Special Feature: The Golden Age of Car Racing Video Games

At the turn of the century, from the 20th to the 21st, we saw a massive output of driving games in the video game industry. Companies that had never before offered racing games began to develop them. Criterion Games, for example, which was founded in 1996, really hit their stride with Burnout in 2001. Bizarre Creations, which started in 1988 as Raising Hell Software, released their best title, Metropolis Street Racer, in 2000, after switching to the Bizarre moniker in 1994. Finally, Codemasters released the first Colin McRae Rally game in 1998, and the company is still considered one of the top racing game makers in existence today. Below we will discuss games from this time, and subjects of note, such as use of real and fake cars, graphical differences, and the beginning of home console racing wheels, pedals, and stick shifts.

Gran Turismo 2 for PlayStation

Though the original Gran Turismo came before it, and its development took five years to complete, I feel the real origin of the driving simulator was Gran Turismo 2. Released on the PlayStation, it had a lot of new ideas. You had a “garage,” which you never actually saw, but it could hold as many cars as you could collect in the game. According to Wikipedia, there were almost 650 vehicles in the game, and amazingly, much of the auto industry was on board. You could buy a Dodge, a Chevy, or even a Lamborghini; many brands were represented. Most interesting, though, is that none of the cars could take damage. I assume someone with an auto-maker spoke up about not wanting to see a vehicle of theirs damaged, and the rest of the industry followed suit. Flash forward to the present. In Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012), I witnessed for the first time in my life, a licensed vehicle take damage in a game, thirteen years after Gran Turismo 2.

In addition to the garage, you obtained “credits” – a fictional currency – to get new cars or to upgrade cars you already own. Changing tires or turbo charging an engine was a blast, mainly because you could test the vehicle after modifying it. These ideas would live on in Microsoft’s Forza series, pronounced “Fort-za,” the Italian word for “power.” You could also win a race, which introduced a new course. It was ahead of its time, essentially allowing the player to live the life of a professional race car driver. In Gran Turismo, you could have your own steering wheel, a replica of an actual car steering wheel, and pedals (and sometime later a stick shift) to play the game. The most advertised feature was “force feedback” in the early days, simulating road bumps and rough terrain with a rumble effect on the wheel.

Ridge Racer 64
Ridge Racer 64 for Nintendo 64

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec was a graphical improvement over the predecessor, but had PlayStation 2’s famous “jaggies,” non-smooth lines which can now be corrected with anti-aliasing. Most of all, it doubled-down on the existing formula, and I lost interest. On the other hand, 2000 A.D. was home to three important driving games, the first being Ridge Racer 64, released in February. Of course, the series started on PlayStation, and is probably just as good there, but Ridge Racer 64, I owned. In an earlier review I mentioned that it blurs the line between an arcade game and a simulation, but it’s much more of a simulation. The difference here is fictional cars and fictional tracks. It was never arcade-y in the “hit the boost up ahead” sense. It was largely a joy ride, never too difficult. Nintendo Software Technology (NST), a U.S. based studio for Nintendo, developed the title, and NST still exists today. These games never had you buying new cars or upgrades. Cars were earned with race wins, the end.



Sega GT for Dreamcast

Later in 2000, North America received a real rival to the Gran Turismo series, Sega GT. This was truly a treat. It was Sega acknowledging racing sims as a real genre. There were 130 licensed cars, and upgrades to boot. The menu was clunky, but it was pretty darn good. A beautiful thing about the Dreamcast is that it had a VGA adapter, which allowed a gamer to play on a computer monitor, with a higher screen resolution. In part, this enabled a new internal modchip for the Dreamcast, DCHDMI, which lets Dreamcast play games at 1080p, and features firmware updates capable of upgrading picture quality. Sega GT would be beautiful here.

Metropolis Street Racer for Dreamcast

Finally, in November 2000 in Europe, and January 2001 in North America, we got Metropolis Street Racer for Dreamcast. It was a “crown jewel” for racing games, as much as it’s a true success story for Bizarre Creations. Bizarre Creations was founded in 1988, but didn’t make a racing game until 1997. In MSR, there are courses in a beautifully detailed San Francisco, London, and Tokyo. The game had daytime and nighttime races. It had licensed cars, but upgrades weren’t involved. Perhaps best of all was the fictional radio station. A friend recently pointed out the female vocalist TJ Davis is also in a Sega Saturn Sonic the Hedgehog game. This makes sense because MSR was a Dreamcast exclusive, not to mention Sega published it. It really is the little details in the race tracks that make the game great. If you stopped your car in Fisherman’s Wharf, for example, you would see clothing shops and restaurants. Bizarre would live on with the Project Gotham Racing games on Xbox, but MSR is the peak. Sadly, ActiVision acquired the studio and shut it down.

I have said nothing about Codemasters or Criterion Games, which existed since 1986 and 1993 respectively, and are still in business. Perhaps strangely, Bizzare Creations, Codemasters, and Criterion are all British companies. England certainly loves cars, for those who have seen the Top Gear television series, and makes a few nice ones, like Range Rover, Jaguar, and Aston Martin. Codemasters started making Colin McRae: Dirt, a rally racing game, and are still making rally games today with Dirt Rally 2.0 (rest in peace Colin McRae). Criterion dared to be a bit edgy, making the Burnout series, which encouraged you to crash your own car or someone else’s as thoroughly as possible. Now owned by video game giant Electronic Arts, they haven’t made a racing game since 2013.

The realistic racing simulator lives on, most notably as the series Forza, owned by Microsoft and designed to compete with Gran Turismo. Unfortunately, they’ve practically ended Gran Turismo’s existence, and yet, every new Forza Motorsport game feels like factory farming, and doesn’t have the appeal of those early GT games. There are other games however, like iRacing, also keeping the simulator alive. Racing wheels are available in 2019, not to mention the ability to buy a bucket seat, which also gives you a slot to mount the wheel, the pedals, and the gear shift. There really was an amazing time for car racers, and I hope a new generation can look past less detailed graphics.


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