Know Your Genres: Racing Games

Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this weekly series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

This week, we’re burning rubber. Since the beginning, gamers have felt the need for speed. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, though. After all, when it comes to playground fantasies, what’s just as popular as the muscle-bound barbarian, the gun-toting military man, and the giant robot? The race-car driver, of course! When racing video games made their debut in the mid-1970s, the larger-than-life speed appealed to kids – and their parents, who yearned to let loose after carefully following the rules of the road during their daily commute.

Over its 40-year-plus history, the racing genre has branched out into several distinct paths, and we’ll examine some of them here. And, as you’ll find, racing has always been a lap ahead of other genres when it comes to innovation.

The Past
In 1974, four years before he would make Space Invaders gaming’s first worldwide phenomenon that didn’t involve two paddles and a white ball, Taito’s Tomohiro Nishikado created Speed Race, the first clear ancestor of every racing title that would eventually follow. It was also the first game to feature scrolling graphics – in an era of primitive monochromatic visuals and Pong clones, it instantly stood out as being ahead of its time. In fact, with its splashes of color and dedicated racing wheel attached to the cabinet, it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the early ’80s.

By the time the era of neon spandex and jelly bracelets was upon us come 1982, though, something far more impressive was on display. Namco’s Pole Position demanded attention in arcades throughout the world, and with its qualifying laps and third-person perspective, it was the progenitor of what we now recognize as the modern racer.

The innovation shouldn’t come as any surprise when you consider the name behind the game, though: Toru Iwatani. If that sounds familiar, it’s because he’s more famous as the creator of gaming’s first true globally recognizable mascot: Pac-Man. Pole Position might be an even more impressive feat, however, considering that Iwatani essentially invented the template that every third-person racer has used in the subsequent three-plus decades. Oh, and the game was so popular, it even spawned a Saturday morning cartoon on CBS.

Three years later, Sega delivered its own ahead-of-its-time racer to arcades (sensing a theme here?). Instead of focusing on four wheels, however, Hang-On offered players the chance to feel all the breakneck twists and turns on the two wheels of a motorbike attached to the arcade cabinet. The game achieved all this with the power of motion controls, sprite scaling, and 16 bits, elements that wouldn’t become common until years or – in some cases – even decades later.

Yet another famous name contributed to the evolution of the genre in 1986. Yu Suzuki, who would go on to create the Virtua Fighter and Shenmue franchises, crafted one of the best-looking racers of the decade with Sega’s Out Run. The arcade game put players behind the wheel of a Ferrari Testarossa – insanely popular as a fantasy vehicle on playgrounds throughout the world at the time – and provided greater immersion by placing the camera at ground level instead of floating above the player’s car.

1987 saw Namco up the ante with Final Lap, which allowed up to eight players to compete simultaneously in arcades all over the globe. The game also included an early example of “rubber-band A.I.,” which ensured that no single player would pull too far ahead – or languish at the back of the pack.

Pole Position, Hang-On, Out Run, and other iconic racers of the ’80s had all used tricks to create the illusion of three dimensions, however. In 1989, racing fans finally got to experience the real thing with Hard Drivin’, the first fully polygonal racing game to hit North America. While it may not look so impressive in retrospect, the “realistic” visuals fascinated players, and there was always a crowd around the cabinet to watch the cutting-edge action on display.

With Hard Drivin’, we also saw the popularization of the first major offshoot of the genre: the simulation racer, which headed to consoles and PCs in the mid-’90s with EA’s The Need for Speed. The series has since evolved into more of an arcade-style experience, but for that initial entry, EA enlisted the help of Road & Track magazine to ensure that vehicles behaved as they did in real life.

It wasn’t all about realism, though. In 1991, Nintendo’s F-Zero offered up a fantastic, futuristic, racing experience with hovering cars and loose, wild controls. One year later, Super Mario Kart (and perhaps more notably, its 1996 sequel Mario Kart 64) kicked off a wildly popular sub-genre of colorful kart racers. And in 1999 – in arcades and on the Dreamcast console – Sega’s Crazy Taxi showed gamers that racing didn’t necessarily mean simply navigating a straight line or handling a left turn here and there. Instead, it was all about beating the clock and zipping across a twisty, San Francisco-inspired metropolis to the tunes of The Offspring and Bad Religion. The breakneck insanity on display in Crazy Taxi clearly helped inspire the taxi missions in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III a few years later, and the game expanded the possibilities of the genre in a big way.

The release of Sony’s Gran Turismo was one of the biggest sea changes of the late ‘90s for realistic racing simulators. Featuring cutting-edge visuals and a massive collection of licensed vehicles, the game took full advantage of advances in CPU and GPU architecture and the shift to optical media in the ‘90s.

The Present
By 2005, the original Xbox had a couple of standout arcade-style racers in Bizarre Creations’ Project Gotham Racing and Criterion Games’ Burnout. But the system was still missing one crucial ingredient: a simulation racer that could tap the power of the console to create the most realistic driving physics ever seen.

Microsoft enlisted Turn 10 Studios to create Forza Motorsport, which allowed players to take control of something as humble as the car they drove to work every day (a Honda Civic, to give one example), while also providing the fantasy of getting behind the wheel of a high-tech supercar, such as the Porsche Carrera GT or the Bentley Speed 8.

While Forza delivered unparalleled realism, other racing games filled out the arcade-style action players crave from the genre. Rockstar brought its trademark mayhem from Grand Theft Auto – in a more sanitized form – with the Midnight Club series, while the now-defunct Bizarre Creations went out with a bang with the combat-infused Blur in 2010. Meanwhile, Sega enlisted Sumo Digital to help recapture the publisher’s substantial racing pedigree, and they’ve delivered some of the best kart-based action in years with the Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing franchise.

The Future
As you’ve seen, racing games always seem to be ahead of the curve – both figuratively and literally – so it’s tough to predict just where the genre will find innovation next. But we can definitely say that the future starts with Forza Motorsport 6, which has already seen rave reviews upon its release. Forza 6 brings realistic wet-weather racing to the series for the very first time, so if you think you know your way around Forza, you’ll have to come up with some new strategies once the rain hits the road. Of course, high-tech vehicles are still a huge part of the Forza experience this time around, including the Ford GT supercar, which graces the game’s cover.

And let’s not forget about the Forza Horizon series, which has taken the intensity and realism of the franchise into the realm of the open world. Players can burn rubber in spectacular locations across the globe, including the mountains of Colorado and the picturesque Southern Mediterranean coast. Who knows where the series will head next?

As you’ve seen, racing has always been a few laps ahead of the gaming world at large, always offering the cutting edge in tech, and immersive experiences that truly transport players behind the wheel of their favorite automobile. The specifics may be murky as we try to predict what’s next, but one thing’s clear: Where we’re going, we most certainly need roads.

The 10 Racing Games You Should Play
Blur (Xbox 360/PC – Activision, 2010)
Burnout Paradise (Xbox 360/PC – Electronic Arts, 2008)
Crazy Taxi (Arcade/Dreamcast/Xbox 360 – Sega, 1999)
Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One/Xbox 360 – Microsoft, 2014)
Forza Motorsport 6 (Xbox One – Microsoft, 2015)
Hang-On (Arcade – Sega, 1985)
Need for Speed Rivals (Xbox One/Xbox 360/PC – Electronic Arts, 2013)
Pole Position (Arcade – Namco, 1982)
Project Gotham Racing 4 (Xbox 360 – Microsoft, 2007)
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (Xbox 360/PC – Sega, 2012)