What was your favourite console racing game growing up? I get asked this fairly often and it’s actually - without being too boring - more complicated to answer than you think. I’m a child of the 90’s which means I grew up with gaming. I was shaped by it you might say. Much as Bane states I didn’t see a wireless controller until I was nearly a man. I find this meme way more funny than I feasibly should.
This means my youth was filled with games such as Outrun, Micro Machines, Mario Kart and the like but it was only when the Playstation arrived under my Christmas tree that things really evolved. Pretty soon I was hooning around the proper Hockenheim on Formula One - the 1995 season if I remember correctly.
Now, we can look back goggle-eyed at the blocky graphics and ask ourselves what we saw in it but at the time this was leading edge stuff. The same can be said of F1 ‘97 which moved the game on some more and to many is still the best F1 title developed by Bizarre Creations during the period. We will gloss over F1 ‘98 that for some crazy reason became terrible as soon as you stepped into the car* and the small issue of licensing for Jacques Villeneuve ‘brand’ which meant he was often referred to by Murray Walker as ‘Williams’ Number One’ or Jack Newtown in later editions. *Formula 1 ‘98 wasn’t developed by Bizarre Creations and was rushed out last minute to coincide with the end of the real season and was poorly received as a result.
At the same time, however, Codemasters began two fantastic new franchises. The first, TOCA Touring Cars was launched in late 1997 and was probably the main factor of growth in interest for BTCC among the youth of the late 90’s. Certainly while I was fully aware of the championship, the game added a much desired level of interaction for the fans that had been previously largely reserved for F1. You too could drive a 2.0l touring car against the digital best in the world on renditions of circuits that to this day have never again officially been seen in a game. Players were also introduced to each circuit in ‘championship mode’ by some elderly racer called Tiff Needell… well I thought that was cool. In TOCA 2, based on the 1998 season players could even enjoy some of the support races from the TOCA package namely the Ford Fiesta and Formula Ford Championships. There was also TOCA World Touring Cars (no real licence use here) and then Race Driver which did had some of the 2001 BTCC cars but also had a rather unnecessary storyline that it needed about as much as I do a third armpit. Race Driver 3 redeemed things a bit with the addition of British GT cars and other categories...but no actual BTCC cars.
The second series developed by Codemasters propelled the career of a certain rally driver into the public eye like no other gaming franchise had really done before and is likely still unmatched to this day. Colin McRae Rally was an undeniable hit. Initially with the iconic Subaru then with the Ford Focus and Citroen C4 the rallying title built itself a reputation as a challenging yet accessible sim that had legendary co-driver Nicky Grist calling pace-notes as your car blasted through stages. I loved every moment of this right up until the point where after six largely successful CMR iterations the franchise became DiRT in 2007(apparently someone had an issue with the CAPS lock when naming it) and hoonigan Ken Block became more important than the Monte Carlo Rally.
But in 2004 and without much fanfare, one of the most challenging and accurate rallying sims arrived, Richard Burns Rally. Based around England’s only World Rally Champion (and my rallying hero) the game offered unrivalled physics and a range of classic and contemporary rally machinery. The death of Richard a year later left RBR as his legacy for gamers and rally fans alike. What a note to end on though. It was a visceral experience and probably the closest many of us would ever get to being on a real rally stage. A deeply challenging yet incredibly rewarding sim. Some may remember the rather good WRC series of games for Playstation 2. This officially licensed game developed by Evolution Studios (now reopened by Codemasters co-incidentally) gave us all the real rally cars of whatever season it was, largely accurate representations of the real stages but not the real co-drivers and marginally less cool graphics. I guess for some this meant it would always sit just under the CMR series but I always enjoyed them and personally consider the official WRC series of games a bit of a hidden gem. I think until recently us sim racers lamented the lack of rally-based games based on the glut of fine products we had in the early noughties. (Anyone else remember V Rally 3?)
Of course the other key point and one younger readers may take for granted is that this was in a time before networked gaming. There was no PSN or XBL. The emphasis was on playing with yourself or at least with one other friend. Not a euphemism I promise. There was a lot more stock put into the championships and single-player experience of a game. When was the last time you completed an offline championship? I genuinely don’t think I have since, maybe, EA F1 2002 or at a push Forza 2. Other titles I’d have to consider with this question would be rarities like Total Immersion Racing from 2002 which gave us sportscar racing and a quite advanced AI system that became more ‘stressed’ as you hassled them from behind. Again, NOT a euphemism. Then there’s Juiced for Playstation 2 which took the trend for street racing to new heights just before the NFS Underground scene really took off and which I maintain was actually the better product.
Project Gotham Racing by Bizarre Creations had some outstanding visuals for the time and developed a great car roster during its time. Street tracks around places like New York, London and Las Vegas were filled with detail and challenge. I liked that run of games very much right up to the point where a snow covered Nurburgring was introduced. PGR4 was also notable for the addition of bikes to the franchise as well as the Macau circuit and one of the most complex weather systems that supposedly checked with online weather reports to provide conditions accurate to your time of racing. It also introduced by means of a coin-op unit in the player’s garage the quite brilliant Geometry Wars mini-game which was an inspired addition and utterly addictive in its own right.
I fervently believe that the Forza Motorsport franchise was born of the need to have a fully immersive racing experience on the Xbox that put the gamer in the centre of the process. From setting up the car, designing liveries and a team identity to the actual racing on circuits that were a mixture of fantasy (Maple Valley, Alpinering, Blue Mountain) to real world venues (Silverstone, Road America, Sebring). I grew up initially with the Gran Turismo series. I see the plus points and negatives of both. However from my position I never quite felt as ‘involved’ in GT as I did in Forza. From a ‘sim’ standpoint GT is exquisite but for the immersion and overall experience Forza edged it and continues to do so.
Let’s not get me started on the two wheeled racing games! This could get really very long very quickly. So let’s narrow it down to the categories of racing instead from the last 20 years NOT including the current generation of consoles.
Here’s my favourites; Single seater game - Formula 1 ‘97
‘Tin-top’ game - TOCA 2 Touring Cars
Rally game - Richard Burns Rally
Sandbox title - Forza Motorsport 4
Two Wheels Only - MotoGP 3
What are your thoughts? Don't hate me!