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How PC Racing Games Evolved

Pole Position by Namco 1982 racing game cover

Pole Position

When it comes to racing games PC has always had it all and has been the dominant platform in the racing games category. Racing video games first emerged on arcade machines and were at later times available for home computers. The gameplay concept has mostly remained the same throughout time where the player races against other rival cars.


In the early years of PC racing history, almost all titles to be released were F1 games or based on formula one such as Pole Position by Namco in 1982. It was during the 1980s when racing games started making their way into gamers’ homes around the world. They quickly became popular and therefore, more and more developers started creating them.


Pole Position was the most influential racing game released and the first game to be based on a real racing circuit. It was a huge success, becoming the building blocks for racing games and inspiring numerous imitators. It was an important game in history which inspired an excessive amount of other racing games to come. A sequel titled Pole Position II, and improved version of the previous game was released in 1983. It had additional race courses along with more colorful landscapes.


Released in the same year was another important game titled TX-1 for arcade systems. Compared to the previous Pole Position games, TX-1 was more focused on realism. It featured new things such as the need for players to slow down by using the brakes and downshifting gears, and letting off the accelerator during turns in order to avoid losing control. Additionally, it was the first driving game to feature vibration technology (force feedback), making the steering wheel vibrate.


Cosmos Circuit cover

Cosmos Circuit

Change Lanes, a third-person racer released the same year was yet another highly innovative game. It featured fuel consumption meaning the player’s fuel was being used up and would start to run low and could eventually run out if not refueled. Refueling was done by picking up fuel cells at checkpoints.


Crashing into other cars and obstacles on the race track would slow down the car and decrease the amount of fuel. An empty tank would cause the game to end. To sum up the year of 1983, an interesting motorbike racing game titled MotoRace USA was released.


The player sets out to travel across the US needing to refuel at various cities and avoiding crashes in order to reach his destination. Turnin’ Turbo Dashboard was an early attempt at making a home driving simulator. GP World and Laser Grand Prix released in 1984 were laserdisc games featuring live-action footage. A game by the title of Top Gear featured 3D animated racing.


Cosmos Circuit was a unique game as it was about animated futuristic racing. Kick Start, a motorbike racing game featured a full third-person view. A buggy game involving racing on dirt tracks titled Buggy Challenge was also innovative at the time. Several dirt bike titles, including side-scrolling racing games, were also released throughout the year. Mad Crasher was a futuristic motorbike racing game. It involved driving a futuristic motorbike along mid-air suspended roads in futuristic environments.


Seicross futuristic motorbike racing game arcade flyer 1984


The gameplay featured shooting at other cars, jumping over gaps, and collecting bonuses and power-ups. Seicross (Sector Zone) was another futuristic motorbike racing game. Gameplay involved bumping other riders, collecting power modules and shooting blue coins. With objectives of evading enemy chase, attacking the fort, and infiltrating the mysterious base.


Other remarkable releases include games like Road Fighter, a vertical-scrolling car racer. Players had to drive fast, pass cars and avoid accidents for scoring points, in an attempt to reach checkpoints before the fuel runs out. The Battle-Road was a vertical-scrolling shooter vehicular combat racing game. It involving driving a car that was equipped with guns through traffic and dangerous obstacles.


Plazma Line, a first-person space racing title is considered to be the first game with 3D polygons. The aim was to race through outer space with focus on avoiding obstacles along the way. An automap radar was featured which kept the player’s position. Gladiator 1984 by SNK was a horse racing game released the same year. 


Hang-On, regarded as the first motorbike simulator for its realism at the time was released in 1985. It was a Grand Prix style motorbike racer considered to be the first full-body-experience video game. Featuring great AI opponents, it was also one of the first games to use 16-bit graphics. City Connection, a platform racing game with gameplay consisting of cops chasing the player around different cities around the world was also released.


Turbo Esprit, a Lotus racing game featuring working indicator lights on cars was released in 1986. Sega released Out Run, an award-winning racing game. Players could choose which route to take through the game and the ability to select which soundtrack (radio stations) to listen to while driving. Up to five multiple endings were also available depending on route taken. Out Run had some of the most impressive graphics of its time and became a best-seller. Due to its popularity, many sequels were released.


WEC Le Mans 1986 pc game cover

WEC Le Mans

WEC Le Mans, a racing simulation title was the first racing game to be based on the 24 Hours of Le Mans racing event. It featured great new innovations such as time of day changes from day to dusk, dusk to night, and night to dawn. Force feedback vibration steering wheel simulated road vibration, acceleration, and driving over bumps.


In 1987, Namco introduced Final Lap to the world of game enthusiasts. It was the unofficial sequel to Pole Position II and the first game which could be played in local multiplayer up to 8 players. It was the pioneering racing game to utilize “rubber banding”, ensuring that less skilled players were never too far behind the leader (like in the Mario Kart series).


Rad Racer also came along and it was one of the first stereoscopic 3D games. Atari released RoadBlasters, which was yet another popular shoot ’em up racer. For a limited time players could send in their names and “personalized secret code” after completing rally level 50 and receive a free “RoadBlasters” T-shirt.


Chase H.Q. from 1988 took the world by storm. It was a racing game in which the player drives a police car chasing down criminals within a time limit. Gameplay was similar to that of later released games such as the Burnout and Driver series. Paris-Dakar Rally Special was a fiction racing game with mixed gameplay elements, featuring Dakar Rally cars which could fire bullets.  Players could exit the vehicle and explore and there were areas consisting of underwater driving sections.


Winning Run flyer video game 1988

Winning Run

Winning Run was an early example of a realistic 3D Formula 1 racing game. Considered a big achievement in 3D polygon technology, the game was an instant success and several sequels followed its release. Hard Drivin’ was an arcade simulation driving game released in 1989 focused on realism.


It featured force feedback, where the steering wheel causes counter-steering pressure feedback to the player during hard turns. Indianapolis 500: The Simulation, a realistic simulation IndyCar racing game was also released the same year. It featured advanced graphics, handling, car failures, realistic physics, and telemetry.


A garage facility enabled players to alter and modify various aspects of the car, such as suspension, tires, and wings for downforce adjustment. It also featured fairly accurate vehicle damage modeling.


Formula One Grand Prix, released in 1992, set a new high standard in the simulation racing category. Players had the ability of tuning and setting up the car to their liking. As the game was successful three sequels were released: Grand Prix 2, Grand Prix 3 and Grand Prix 4.


Sega’s Virtua Racing, a formula one arcade racing game and Nintendo’s Mario Kart were the other innovating games released in the same year. In 1993, IndyCar Racing was released and became the new ultimate simulation racing game experience.


Formula One Grand Prix Coverart

Formula One Grand Prix

Ridge Racer, a popular car racing game, and Daytona USA were the other ground-breaking games released in the year. Both games featured the best and most detailed graphics ever seen to date in a video game.


The Need for Speed from 1994 is the first ultra-realistic sports car racing video game I ever played. It is also the first time I saw a Honda NSX, it was the most amazing looking car and still is to this day. Originally released for the 3DO system, it was released for PC the next year. The graphics were stunning and driving was realistic.


The game featured cars such as exotic models and Japanese imports: Acura NSX, Chevrolet Corvette C4 ZR-1, Dodge Viper RT-10, Ferrari 512TR, Lamborghini Diablo VT, Mazda RX-7, Porsche Carrera 911, Toyota Supra 2JZ. A secret bonus car, non-licensed model titled the Warrior could be unlocked with a special game code.


Cruis’n USA is an arcade racing game set in locations around the United States. Several sports cars are featured for the player to choose. Gameplay consists of racing on courses and avoiding oncoming traffic and other road hazards. The environments and tracks range from Golden Gate Park to Washington DC where players need to reach first place in the race before they can proceed to the next track.


Grand Prix Legends Coverart

Grand Prix Legends

Sega released Sega Rally Championship in 1995 and introduced the world to a realistic rally game. It the first game featuring driving on various surfaces such as asphalt, gravel, and mud. The car’s characteristics and handling varied over different terrain. This made Sega Rally an important breakthrough in the racing games genre. The iconic cars from the game are the Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Toyota Celica GT-Four, and the unlockable Lancia Stratos HF. To this day, it is still a fun and challenging game to play.


GTI Club from 1996 was a revolutionary game at the time as it featured free-roaming. The graphics looked good and players could choose to drive one of 5 different rally cars such as Mini Cooper and Renault 5 Alpine Turbo. Gran Turismo was released in 1997 and it was simply the best and most realistic racing game of all times. There was nothing else like it and nothing could compare to it. All sorts of settings and tuning options were available which could be performed to any the 170+ cars featured in the game.


The first generation of 3D accelerators such as 3DFX Voodoo and faster processors were also introduced in 1997. It allowed for home computers to match arcade machines in terms of graphics quality. Colin McRae Rally was released in 1998 and it was the next best thing in the rally games category after Sega Rally Championship. Daytona USA 2 was also released the same year and was a game to feature highly realistic crashes and graphics. Grand Prix Legends simulated the 1967 formula one season and was one of the most realistic racing games ever released.


Midtown Madness PC Game Cover

Midtown Madness

Midtown Madness from 1999 was yet another popular racing game to feature free-roaming. Sega released Crazy Taxi where players could be a taxi driver who needs to get the client to the destination in the shortest amount of time. This style of game was unique for the time and a whole lot of fun. Midnight Club II released in 2003 was the first racing game to feature both playable cars and motorbikes.


Classic racing simulation games which don’t feel and look realistic these days were actually realistic enough back in the early days of gaming. The fact is that early PC racing games were strictly limited by hardware capabilities. But despite all that, they were amazing games and gaming was just as much fun as it is today. Racing games have really come a long way and that’s great. Because nowadays we have access such a large selection of games we can choose to play.



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