Easily among the oldest genres of video games out there, racing games are compelling because they are both immediately understandable and accessible. Sure, some titles go for a more complicated style of gameplay than others, but the basic gist of it all remains the same.
Whether it is the motorcycle beat ‘em up from Sega, Road Rash, or Mario Kart with a “twist” in the form of Twisted Metal, racing games don’t have to involve finishing in first place or driving around a track very fast. Indeed, they can pretty much utilize any mechanism that makes sense.
But before racing games got really creative they were pretty much in the same milieu as those that came before. These varieties began to take two primary forms as consoles wore on: Mario Kart clones and straight-up arcade racers. Arcade racers largely began to die out with the arrival of Gran Turismo and then, later, the advent of the Forza series – a title that does a great job at combining the insanity of an arcade racer with the depth of a hardcore sim. Prior to that, however, arcade racers were the mainstay of the genre.
Think Ridge Racer and Daytona USA, for starters. Though there are many, many others (as you shall soon see).
In this article we’re going to discuss racing games before the PS2. This means that any title that came out before Gran Turismo really change the genre up could be on this list – if it is obscure. You see, we all know the “best” and most famous racers out there, but what about the also-rans or the franchises that don’t receive enough love in the modern gaming press.
Here are our 10 underrated racing games from before the era of Gran Turismo and Forza’s dominance:
Burnout, arriving in 2000, is a classic example of that type of game that falls victim to massive paradigm shifts in gamer tastes. Built from the ground up using the best of the 1980s arcade and 1990s console gaming, Burnout emphasizes mayhem and chaos over the more composed racing experiences gamers would find in Gran Turismo and titles like that. Sadly, audiences just weren’t that receptive to the concept when it initially debuted though they would later warm to it. This is because GT dominated at the time and for good reason: Gran Turismo showed that the PlayStation was capable of what was then called “photorealistic” graphics. As we now know, this would set the series on the path to becoming an icon among both gamers and motorheads. Burnout, with its irreverent and somewhat dated approach, was destined to be ignore – but not for long.
9. Mach Rider
Billed as a futuristic racing game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Mach Rider Nintendo Research and Development 2 and HAL Laboratory is basically a futuristic motorcycle racing game done in the classic arcade style of titles like Road Rash. Taking full advantage of the NES graphical capabilities, this made-for-the-console game came out two years after the system’s debut and is Nintendo’s answer to the popular racing titles emerging in arcades at the time. There are several modes: A fighting course, an endurance course, a solo course, and a ahead-of-its-time design mode. Interestingly, this is a title based on a Nintendo toy released in 1972: A car named Mach Rider was packaged along with a ramp for it to use. The bike has also made appearances as a selectable vehicle in the Mario Kart series.
8. South Park Rally
The main draw for this Mario Kart clone is its perfect distillation of the humor of the South Park series. You can’t really hold it up to the light and praise its gameplay or its graphics, both of which are quite basic and somewhat lacking. Nor can you really say it is a compelling game. It is a competent game, to be sure, but it isn’t magical like Mario Kart or even Sonic Team Racing. But, if you’re a South Park fan, you’ll probably prefer it because the edgy humor, nihilistic style, and irreverent approach to everything is here. One thing that stands out is how well Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done at keeping South Park relevant and for how long.
7. Road Rash
A road rage simulator on a motorcycle, Road Rash was an arcade title par excellence when Sega released it back in the day. This was way before Mario Kart made vehicular combat a thing and, we have to admit, we don’t see Mario using a chain whip or baseball bat to bash in opponents any time soon. Gritty, rough, and arcadey as all get out, Road Rash is like playing the 1980s in a video game format. You almost expect to get randomly attacked by a hair metal band or doused in neon the atmosphere is so heavy with nostalgia. Plus, if you want an early showcase of Sega’s emerging “arcade edge,” then there’s no better game than Road Rash. We’re only sad that Electronic Arts owns the property because that’s a guarantee that we’ll never see its likes again. Something about chain-based motorcycle violence just doesn’t jive with the EA of now.
6. Pen Pen Triicelon
Don’t let this game’s childish aesthetic fool you: Underneath it all lurks a really compelling racing game for the Dreamcast. Sega’s much loved though not very well selling console produced a handful of racers and Pen Pen Triicelon stands out as one of the more engaging. Why? Set up in the format of a triathlon, Pen Pen Triicelon is different. You have to go through three different race types in one single race. Honestly, it’s a strange approach at points but it works.
5. Stunt Race FX
First of all, this is an official Nintendo game. And, yes, the FX stands for the famous FX chip that powered Star Fox. The Big N’s stamp of quality is pretty evident even from the beginning of the game and, in case you missed it, Mario’s mug is all over the first track. Looking like a cross between Star Fox and Mario Kart, Stunt Race FX is a strange title indeed. Gamers that know their history may remember talk of using the FX chip for a 3D Mario game for the SNES and Stunt Race FX gives you some idea of what that would be. Outside of that it is colorful and well made but archaic in terms of graphics and slow in terms of gameplay. More a curiosity than anything else, gamers should familiarize themselves with Stunt Race FX if they pride themselves on knowing their gaming history.
4. Sonic R
Sonic R serves the gaming community in multiple ways. Its OST is the source of endless meme material and its fated 3D graphics are usually exhibit number 1 in how backward the Saturn was compared to its rivals. But that doesn’t stop the racing game from being somewhat interesting and even compelling on some level. The reason Sonic R gets so much attention is that it came out at a time when people were expecting Sega to release a 3D platforming Sonic called Sonic Xtreme (the most extremely 1990s name ever). This game is its own legend but it never released, making Sonic R one of the only examples of Sonic in 3D available at the time. It wasn’t perfect but the graphics were bright, the racing was mildly fun, but overall the draw was Sonic the Hedgehog and his cast of characters. One thing is certain: Walking away from Sonic R, you can’t help but get the sense that Sega should have pushed hard for a 3D title on the Saturn. After all, if they had gone with a Sonic R type game and made it a platformer instead of a racer, we can guarantee you it would have printed money.
This game may be the secret love child between Twisted Metal and Road Rash. Set in the future, Scorcher is about riding hovering motorcycles through futuristic hellscapes while besting your opponents in any way possible. A heavy atmosphere and unique aesthetic approach do little to distinguish this racer from many others but it is a solid game and a neat concept at that.
2. Aero Gauge
While it is the source of endless fodder for “where Star Wars went wrong” arguments, the pod racing sequences in the prequels was a pretty cool idea. The devs behind Aero Gauge decided to turn it into a whole video game. A combo of Wipe Out and a traditional racer, Aero Gauge is really cool because of its fidelity to its concept and its tight gameplay mechanics. And, among many on this list, Aero Gauge has aged fairly well in terms of graphics.
1. Cel Damage
Best described as an “adult” Mario Kart, this mature racer takes everything you love about Nintendo’s classic series and heaps on the features. A totally underrated title when it came out, Cel Damage today is deserving of a renaissance. Tight gameplay, beautiful graphics, and awesome attention to detail and quality control make this game perfect for a re-release.