Where racing games went wrong

With racing games having lost their sense of fun in recent times, we look at what went wrong, and how things are turning back...

With the upcoming release of Codemasters’ Dirt: Showdown on the horizon, one of the most promising titles in its genre in some time, we thought it was time to have a look back at the recent history of racing games. From the halcyon days of Sega and Namco’s arcade cabinet dominance, through the 32-bit era of living room perfect arcade ports, onto the pornographic attention to detail that came afterwards, when the cars took centre stage rather than the corners. We’ll look at how racing games started to drift off track, and how recent times have seen a fantastic revival.

Vanilla Ice

In a heady decade called the 90s, when everyone wore shell suits and enjoyed the musical stylings of a mister Vanilla Ice in a none ironic manner, racing games made their home in the arcade. Titles like Ridge Racer, Sega Rally and Daytona USA wowed passers by with their incredible 3D graphics and their bulky cabinets with steering wheels, adjustable seat heights and authentically shaped accelerator pedals. These games focused on furious competition, extravagant speed, and physics that allowed incredible power slides to be performed by mere mortals.

In short, they were games that made driving fun. Reality was thrown to the wayside as you careened around tracks purpose designed to empty your adrenal glands. They were tough, but they were fair, and when you threw in connected cabinets that let you race your friends, it was no wonder they were so popular.

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Then the PlayStation came along, and in one way, ruined everything. But, in most ways, it also made things better. Sony’s miraculous grey box could do everything that the arcade machines could do in the comfort of your own home. You no longer had to go outside, facing the triple dangers of human interaction, the weather, and the very real possibility of your highly flammable clothing catching on fire.

The PlayStation brought racing to millions of people who wouldn’t have experienced it otherwise. Sure, the lack of a steering wheel and pedals took away the haptic realism, but the games retained their sense of fun, and split screen multiplayer meant you could take on your friends and loved ones with ease.

Games like Colin McRae Rally and V-Rally threw in real life drivers and cars, upping the difficulty levels, but still retaining that sense of fun that had pervaded the genre since its inception. Racing games were about escapism, about performing actions that would normally get you arrested and getting away with it. But the power of the PlayStation started to change things, and as developers eked more polygon pushing numbers out of the maturing chipset, the move away from the racing game and towards the racing simulator began. At the forefront of that push was Sony’s own Gran Turismo. This was a title that was all about fractions, about tuning your engine and tweaking your brakes so you could shave a tiny portion of a second from your lap times. It set its stall firmly in the real world, where a couple of inches were the difference between a catastrophic accident and glorious success.

GT changed the trajectory of the racing genre, and whilst it was still gallons of fun, it shifted the main aim of the developers that followed towards fidelity. Essentially, the genre was carved in half, either you were a racing sim, or you were a racing game, and racing games started to fall into ludicrous mediocrity. The advent of the PlayStation 2 era, with its GT sequels and Microsoft’s counter attacking Forza series might have been a high point for realism, tinkering and looking at shiny cars you could never afford from a variety of different angles, but there was always the nagging suspicion that, as brilliant as these games were, they weren’t quite as much fun as they should be.

Slowly though, things started to change. Games like Burnout and Project Gotham started the march away from the real world. Points were awarded for style, for power slides and driving like a lunatic, not for tightening up some wheel nuts and putting the right sort of fuel in your car. Burnout revelled in explosive destruction, in the crack and scream of twisted metal, whilst still offering a brilliant racing experience. The Colin McRae series, which would eventually become Dirt, began to blend together realism and not-so-realism, taking its cues from arcade racers but placing its action firmly in the real world. Racing was starting to be fun again, the corners were becoming king once more.

Generations

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With the advent of the current console generation, the glorious melding together of the two different styles was finally complete. There were still simulators, and they were more simulator-y than ever, boasting about polygon counts and letting you stroke expensive cars with gesture control, but all around them games like Dirt and its offspring were opening the door and letting the ridiculous back into the racing genre. Still as tough as their arcade progenitors, they dragged players back to the edge of their seat, cackling with laughter as they tore around stages, flinging sprays of mud high into the air.

There will always be space in the racing genre for realism. You only have to look at the amount games like Forza 4, the F1 series and Gran Turismo 5 have sold to realise that, but at the same time, developers shouldn’t ignore the tenets of the early 3D arcade pioneers. Racing games should make you feel like a superstar, freed from the mediocrity of the pit lane, and emboldened by the world that surrounds you to attempt daredevil moves that will likely result in your untimely death.

That’s exactly the sort of thing that Dirt: Showdown has to offer, realism tempered by an overwhelming sense of fun. You’re throwing your cars around tracks full of leaps and 360 turns, bashing through stock races that feature a mix of ridiculous vehicles, and generally having the time of your life, without having to worry too much about which spark plugs you’ve got attached to your engine.

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