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Love letter to racing games

14 min read

I enjoy video games. Racing games is a genre I enjoy in particular. I played at least one on every single gaming platform I’ve owned. Some of them took hundreds of hours of my life and here is my love letter to all of them.

It’s been quite a weird story so far. The concept of racing against opponents with pixel boxes on limited surfaces using some sort of computing device is neither new or innovative. And I’m fairly quick to get bored with frequent reiterations on old ideas.

I don’t even consider them competitive games, at least I think I don’t perceive them that way. 90% of my time is spent racing against computer opponents. I just learn and repeat exact same moves against some stupid computer logic extravagantly referred to as ‘AI’. I like racing against friends but I rarely take it super competitively.

Nor do I even consider myself a ‘car guy’. I never watched any installment of Fast & Furious. In a country whose automobile industry died before I got my driving license I had no more affection to cars than to my vacuum cleaner. Every bit of my interest in cars, from subscribing to Doug DeMuro to being able to tell if that was a Supra, came way, way later.

So what the heck?

I don’t know.

I think it’s less about racing and more about that cliché notion of experiencing stories I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

In real life I’ll never know what it feels to drive an expensive overpowered car without worrying about totalling it on a nearest tree. Games were always there to scratch that itch.

Some modern games offer even more: an organized journey through various stages of driver’s personal development. I start at the very bottom, struggling to survive the whole event. Hundreds of hours later I end up topping time trial leaderboards with fastest vehicles available. While I’m rarely interested in reaching the very top, the journey is what is an ultimate fun part.

Anyway, enough of this old guy talk. Here goes. From the early 1990s to 2021, below is my racing journey so far.

Pitstop (Atari XE)

I got it on a cassette tape somewhere in the 1990s. This game started it all, both my interest in racing games and my fascination with computers. Just like all games on my Atari, 50% of the enjoyment was waiting 20 minutes until it loaded a welcome screen.

Despite its primitive nature Pitstop had some mind-blowing features for an ancient 8-bit game. Tyres were degrading, fuel was depleting and I had to pit from time to time. Pit crew members had to be operated manually one by one, so it took a while to change all four tyres and refuel. Fortunately, there was no need to rush as the game wasn’t tracking times or maintaining any rankings. And this simplicity was amazing enough for my child brain.

Lotus III (Amiga)

I saw it for the first time on my brother-in-law’s Amiga. First fully-fledged racing game I ever saw, with refueling, ranking system, interesting tracks in different sceneries and a car selection (only 3 cars, but still). It also made my jaw drop with an amazing soundtrack. Until then I had no idea any computer could sound that good.

A few years later I got a PC version of this game. However, the soundtrack played on primitive MIDI instruments (or worse, that squeaky thing stupidly called a ‘PC speaker’) didn’t sound that good any more. Amiga version was unmatched.

Micro Machines (Famiclone / NES)

A rare gem from a Famiclone era. It was also quite hard to come by. Very few people in my area owned it.

When I managed to get it (usually by borrowing it for a few days, never actually owned it), I loved this game. Compared to other games I played on my Famiclone, Micro Machines felt truly premium. It was released on a single cartridge alongside 4 other Codemasters titles and that made it feel like a serious deal unlike those 500-in-1 bootleg cartridges we could have for peanuts.

I needed quite some time to learn how to control vehicles in this game. If my vehicle was heading upwards, I could press the right button to make it turn right - easy. But if the car was heading downwards and I wanted it to face the right edge of the screen, I would still push the right button as if perspective didn’t matter at all.

Well, some people had trouble using a computer mouse. Others were scared to death when they watched a movie showing a train arriving at a station. I had trouble internalizing how perspective works in a top-down video game. shrugs

Monster Truck Madness 2 (PC)

Monster truck racer published by Microsoft for Windows 95. One of my first PC games at all. It had sensible arcade physics, selectable camera angles, looked reasonably well for its time and sounded good. It even allowed for ignoring the race and exploring the map as if it was an open world game.

I played dozens of hours of it. It wasn’t a big breath-taking title but it felt satisfyingly right in every department.

Midtown Madness (PC)

First game I ever played that married racing with a 3D open world. I didn’t play it much as a racing game. I just loved crusing around a simplified, but captivating recreation of Chicago.

Sadly, the game was too demanding for my PC and I had to play it in 320x240 on 15" display. Not fun, but still better than nothing at all. It was still enough to infect me with an idea of exploring open maps and driving anywhere I could see. Other games, like Driver, were already exploring that concept, but I had to wait a few more years before my PC was capable of handling this kind of complexity.

International Rally Championship (PC)

I got this game as a full version attached to a popular PC gaming magazine somewhere in early 2000s. I already had a fairly powerful desktop that could handle newer games, but IRC was memorable (which is a covert way of saying I couldn’t afford getting Colin McRae Rally). It had decent selection of iconic rally cars, fun physics and a great soundtrack I’d listen for hours and hours.

I have a feeling a lot of those early games made themselves memorable by great music rather than gameplay. Is that a bad thing though?

Excessive Speed (PC)

Another game from a PC magazine. Obscure but fun top-down racer with a few game modes: classic racing, time trial and driving with a bomb, as well as a limited selection of cars and tracks to unlock. It had really good visuals for its time. Even in 2021 it doesn’t look that bad. But it has some rough edges to warrant dozens of negative Steam reviews.

I still own a CD with it.

V-Rally (J2ME)

First mobile game that was significant enough to be mentioned. I played it on a few phones up to Sony Ericsson K810i.

For a game designed for a tiny phone screen it looked stunning, with 3D visuals, varied tracks, convincing physics and an option to watch replays. I appreciate it for giving me early taste of great things to happen to mobile devices within next few years.

Asphalt 8: Airborne (Android)

Another mobile racer. But this one came out in a ‘modern’ era when I no longer knew how to type fast on a numpad. At that time I had a Samsung Galaxy S III and this hooking game to grind for hours and hours. Memorable tracks, physics that promoted drifting, jumping and barrel rolls, low friction multiplayer mode, interesting progression, great soundtrack. For quite a while this game was really big in my life.

Need for Speed: World (PC)

Until 2021 it was my first and only game from Need for Speed franchise. I kid you not. I never experienced any others before this one. Either I didn’t have access to them or my PC wasn’t strong enough.

I loved this game for combining racing events with open world free roaming. It was the exact type of game I wanted to play since Midtown Madness. Crusing around the city and collecting diamonds was as much fun as racing in itself. Even though I already experienced open world car games like GTA: San Andreas, NFS: World was the title that reignited my love to the idea of having a city to explore and doing silly things with different vehicles.

Sadly, I hopped into this game in 2013 when it had been troubled with rampant cheating and lack of proper maintenance. I was super bummed to kiss it goodbye in 2015. I had to wait until 2018 to feel the thrill of exploring an open world car game while sitting in a powerful car.

On a side note, Need for Speed: World was reverse engineered and it’s still somewhat alive as of 2021, known as Soapbox Race World.

F1 2016 (PC)

This game convinced me to buy an Xbox controller. Until then I had been playing all games with a keyboard and it was fine. But for a game with powerful purpose-built cars and fairly demanding physics analog precision was a must.

As an officially endorsed Formula 1 game it does its job reasonably well. But the whole franchise suffers from one major flaw: every single installment gets obsolete after a year. To experience new season with all up-to-date changes I have to pay full price for a new game. And it’s quite expensive.

That’s not the only problem. After 2017 I can no longer play it comfortably with a controller. I never figured out how to switch between ERS modes without losing focus on racing. I eventually gave up trying and moved on.

The Crew 2 (PC)

At first it was an accidental discovery. Then it turned out to be a game I needed to fill the gap after Need for Speed: World. The Crew 2 was the game that gave me the thrill of unlimited exploration on a huge open world map. I inevitably had to play it before I was ready to understand the phenomenon of Forza Horizon franchise.

This also was a game that made me fall in love with long endurance races. 40-minute hypercar course between two US coasts belongs to one of the best gaming experiences I ever had to date.

Sadly, nowadays I find it impossible to play. Physics and car handling felt okay when I didn’t know any better. Getting back to it after playing other driving games felt very uncomfortable. I can’t handle heavily assisted car behavior any more.

Good racing game has to be believable while translating my input into car behavior. It doesn’t have to be realistic. All it has to do is to be consistent, even if it means punishing my frantic overcorrections, braking too late or being on a wrong gear. GTA V, while not being a racing game per se, is a good example of what I have in mind.

Forza Horizon 4 (PC)

What do I say? Let numbers speak: more than 1000 hours spent and still counting since the release in 2018. Collected all 700+ cars and drove all of them for at least 5 minutes. Playing it religiously at least once a month with various breaks. No other game I’ve played that much in my life. This game finally managed to explain ‘car culture’ to me.

It’s not a perfect game. Not even close to the best racing game. It could use better post-release maintenance, numerous UI improvements and better networking. Endgame is severely lacking and the novely wears off as soon as all single player events are completed. But it has some specific charm that makes me come back for more.

I don’t even perceive it as a racing game. It’s a game about experiencing cars in general. You get a huge map with various surface types and a collection of 700+ cars and it’s up to you what to do with that. Whether it’s racing, drifting, doing stunts, fooling around in free roam mode or taking photos, this game offers it all.

Dirt Rally 2.0 (PC)

Rally simulator that prompted me to buy a steering wheel. The idea of switching to racing simulators didn’t stand the test of time (controller is easier and faster to plug than a full wheel setup) but I’m glad I tried.

I still keep coming back to this game from time to time. It offers a very specific kind of pleasure. Unlike other games I’ve tried, it takes no prisoners. It requires insane levels of focus and offers plenty of satisfaction when I manage to finish events in one piece. It teaches patience and precision like no other racing game.

Forza Horizon 3 (PC)

I never experienced Forza Horizon 3 after the release, so I bought it on sale to kill boredom between content updates in Horizon 4.

Experiencing Forza Horizon 4 felt like a magical experience that changed everything, but it felt that way because I didn’t know what to expect. Playing Forza Horizon 3 in 2020 still felt like playing a long awaited sequel.

Familiar, but still fresh environment, unique atmosphere of a car-themed festival with amazing music, dozens of events to participate. I knew what to expect and I wanted it all, right in my face, once again. Australia felt big and spacious compared to the UK from Horizon 4. Hot Wheels DLC is by far the best DLC I’ve played in the franchise. It makes DLCs from Horizon 4 look half-baked.

Wreckfest (PC)

Demolition-themed racer with dilapidated cars. In this game winning usually means dying as late as possible. Sometimes it has to do with being first to cross the finish line, but it also involves levels of violence unknown to traditional racing games.

It took me quite some time to give this game appreciation it deserves, but when I did, it turned out to be the most captivating experience I had in car games for a while. Unlike other games, it’s not about being the fastest or the most skilful. It’s more about imagination, survival instint and a little bit of luck. Or giving up all hope and bringing a school bus to a demolition derby event.

For a genre where every single game reuses ideas from the same old playbook Wreckfest is an underappreciated gem.

What’s next?

I tried many other games I didn’t mentioned here. Some of them were fun, others were regrettable. Over the years I got better at telling the two apart from the distance.

As of 2021 I’m sure I’m not going to explore sim racing any further. 50% of the success is getting a comfortable setup and I’m too lazy for that. I settled with arcade racers for good.

I’d love to experience a Gran Turismo franchise, but I’m unlikely to buy a PlayStation console. Only a few major game studios make good racing games these days. Sadly one of them is Codemasters, another is Ubisoft.

So yeah, I guess I have to wait for a new Forza Horizon installment or a completely new franchise.

Originally published on by Łukasz Wójcik