Today's virtual racing fans have an embarrassment of riches at their feet. From realistic simulations to arcade-style driftfests to futuristic hover-racing to weapon-based vehicular combat, the genre is as broad as it is deep.
But today's varied racing-game market is the result of a steady, 35-year progression in technology and game design. With the Indy 500 coming up, we've compiled a list of the 10 most important innovations that fueled that progression.
First seen in: "Space Race" (Atari, 1973)
Made popular by: Pretty much every other racing game since.
What good is a race without someone to leave in the dust? Atari understood this from the start, building a multiplayer mode into "Space Race," its second arcade release after the seminal "Pong." While not a traditional car-racing game, this space-based dash through asteroids and floating debris was made much better by the inclusion of a second joystick. In the arcades, multiplayer racing would eventually grow to include eight linked cabinets with Sega's "Daytona USA." At home, two- to four-player local racing was the norm until 1994's "NASCAR Racing," which included modem-based online play. The online trend would eventually become standard for most racing games, and lead to dozens of racers competing at once in games like "TrackMania."
Without it, we'd all...: Just be racing against the clock.
2. The Steering-Wheel Controller
First seen in: "Gran Trak 10" (Atari, 1974)
Made popular by: Every arcade racing game; home console peripheral makers
Taking inspiration from mechanical games like 1971's "Road Runner," Atari included a steering-wheel controller in 1974's "Gran Trak 10," widely considered the first traditional driving videogame. The wheel quickly became the standard control method for arcade racing games, and even showed up on early home systems like the Telstar Arcade and ColecoVision. Home steering-wheel controllers didn't really catch on as an option, though, until analog input became standard on systems like the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation. Today, a high-end steering wheel-and-pedal controller set can run you close to $300, a small price to pay for that authentic racing experience.
Without it, we'd all...: Be stuck fiddling with our joysticks.
First seen in: "Hi-Way" (Atari, 1975)
Made popular by: Pretty much every arcade racing game; expensive home systems
Sure, the steering wheel made arcade racing feel more like driving a real car, but most real cars don't let people drive standing up. Atari fixed this problem with 1975's "Hi-Way," which featured a molded plastic seat attached to the game's cabinet. Other game-makers followed suit with increasingly detailed, lavish, carlike enclosures for their games. Today, it's not surprising to see arcade-ified versions of everything from snowmobiles to jet skis to Ferraris filling an arcade, each with rumbling, tilting seats and surround-sound speaker systems for road noise and music. For those who want the arcade experience at home, Simcraft offers racing-game chair setups ranging from $5,000 to $44,000.
Without it, we'd all...: Have sore feet.
4. Driver's-Eye View/3-D Graphics
First seen in: Night Driver (Atari, 1976)
Made popular by: "REVS"; "Virtua Racing"; "Ridge Racer"; "Gran Turismo"; tons more
Despite the technological limitations of the time, 1976's "Night Driver" managed a passable imitation of a first-person racing view with simple, scrolling white pylons against an inky black background. For a more realistic, daytime cockpit view, we'd have to wait for 1984, when "REVS" on the BBC Micro computer used simple polygons to create a basic 3-D track. Three-dimensional racing didn't really take off, though, until Sega's "Virtua Racing" in 1992, a game that offered dramatic tracking shots from sky-high angles to right behind the wheel. Today, advancing technology has made increasingly detailed 3-D graphics the standard in racing games, with car models in the upcoming "Gran Turismo 5" reportedly including up to 200,000 polygons!
Without it, we'd all...: Be racing drawings of cars.
5. Accurate Physics Simulation
First seen in: "REVS" (Acornsoft, 1985)
Made popular by: "Indianapolis 500: The Simulation"; "Gran Turismo"; "Forza Motorsport."
Early racing games were usually created with fun factor in mind more than realistic automotive physics. That started to change with 1985's "REVS," one of the first games to actually model the way the car's tires gripped the road as you sped around its single track. The difference in feel from other racing games is immediately noticeable, even if you've never raced a real car before. Simulations have only gotten more realistic since then, with Papyrus' PC racing-sim games taking the lead through the '80s and most of the '90s. On home consoles, the "Gran Turismo" series and, more recently, "Forza Motorsport" have helped bring accurate physics modeling to the masses.
Without it, we'd all...: Just be playing games.
First seen in: "R.C. Pro-Am" (Rare, 1987)
Made popular by: "Super Mario Kart," "Vigilante 8," "Twisted Metal," "Wipeout."
In the real world, shooting missiles at other cars on the road is usually frowned upon by the authorities. Not in videogames, where it's an integral part of the "vehicular combat" subgenre. Rare started things off with "R.C. Pro-Am," where the remote-controlled trucks could fire missiles and lay down slippery oil slicks to trip up opponents. Nintendo's "Super Mario Kart" raised vehicular combat to an art, though, introducing an entire Battle Mode devoted to weapon-based destruction. Games like "Twisted Metal" and "Vigilante 8" have added more realistic weapons to the mix, but really, when it comes to vehicular combat, realism isn't really an issue.
Without it, we'd all...: Have to take out our frustrations some other way.
7. Ghost Racers
First seen in: "Hard Drivin'" (Atari, 1988)
Made popular by: "Mario Kart" (series)
While racing is most exciting against a human opponent, sometimes you just want to hit the track alone and see how fast you can go. But those time trials can get a bit lonely. Enter Atari and 1988's "Hard Drivin'" arcade game, which actually patented the concept of an incorporeal, ghost version of your past race that lets you easily judge how you're improving from race to race. The feature's been included in quite a few games since, most notably the "Mario Kart" series, which now offers downloadable ghost versions of the best racers in "Mario Kart Wii." Never has it been so easy to see just how awful you are at a racing game.
Without it, we'd all...: Be so very, very lonely.
8. Car Tuning
First seen in: "Indianapolis 500: The Simulation" (Papyrus, 1989)
Made popular by: "Gran Turismo"; "Forza Motorsport"
Don't like how your virtual car feels on the track? With most early racing games, you were out of luck. Papyrus' "Indianapolis 500: The Simulation" changed that, though, letting you adjust everything from the rubber on the wheels to the amount of fuel in the tank before you hit the track. The "Gran Turismo" and "Forza Motorsport" series have taken the concept to its zenith, offering hundreds of different upgrades to the engine, flywheel, transmission, brakes -- you name it. It's a gearhead's dream, and a lot cheaper than supercharging your minivan.
Without it, we'd all...: Be stuck choosing between "the red one" and "the blue one."
First seen in: "Ridge Racer" (Namco, 1993)
Made popular by: "Mario Kart" (series); "Sega Rally" (series); "Project Gotham Racing"
Anyone who's gone into a skid on an icy road knows it's not a pleasant situation. In racing games, though, the opposite is true. Give a quick tap on the brakes, turn hard in one direction, and let your car slide sideways around a high-speed turn before pulling out into the straightaway at just the right moment ... there's nothing like it. Namco's "Ridge Racer" was among the first games to weave power-sliding into the gameplay, with superlong drifts that seemed to stretch on endlessly. Other games since have given bonus points for styish power-sliding ("Project Gotham Racing"), included entire modes devoted to drifting ("Need for Speed Underground"), or just encourage it as a way to get around turns faster while skirting the edge of control.
Without it, we'd all be: Driving in relatively straight lines.
10. Realistic Vehicle Damage
First seen in: "Destruction Derby" (Psygnosis, 1995)
Made popular by: "Burnout" (series); "FlatOut"; "MotorStorm"
Damage in most early racing games was represented by a simple energy meter or, worse, an explosion any time the car touched an off-road barrier. That changed with 1995's "Destruction Derby," which had gameplay based around crumpling opposing cars by slamming into them at high speeds. Damage modeling has since become a key part of many modern racing games, typified by the "Burnout" series, which fetishizes vehicle destruction to a somewhat ridiculous degree. Other racing games avoid showing car damage, possibly as a concession to carmakers who don't want their products looking bad on the television screen.
Without it, we'd all...: Be playing "Gran Turismo."
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