim racers refer to RBR for their most realistic of rally thrills.
I finally got my copy in Seattle. I’d been a Gran Turismo fan all my life, but I had read of a competitor and needed to get a copy. When I got back to Canada and finally played it, I was shocked at what a majority of the racing public had missed out on. We called Gran Turismo a ‘sim-cade’, but Enthusia was a true simulation and unbelievably, on your PS2. The game didn’t sell well because of two things. Firstly, you need to actually be good at driving and planning your momentum, especially using a controller. Secondly, you can’t buy your way to first place. Gran Turismo had a money system and with enough grinding you could purchase and customise cars to be faster than your opponents. Enthusia would make fun of you if you did that. Not only is there no money system in the game, but if you pick a car that is faster than your opponents, then you progress slower through the game. You genuinely get more progress getting 2nd place with a car slower than the other cars, than you would get if you got 1st place in a car faster than the others in the race. For people who truly value driver skill, this is the biggest tip of the hat.
-Gran Turismo 2
This PSX game changed my life literally. It’s not the racing, the racing in this game is just fine, palatable. What it really was, was a car culture encyclopaedia. Long before the days of a wiki, this 800 car game had a write up on interesting facts of each and every single one of those cars. Not only that, but the game also has a massive thick manual reference manual that taught much of the basics of real race craft, but even had early talks about the culture of drifting and for North America 1999 was before people even knew about drifting. The game curved my life and I owe a lot of my knowledge base to the automotive encyclopaedia contained within.
This PC game is all of my favourite games combined in one. It’s a car culture masterpiece that happens to be an accident of making the most progressive physics simulation software available. It’s not supposed to be a car game. It was meant to be a physics sandbox that people could play around in, and they do, it just happens to be that cars are the most interesting. Early on it was just a pickup truck, bumbling around on a floppy race track, and because the softbody physics were so advanced for a consumer/enthusiast grade piece of software, people really enjoyed crashing cars. They truly deform to the forces and shape of the objects they hit. It’s this insanely detailed softbody physics that again, accidentally, make it the best car simulation. Ever single part of the car, including the windshield, faces deformation and vibration under load and use. The right group of artists stumbled onto this physics simulator and it resulted in the best known car game ever made. If you don’t have it, get it.
-NIRA Intense Import Drag Racing
The last one on my list. It truly is my favourite, though mostly for nostalgia. To me, it’s one of the most overlooked games of all time. Yes, it’s an ugly game, but it’s how it works that’s most important, and the culture it references. NIRA is another game that is a snapshot of culture. This DOS game is about the late 90’s drag racing revolution that the non-American cars were challenging. This cultural staple of racing was finally being toppled by primarily Japanese made Hondas as the American muscle car had finally become too expensive to purchase and modify and American car brands stopped selling muscle cars 20 years prior. You can almost picture a graph where the cost of a muscle car continues to go up, but the participation in drag racing goes down. People started modding the nearly free cars that were considered junk, only to find that there was a lot of unharnessed performance. Drag strips started having culture clashes between the traditionalists and the new movement of import tuners. Eventually it caught on enough that NHRA themselves officially endorsed the National Import Racing Association, and NIRA continued to expand further. This game not only documents the popularity of import drag racers at this moment in history, but it also compliments them through unique game play. This is a true drag racing simulation. It’s so indepth that it actually was built around professional engine dyno simulation software called “Desktop Dyno 2000” which is a complete engine design software package and of which it’s exported files can be imported directly into the game. I actually can’t think of another game that lets you customise the A/R ratio of your turbo relative to intercooler efficiency rating. It’s that in depth.
There, you have a list of games to try out that covers a variety of different platforms, thought admittedly they’re focused around my interests. This list is not complete. There is likely a game out there you like that I’ve not played, or worse, ones I’ve forgotten, as a few popped into my head while I was writing this and had to add them.
Thanks for dealing with my nerdiness.