Top 10 Racing Games
31 May 2010

Racing games haven't aged as gracefully as many other genres, so this list ends up a little bit on the short side. Nevertheless, this era did offer up a tremendous variety of racing experiences. In terms of perspective you'll find everything from behind-the-car, side-scrolling, isometric, and birds-eye viewpoints. Looking at gameplay, there's pure racing, vehicular combat, pulling off tricks, carefully timing jumps, souping up your ride, and any combination of all of the above. Pole Position first hit the arcades in 1982, and it's astonishing how only two years later you had Excitebike and then R.C. Pro-Am setting the template for racing meets combat in 1988.

The 8-bit and 16-bit eras represented an epoch of racing that eschewed realism. Hardware didn't have the horsepower to create realistic physics models, nor the graphical prowess to convincingly put you in the race car. To compensate, game developers infused their games with a fantastic edge, whether the idealized Red Ferrari and blond babe in OutRun or the futuristic racers in F-Zero. Perhaps you're not even a vehicle, but instead a marble, rolling down an M.C. Escheresque landscape, as seen in Marble Madness. Who wants realism when you get enough of that behind the wheel in real life?
Super Mario Kart
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1992
I know this seems like a predictable choice, but the bottom line is that this is easily the best multi-player racer of the era. Other racers may rival some elements of Super Mario Kart, but none of them provide the entire package of brilliant split-screen two-player action, eight unique karts/characters, and such a variety of vehicular items/attacks. Twenty tracks, divided into four cups, gives you quite a bit of variety. Transcending typical racing modes, the battle mode makes it more like two games in one, offering excellent replayability. Super Mario Kart was the 4th best-selling SNES game ever for good reason.
Vs. Excitebike
Platform: NES FDS
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1988
As brilliant as the original Excitebike is, this FDS sequel includes two fantastic additions: 1) Two-player competition, and 2) The ability to save the tracks that you design. While the sidestepping perspective may be a bit primitive, this is the first and only NES racer that features split-screen racing. You'll also discover fun bonus stages where you have to try to jump across train carriages. Musically, the arcade's original tunes benefit from some remixing that takes advantage of the additional sound channel on the FDS. Though you can't perform tricks, there's a Uniracers feel as you try to land with your wheels in the proper orientation, and the balancing of regular speed vs. turbo remains as fun as it is simple. This is a must-own for the FDS.
Road Rash 2
Platform: Genesis
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 1992
Think of R.C. Pro-Am, only with a behind the motorcycle perspective and bats or chains rather than missiles and bombs. As you race and fight your way to 1st place, each competitor you encounter has their own name and unique personality. After earning money from your finishes, you gain the ability to purchase more expensive motorcycles, each one with its own feel and characteristics. This is easily the best racing game ever released for the Genesis.
R.C. Pro-Am
Platform: NES
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1988
With one game, simple in concept, yet very well designed and executed, Rare basically defined the racing sub-genre that focuses on vehicular combat. Sure, it would have been nice to also have two-player support or even a soundtrack to accompany the racing, but I dare you to pick up a controller and give this a try. Elegant, brilliant, and highly addictive—you won't be able to stop after just one race. The two-tier leveling system (grabbing letters to spell Nintendo, and snagging upgrades for engine, tires, acceleration) blends wonderfully with collecting weapons (missiles or bombs). Let's not forget the cage that grants invincibility either! This is one hell of a ride.
Platform: Genesis, TG-16, SMS
Developer: Sanritsu (Gen), NEC Avenue (TG-16), Graftgold (SMS)
Publisher: Sega (Genesis, SMS), NEC (TG-16)
Released: 1991 (Genesis), 1990 (TG-16), 1987 (SMS)
The formula is simple, yet magical—red Ferrari, blond chick, and racing into the horizon. Choosing your own music on the radio at the beginning is a nice touch, and this is also the only title in the list that features forks in the road, offering much-needed replay value. Yu Suzuki knocked it out of the park when he designed this racer, and these ports are all quite good. The TG-16 version is especially impressive, holding up remarkably well to the Genesis one.
Rock & Roll Racing
Platform: SNES
Developer: Silicon & Synapse
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
Released: 1993
This game takes the R.C. Pro-Am template and improves on it in just about every way: more tracks, passwords to save your progress, a greater variety of weapons, and rocking music. Amazingly enough there are five full rock tracks from real artists (minus the lyrics), including "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath and Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild." You can choose from seven different drivers (one hidden), race five different vehicles, customize seven different characteristics of your ride, and navigate 48 tracks on five different planets (plus additional tracks on a hidden planet). Long before WoW, Blizzard created this!
Platform: SNES
Developer: DMA Design
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1994
You won't find a better example of fusing innovative gameplay with elegant design. Performing tricks is the central gameplay element, and each stunt nets you speed (on race or circuit tracks) or money (on stunt tracks). As you race along tracks, it's all about spinning and flipping your unicycle in the air as much as possible while landing on the tire to avoid a wipeout. Controls are tight, but the graphics focus on functionality and smooth animation rather than frills and details. Track colors are simple, yet important, signifying what's coming up next, so you can plan tricks accordingly. DMA design would later create a little game called Grand Theft Auto.
Platform: Genesis
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 1993
Using the same engine from Road Rash, there's enough here to make this title stand out. Though racing while beating up enemies is familiar, this time you can also grab onto the back of vehicles for a speed boost, there's even a two-player mode, and you can perform tricks to earn cash. Of course, you can also spend your hard-earned money on upgrades, like better protective gear. The music is quite good, and you can choose your track for each level on a CD player—an homage to OutRun? This game is a reminder of how creative EA used to be.
Top Gear
Platform: SNES
Developer: Gremlin Graphics
Publisher: Kemco
Released: 1992
This is Rad Racer all grown up. While no single element here really push the power of the SNES, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The first thing you'll notice is the great music, from the catchy title screen to the first race to the fantastic Mad Racer. Most songs are remixed from the Amiga's Lotus series, and it fits perfectly. Then there's the crisp split-screen two-player mode with four different cars to choose from. As your racing career progresses, you'll travel to eight different countries and cover 32 tracks. My favorite touch, though, is the comic book bubble-framed wise crack from your driver when you blast off a nitro boost. A tremendously fun and underrated game.
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1990
You may take it for granted now, but this was the first SNES title to use "mode 7 scrolling," and seeing those smooth scaling and rotation effects for the first time was astonishing. While it would be nice to have more game modes and stages, F-Zero's fantastic play control and variety of pilots help make up for these shortcomings. Each hovercraft has its own distinct feel and characteristics. I'm sure another game of the 8-bit or 16-bit era must have tried to implement this variety of racers, but there's no doubt that F-Zero was the first one to pull it off so brilliantly.
Honorable Mention
Galaxy 5000
Platform: NES
Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Released: 1991
While it was overshadowed by the likes of R.C. Pro-Am, Galaxy 5000 is much richer in gameplay. Vehicular combat remains a major part of gameplay, only this time damage carries over to the next race if you don't pay for the necessary repairs between races. Another unique feature is that your ship can jump (helpful for taking shortcuts or clearing obstacles), and you actually feel the effects of differing gravity on planets. Even ship upgrades have a nice twist: blow up your original ship and it's game over, but if you lose an upgraded ship you continue the race in your previous, older ship model. Nine different tracks that come in four different obstacle-laden versions provide lots to learn and explore. One of the most innovative racers on this list.
Honorable Mention
Micro Machines Turbo Tournament '96
Platform: Genesis
Developer: Supersonic Software
Publisher: Codemasters
Released: 1995
When it comes to variety of play (five different modes) and constructing your own tracks (choose everything from obstacles to weather and store up to nine original creations), this version of the Micro Machines stands in a league of its own. While the graphics and music are pretty simple; it's the rock solid gameplay that carries the day. This unassuming title also sets the record for multiplayer experiences, thanks to the J-Cart design, you can plug two additional controllers right into the cart. It's a damn shame this was only released in Europe.
Other Recommendations
Biker Mice from Mars SNES Konami Isometric 1994
Bump 'n' Jump NES Data East Overhead 1986
Championship Pro-Am Genesis Rare Isometric 1992
Excitebike NES Nintendo R&D1 Side-view 1984
Marble Madness NES Rare Isometric 1989
Micro Machines NES Codemasters Overhead 1991
Micro Machines SMS Codemasters Overhead 1993
Rad Racer NES Square Behind the car 1987
Super Off-Road SMS Graftgold Overhead 1993