When it comes to video game genres that allow you to do things you could never do in the real world, racing is one of the first that comes to mind.
Even as there are many different types of racing games in the form of arcade, simulation, kart, off-road, and open-world, there is just something about pushing 200 miles per hour that provides the ultimate thrill. Racing games have long been thrilling because, unlike the real world, there are no concerns about gas, damage, one-way streets, or law enforcement — it’s just driving toward a finish line.
The history of racing games goes back a long time and in 1973, the release of Space Race for Atari is often considered the birth of the genre. In the early 1990s, games like Virtua Racing by Sega attracted gamers to arcades all over the country as 3D polygon graphics were born. Today, modern racing games are everywhere and names like Mario Kart, Forza, and Gran Turismo help dominate not just the genre but are some of the best-known titles on their various console platforms.
Let’s take a look at the absolute best racing games of all time and see how many you have played.
What is a Racing Game?
Unsurprisingly, the quickest definition of a racing game is one where players take place in some type of racing competition. This may be in a virtual real-world environment like Forza Horizon 5 or kart racing like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Similarly, a racing game could encompass a format like Colin McRae Rally which is now known as the popular Dirt series.
Within this genre, the player will control the vehicle from either a first-person (inside the vehicle) or in third-person where the camera is positioned just behind the vehicle. Regardless of the racing game format, they almost always share the common goal of trying to cross a finish line before the rest of the racers.
#7: Wipeout XL
Released in 1996 for the original PlayStation, Wipeout XL is a futuristic anti-gravity racer that is often regarded as the best racer for the PlayStation console.
Strong reviews helped Wipeout XL achieve a 93 Metascore and help it rank among the best arcade racing games of all time and a much-improved release over the original Wipeout title.
Psygnosis, the developer, really created something magical with this title including its music, which was popular enough to warrant a Best Music Award for 1996. Along with the praise for its music, there was near universal acclaim for the game’s controls, which players felt they could comfortably handle both driving and weapons without any issue.
Gameplay itself with Wipeout XL is a focus on something akin to F1 racing, but in the future. Fictionalized air braking helps you keep tight control of any of the 12 available ships you will be driving. The computer will keep things competitive so you need to quickly master shield management as well as when to fire your weapons for the greatest effect so you can come in first place every time.
#6: Test Drive Le Mans
It’s not often we see Dreamcast titles appear on any best-of list, but in the case of Test Drive Le Mans, it’s definitely a welcome addition to this list of fantastic racing titles.
While the focus was on the Dreamcast release in November 1999 that earned a 93 Metascore, it would also see a release on Game Boy Color, PlayStation 2, and Windows.
The original version for Dreamcast was published by Sega and the game is based on the famous 24-hour Le Mans race that takes place in France. It’s not often the racing genre sees a marathon racer like Test Drive Le Mans but there’s just something thrilling about participating in a 24-hour race.
With 40 different cars to choose from, this historical race first took place in 1923 and today, you can try your hand at the same 24-hour race with Test Drive Le Mans. As most people won’t realistically complete a full 24-hour video game race, the Dreamcast version compressed the race down into 10-minute, 30-minute, one-hour, and six-hour modes. Better yet, you could play all of these modes with up to three friends as the Dreamcast enables a four-player split-screen mode.
#5: Mario Kart Super Circuit
- Used copy
- Gameboy Advance
- 40 different racing tracks
- Play as your favorite characters
Arguably one of the most famous video game names of all time, Mario Kart Super Circuit is one entry in the greater Mario Kart franchise that continuously impresses.
Released in 2001, this Game Boy Advance title is a kart racing game that allows players to race while maneuvering around obstacles and locating power-ups that can help stop another player’s race. As the first handheld Mario Kart game, expectations were high, and when the title was finally released, its graphics best represented the original Super Mario Kart from 1992.
As players take control of one of eight different character options, there are more than 40 different tracks to race through. Around each track are power-ups like speed boosts or turtle shells as well as coins that can help increase the player’s overall speed. Famous faces like Mario, Toad, Princess Peach, Yoshi Luigi, Mario, Donkey Kong, Wario, and even Bowser are all present.
Three race formats exist at the 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc speeds, which gets progressively faster and harder as you move into the next style. Earning a 93 Metascore, Mario Kart Super Circuit will continue to live on as one of the best handheld kart racers of all time.
Please note: As of July 19, 2023, Mario Kart Super Circuit (nintendo Game Boy Advance, 2001) Used is out of stock on Amazon. Check back for availability.
#4: Gran Turismo 2
The second entry in the Gran Turismo series, Gran Turismo 2 was met with high expectations, and it not only met those expectations, it surpassed them.
With even more available cars than the original title, Gran Turismo 2 also dropped the requirement to qualify for new races, which was a much-demanded piece of player feedback. The result is that races happen much faster and you can complete more races at a time than you could with the original Gran Turismo title.
Shipping more than 9.3 million copies in all, Gran Turismo 2 would earn a 93 Metascore thanks to the inclusion of more than 650 different vehicle options across 27 different racing circuits. The physics, braking and gameplay were all improved within this sequel and the result was an immediate success even if an initial bug only allowed players to complete 98.2% of the game.
Still, none of the small glitches took away from the solid success that was Gran Turismo 2 and helped it achieve numerous awards for the best racing game of 1999.
#3: Burnout 3: Takedown
- Over 70 cars to choose from
- 40 different tracks across 3 continents
- Get rewarded for creating massive car pileups
- Super realistic high-speed crash details
There is a definite argument for Burnout 3: Takedown to take the #1 spot on any best racing game list, but with a Metascore of 94, it just misses out on that top ranking. Still, this game is fantastic in every sense of the word.
While it was the Xbox 360 version that earned the top-ranking Metascore, the release on the PlayStation 2 is just as good. This game is everything a racing fan would want if they wanted no-holds-barred arcade racing where taking risks is very much the name of the game.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the third entry in the Burnout series was the introduction of takedowns, which was met with universal praise. By utilizing the boost system, players could take down their opponents by slamming into their vehicles and take them out of the race. The single-player aspect of the game was known as World Tour and would enable players to unlock better and faster cars before jumping into online multiplayer.
Even the soundtrack of Burnout 3: Takedown was met with huge fanfare as it played perfectly alongside the arcade style of Crash Mode. More than 173 events were available in the single-player mode which made for plenty of replayability and replay the game as there is just something so satisfying about taking down another driver again and again.
#2: Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec
One of the games in the Gran Turismo series that has helped it live on to the age of modern consoles, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec is one of the best PlayStation 2 games of all time.
Selling more than 14 million copies, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec remains the best-selling game of the franchise and is universally agreed upon to be one of the best video games of all time.
Earning a Metascore of 95 is no easy feat but adding two new courses, more cars, and a terrific soundtrack, everything about this game was meant to put the pedal to the metal. As is the case with just about every racing game, the objective with Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec is to win every race, and every time a player wins another 25% of the game’s available races, a special car is awarded.
Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec features an arcade mode that takes place in multiple stages composed of five to six tracks and includes road races but also rally races which remain a highlight of the Gran Turismo series. In total, the game provides more than 19 different fictional race tracks of which 14 can be played in reverse and four can be played on dirt.
#1: Gran Turismo
If you have read this far, you can tell a theme is emerging where the Gran Turismo franchise is showing itself as one of the best racing games of all time.
Released in 1997 for the original Sony PlayStation, Gran Turismo would ship more than 10.8 million copies, making it not only the best-sold original PlayStation game of all time but would introduce millions of new gamers to the racing genre.
Earning a 96 Metascore is no easy feat even as Gran Turismo makes it look easy as you drive some of the most powerful automobiles on the road at the time across 11 different tracks. The environments looked stunning and the car selection presented a truly agile driving experience that players of all skill levels could easily jump in and play.
Between arcade mode and simulation mode, players had enough options to test their hand at more than 140 cars and 11 different tracks to earn credits, new cars, and, of course, win championships. Helping propel the racing genre into the public eye and introducing Gran Turismo to a legion of PlayStation fanatics, the first-place prize is well-warranted for this incredible title.
It’s hard to imagine any non-console titles being on this list but it would be a failure to highlight the strength of some other best racing game titles that did not make this list.
Need for Speed Shift on iOS was released in 2009 and earned itself a 94 Metascore as did Real Racing 2 on iOS, which was released in 2010. These games helped introduce an entirely new generation of gamers to racing games and hopefully pique their interest enough to translate to home consoles.
Another notable omission here is the Forza series of games with (Microsoft’s Gran Turismo response) Forza Horizon 4, Forza Motorsport, and Forza Horizon 5, all earning a solid 92 Metascore. Even as all three games earned this great score, it wasn’t enough to earn a spot on this list of the absolute best racing games but they are still highly recommended all the same.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©ParabolStudio/Shutterstock.com.