For the real life racing driver, the act of hurtling around a track is all about detail. Cutting through a bend at just the right angle. A gentle tap of the brake. A gradual squeeze of the throttle. Races are generally won not through big, dramatic finishes, but by shaving off fractions of a second off every lap time. It’s a subtle art faithfully replicated in racing games such as Gran Turismo and Forza.
On the flipside, we have the combat racing genre, where subtlety and attention to detail are smashed aside in a shower of glass and twisted metal. This list celebrates the most visceral, violently enjoyable combat racing games of all time…
RoadBlasters 1987 (Arcade/Sega Mega Drive)
Possibly one of the most underrated (or at the very least seldom discussed) games on the Sega Mega Drive, RoadBlasters was a faintly surreal post-apocalyptic hybrid of racer and shooter – a little like the original Spy Hunter crossed with the into-the-screen pseudo 3D of Out Run.
Relentlessly fast and addictive, you hurtled down an undulating highway in a battle-ready sports car, constantly replenishing green orbs to replenish your fuel and blasting away at incoming traffic. Passing aircraft would occasionally hover overhead to drop extra weapons, including a satisfying smart bomb which melted everything evil onscreen.
While sparse and repetitive, there was a certain thrill about just making it to the end of each stage with a few drops of oil to spare that makes this one of the Mega Drive’s most compulsive forgotten games.
Chase H.Q. 1988 (Arcade)
Taking its premise from hit 80s show Miami Vice, Chase H.Q. saw two cops bombing around in a black Porsche 928 in hot pursuit of a rogue’s gallery of criminals. Predictably, Chase H.Q.‘s felons refused to be arrested quietly, and the objective was to smash repeatedly into their getaway vehicles until they came shuddering to a halt – all within a tight time limit.
While Burnout 2 contained a cops-and-robbers pursuit game that owed a clear debt to Chase H.Q., it’s surprising that Taito hasn’t revived the property for a high-octane reboot.
Road Rash II 1991 (Sega Mega Drive)
As brash and unsubtle as combat racers got in the early 90s, EA’s Road Rash took the motorcycle-based premise of Sega’s Hang-On and smashed it in the face with a club. The addition of physical combat to a racing game was an inspired move, with players able to kick and belt one another with a broad range of blunt instruments.
Though technically antiquated, there’s still an aggressive thrill about Road Rash II’s split-screen two-player mode that remains largely undiminished.
Super Mario Kart 1992 (Super Nintendo)
It would be nothing short of a crime to include Nintendo’s seminal kart racer, and while its cartoon graphics may suggest a harmless bit of family fun, its potentially game-changing power-ups, from speed-increasing mushrooms to opponent-nobbling red shells, make Mario Kart as aggressive and competitive a combat racing game as any other title on this list.
Super Mario Kart Wii may have added a perfectly enjoyable online mode, but it’s the 1992 original we return to time and again for an evening of beer-fuelled multiplayer racing.
Rock n’ Roll Racing 1993 (Super Nintendo)
Another superb combat racer for the Super Nintendo, Rock n’ Roll Racing was created by Silicon & Synapse, better known under its later company name of Blizzard. Viewed from an isometric perspective, Rock n’ Roll Racing was a cartoon-like, two-player racer which actively encouraged players to ram and blast their opponents as they hurtled round the game’s hazard-filled courses.
It may have lacked the polish of Nintendo’s first-party racers for the SNES, but Rock n’ Roll Racing‘s combination of upgradeable vehicles, catchy music and aggressive gameplay make it one of the console’s most fondly remembered racers.
WipeOut 1995 (PlayStation)
Combat racing headed into the future with WipeOut, easily one of the fastest racing experiences on the PlayStation. Clearly influenced by Nintendo racers F-Zero and Super Mario Kart, WipeOut forged its own identity thanks to its futuristic aesthetic and furious turn of speed.
Controlling a hovering, jet-like craft along a seven rollercoaster tracks, numerous weapons and other power-ups could be collected by flying over pads. Fifteen years on, WipeOut is still going strong, with numerous sequels released for platforms including the Nintendo 64 and PSP, while the excellent WipeOut HD brought the original’s supercharged gameplay to the PlayStation 3 in 2008.
Nascar Heat 2000 (PlayStation)
A bit of a cheat, since Nascar Heat isn’t a combat racer as such, but it was impossible to play this 2000 racer for any length of time without being involved in a hideous, yet spectacular crash. Capturing the knife-edge thrill of Nascar racing, if not the potentially deadly consequences, Nascar Heat featured some of the most realistic physics and damage modelling you could hope for in a game of its vintage.
Spy Hunter 2001 (PlayStation 2/Xbox)
While the 1983 top-down original was a classic in its own right, this 2001 remake brought the property into the 21st century in style. Where the 1983 version was essentially a shoot-em-up with a vehicular theme, Spy Hunter 2001 was a lightning-fast 3D racer that mixed shooting with a James Bond-like premise. Spy Hunter‘s white supercar could fire bullets and missiles, spit jets of flame, and foil pursuing enemies with oil slicks and smoke screens.
The split-screen two-player mode added further thrills, with objectives ranging from one-on-one death matches to a warped competition where players competed to run over the most chickens.
Burnout 3: Takedown 2004 (PlayStation 2/Xbox/Xbox Live Arcade)
A series made famous for its wild physics and insane crashes, Burnout 3: Takedown placed its emphasis on trashing your opponents’ vehicles at the core of its gameplay, hence its inclusion here.
Burnout 3 took the elements established in the first two games and honed them to what is arguably the series’ pinnacle, with an addictive single player campaign, a violently competitive multiplayer mode, and a wealth of smaller modes, the best of which encouraged you to create the largest most damaging multi-car pile-up you could muster.
Like all Burnout games, Takedown actively rewarded dangerous driving, with driving on the wrong side of the road, barely missing oncoming traffic and performing jumps and drifts all providing a brief boost of speed.
Possibly one of the most accessible racing games ever made, Burnout 3 is well worth rediscovering on Xbox Live Arcade if you somehow missed it on the last generation’s consoles.
Blur 2010 (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC)
The inspiration behind this list, Bizarre Creations’ arcade racer features some of the most nerve-jangling, visceral combat driving entertainment in any game this year. Fast and sometimes unforgiving, Blur takes the power-ups of Super Mario Kart and marries them to a hyper-real visual style that recalls the Burnout games as well as Bizarre’s own Project Gotham Racing series.
While the split-screen mode is a welcome addition for a spot of living room competition, the absence of rear-view mirrors makes it almost impossible to defend yourself from incoming attacks. The online mode, meanwhile, provides some of the best multiplayer combat racing you’ll find in any current-gen game.
Leave your own suggestions in the comments…!