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A Trip Through Automotive Video Game History

Fifty years ago, Grand Prix was probably the first well-known automotive video game. However, much like the automobile industry, the 1970s weren’t that notable for automotive video game history. Then the 1980s brought us the original Pole Position and dozens of other greats. By the 1990s, we had new state-of-the-art consoles and titles like Mario Kart 64, Ridge Racer, Need for Speed and eventually, in 1997, the great Gran Turismo was born. Today we have various versions of Forza and tons of other notables built for the latest generation of consoles and computers. Here’s a quick run through some of my favorites!

Pole Position — 1982

I can recall the very first time I felt the solid click of the Pole Position cartridge being inserted into my Atari 2600. Obviously, as it was 37 years ago, the graphics weren’t quite as impressive. What was impressive was the attention to detail: from the way the F1 style cars looked, to the sounds they made squealing around corners, to the spectacular crashes that sent tires flying, Pole Position was amazing. It was also the first racing game to feature a real track, Fuji Speedway, and it spurred a whole new era of racing action.

Out Run — 1986

While Pole Position fed my inner Senna, Out Run made me feel like I was actually piloting a Ferrari Testarossa Spider along a winding coastal road with my blonde companion at my side. All you had to do was pick your favorite driving song and floor it. Make it through the five stages in the allotted time on your Sega, or in the immersive arcade version, and you win. There are no real competitors to beat as this one felt more like a cannonball run against the clock than a traditional race. Honorable mention to the Cruis’n series that showed up years later and gave us that Out Run experience in arcades all over again.

Hard Drivin’ — 1990

If Pole Position made you feel like a real race car driver and Out Run gave you that wind-in-your-hair feeling, Hard Drivin’ for the Sega Genesis was something totally new. Billed as more of a stunt-themed game, you got a unique first-person cockpit view of something resembling the now-familiar Testarossa. Game creators just refer to it as an “expensive sports car.” Whatever it was, Hard Drivin’ set itself apart from the competition with the introduction of instant replay! You could veer off a 360 loop mid-way and produce a spectacular crash, and then watch it again from an aerial view. Combine that with other vehicles littering the course that you could run into as well, and it was a lot of fun.

Ridge Racer — 1993

This was my first PlayStation automotive video game, and it still provides some great memories. While there were, unfortunately, no licensed brand name cars, you got some pretty familiar 1990s looking options to drive. Ridge Racer was the next generation in graphics and actually had realistic physics for the first time, introducing gamers to concepts like oversteer and drifting. The artificial intelligence of the competitors improved, as well, making for a great overall racing experience through some wild Japanese-themed tracks.

Super Mario Kart — 1992 / Mario Kart 64 — 1996

While not technically automotive, Mario Kart kicked off something completely different in the gaming world. Created for Super Nintendo, this 1992 game created the Mario Kart craze that still exists today. Whether it was hitting speed boosts or going on the offensive against your competitors, Mario Kart was a lot of fun. This was amplified a few years later when Mario Kart 64 was released on the next generation Nintendo platform. I spent many hours throwing bananas and tortoise shells at friends in college over beers!

Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit — 1998


The original 1994 Need for Speed showcased how much fun the next generation PlayStation console could be for automotive games, but the third iteration introduced Hot Pursuit. This one is still near and dear to my heart: while today we live in an era of online play, I have great memories of actually sitting next to real people and playing this one directly against each other. Like Mario Kart, split screen play meant that you could chase down a Ferrari 550 Maranello in your Lamborghini Diablo cop car, usually resulting in a spectacular crash and someone in handcuffs. This remains one of my favorite all-time favorite games in automotive video game history, at least from a pure entertainment standpoint.

Gran Turismo — 1998

While NFS III was a ton of fun, Gran Turismo is widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time. I happen to agree: even just seeing the cover of the North American version of the PlayStation game still gives me goosebumps. Gran Turismo was special because, as many journalist-types like myself have cited over the years, it introduced us Americans to a bevy of amazing cars that we had rarely seen before. In the age before YouTube and the internet, being able to purchase cars like the Mitsubishi Evolution, the Subaru WRX or the Nissan Skyline GT-R was an incredible novelty. Gran Tursimo also allowed us to get geeky with modifications and tuning, trying to eek out another couple of seconds from our lap time around famous tracks from around the world. A host of other sequels followed and continued to evolve and improve the brand, but I’ll always remember the first one!

Forza Motorsport — 2005 / Forza Horizon — 2012

I’ll combine these based on the name, but the Forza series has evolved into two very different games. The original Forza Motorsport went straight for the king, Gran Turismo, with a full-on racing simulation. Built in a similar style, gamers could grind their way through a motorsports career, starting with bargain-basement economy cars and ending with high-end exotics. Adding elements like realistic damage made Forza a popular competitor to Gran Turismo. Several years later, the same studio launched Forza Horizon, an open world driving game set against the fictitious Horizon Festival, which was immensely more successful than the real life Fyre Festival. Participants earned wristbands by doing crazy things in high end cars, working their way up the ranks of the festival. Today, the series continues and is candidly a lot of fun — and I’ve lost quite a few evenings to the latest Horizon game!

So those are some of my favorite games across automotive video game history that helped form me into the petrolhead that I am today. As usual, it wasn’t meant to be all-inclusive, so post your favorites below!

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  1. Need for Speed 2 was the first car video game to introduce live-action footage of the cars. (Possibly the firstborn video game to ever do that?) It was my 5-year-old self’s introduction to my current career in then automotive world. The cop car chasing aspect of NFS 3 seemed campy in comparison, even as an 8-year-old. 

  2. If I had to pic one it would be Gran Turismo 2. It took everything from GT1 and expanded on it. Sure GT1 introduced us to cars like the GT-R and WRX, but did we need 25 different versions of each? GT2 gave us a more varied collection. 

  3. A great list.  Out Run on the Sega Master System was my introduction to “racing” games!  A neat side note also, the arcade version of Hard Drivin’ also was the first racing game I saw that had a proper H-pattern and clutch pedal!

    • Ohhh, yeah!! Test Drive!!! I preferred this over Gran Turismo sometimes, becuase it would let me do a proper burn out!

    • Test Drive was an awesome series.
      The true predecessor to Forza was Project Gotham Racing… which also is lacking from this list.
  4. I loved playing Hard Driving back in the day! So wish that there were some more racing games like that. With cray jumps and loops.

    Also you forgot one amazing game. Burnout 3 Takedown! That game was nuts and all about the crashes!

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