The arcade racer supplies speed and thrills with an immediacy no other game genre can match. Where driving games such as Gran Turismo and Forza approximate the reality of driving to ever greater degrees, where each aspect of your car can be tweaked and honed, arcade racers offer little more than a bit of steering and plenty of acceleration.
In games like Out Run and Burnout, simplicity – not to mention the joy of driving like a complete maniac with relatively few consequences – is the key to their enduring allure. To this end, here are our ten best arcade racers of all time.
10. Out Run – Arcade
One of the earliest attempts to create a truly convincing 3D driving game, Yu Suzuki’s Out Run broke new ground when it hit the arcades in 1986. Asking little more of the player than to drive a Ferrari Testarossa at breakneck speed along a twisting highway, Out Run somehow generated a feeling of exhilaration and freedom as no other racer had up to that point. Through a mixture of Hiroshi Miyauchi’s unforgettably catchy background music and then cutting-edge technology – the fact that you could forge a path through the game by turning left or right at forks in the road was, at the time, a completely new idea – Out Run instantly became one of the era’s most iconic arcade games.
9. F-Zero – Super Nintendo
Along with the legendary Super Mario Kart, F-Zero proved to the world that, in the early 90s, there was only one console worth owning if you were into racing games. It’s perhaps a little hard to imagine now, but F-Zero‘s graphics were quite astonishing at the time, and the game was one of the earliest to showcase the console’s once remarkable Mode 7 graphics hardware, which could take a flat sprite and distort it to give an impression of depth. The result? A futuristic and incredibly fast racing game that was second only to Super Mario Kart in terms of accessible, adrenaline-charged fun.
8. Super Sprint – Arcade
The top-down racer Super Sprint and its sequel, Championship Sprint, had to be played in the arcade to truly appreciate them at their best. There really was nothing quite like crowding around the cabinet’s multiple screens, frantically spinning the steering wheels as your tiny racing car sprites slithered around the track, with three of your friends. Random objects such as oil slicks and fuel top-ups added to the tension, and in the early 80s at least, Super Sprint offered the most multiplayer thrills a pocket full of change could provide.
7. Ridge Racer – Sony PlayStation
When Namco ported its hit arcade machine Ridge Racer to Sony’s PlayStation in 1994, the fledgling console was provided with its first killer app. At the time, Ridge Racer offered an unparalleled sense of speed, and did much to demonstrate the console’s ability to shift polygons. Most importantly, Ridge Racer was fun. Its no-nonsense racing may seem a little basic by today’s standards, but if you can get over the low resolution textures, it remains a thoroughly engaging
6. Stunt Car Racer – Commodore Amiga
Game designer Geoff Crammond created two of the very best driving games for 16-bit home computers in Stunt Car Racer and Formula One Grand Prix, the latter cramming a realistic racing simulation into the Amiga’s piffling 1MB memory.
For arcade racing thrills, however, Stunt Car Racer was, in the early 90s, one of the very best games of its ilk for home computers.
Commandeering an ungainly looking vehicle with a V8 engine strapped to the front, you hurtled along a series of tracks that were more like rollercoasters than conventional racing circuits, with the usual twists and turns punctuated by jumps and insane loop-the-loops. To make matters even more tense, Stunt Car Racer‘s tracks were suspended metres from the ground, meaning the slightest nudge from an opponent would send your flimsy racing cart plummeting to a messy doom.
5. Micro Machines – NES/Sega Mega Drive
When Codemasters announced its intention to make a racing game based on a popular line of toy cars, the project sounded like a cynical ploy to make a quick pile of cash. In fact, the game originally began life under the iffy title of California Buggy Boys before the Micro Machines branding was applied. Despite Codemasters’ reputation for cheap-and-cheerful budget games for home computers, Micro Machines proved to become one of the most playable racing games available for the Nintendo Entertainment System when it made its debut in 1990.
Playing to the humble NES’s meagre hardware, Micro Machines was a simple, top-down racer where tiny toy cars zipped across such everyday landscapes as a breakfast table or a garden. Fast and highly addictive, the Micro Machines games really came to life when played against human opponents, and the brilliant Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament for the Sega Megadrive offered a hugely entertaining four player mode.
4. Burnout 3: Takedown – PlayStation 2
The Burnout series arguably reached its zenith with this third entry, where the elements established in the first two games – the boost bar, which rewarded reckless driving with a pulse-quickening burst of extra speed, and the spectacular crashes when said reckless driving inevitably went awry – were honed into a game of pure racing perfection. Brilliantly designed courses through built up cities and twisting country roads served as the backdrop to some of the most rewarding, addictive driving thrills yet achieved on a console. There’s nothing quite like driving along the wrong lane of a highway, the oncoming traffic skidding to avoid you, until your boost bar fills and you’re propelled forward into the screen past your opponents.
3. Midnight Club: Los Angeles – PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Rockstar took its open world racing series to new heights with Midnight Club: Los Angeles, a game that bested even Criterion’s similarly free-roaming Burnout Paradise for high speed thrills and sheer detail.
Recreating a host of famous LA landmarks, which often hurtled past in an unrecognisable blur, Midnight Club was pure wish fulfilment from start to finish, placing an entire garage full of powerful exotica in the hands of the player, including perfectly detailed recreations of Lamborghinis and the mighty Aston V8 Vantage.
Its ‘hip’ street racing storyline may have been excruciating, but for sheer unbridled speed and thrills, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is hard to beat.
2. Trackmania – PC
Like Micro Machines, French developer Nadeo’s Trackmania is the very epitome of the arcade racer: a dizzying impression of speed, and an infectious sense of fun. Few other games of its ilk are as compulsively addictive as the Trackmania series, with its combination of online races and the ability to rectify a bit of dodgy driving with a tap of the space bar only adding to the game’s crack-like ability to take over your life.
Throw in the ability to create and share your own wild track designs, complete with speed boosts, loop-the-loops and jumps, with Scalextric-like ease, and you’re left with one of the very best arcade racers available for the PC.
1. Super Mario Kart – Super Nintendo
The perfect example of a game that can still be appreciated despite its great age (it’s hard to believe that Super Mario Kart really is almost 20 years old), Super Mario Kart‘s four-player multiplayer mode can still provide an evening’s entertainment and then some. Nintendo has continued to add to the series in successive console generations, with Mario Kart Wii adding an online mode and an almost unusable plastic steering wheel.
Of all the Mario Kart games, the SNES original is the one we keep returning to time and time again, and while modern examples of the genre have bested it countless times with their flashier graphics and realistic physics, the beautifully balanced Super Mario Kart remains, for us, the quintessential arcade racer.