The Best Mega Drive/Super Nintendo Racing Games
Consoles strived for arcade quality while PC gamers were getting deep simulation handling, but the games are still fan favourites 25 years on.
Arcade fever was still rife in the early 90s and the quest to create ‘arcade-perfect’ titles that could be played at home was on. While it would take another five years to really get there, this fourth generation of consoles brought us some excellent games and was arguably a formative experience for many of us. So here are some of the best racing games from the SEGA Mega Drive (Genesis to you Americans) and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES. That’s SCNEZZ not S-EN EE ESS. There’s no hyphen there).
First though, a few honourable mentions. You won’t find OutRun on this list, despite the Mega Drive version being quite good, and that’s because there are better versions to come and if I could I’d put the game on every list. You also won't find Super Hang On as out of all the SEGA racing games, it arguably hasn't aged as well as the others and there are better bike games out there. But I'm sure you have your own favourites, so feel free to post them in the comments.
Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Mega Drive)
It feels a bit strange to put this here when the Amiga version was undoubtedly the best. However, Gremlin Interactive (who are now Sumo Digital, the studio responsible for bringing OutRun 2 to console) created an incredibly good road racing game and it held up wherever it went, including the Mega Drive.
Tracks increase in difficulty and present on course obstacles such as logs and water, and the game felt quick. Even on the Mega Drive, it had a speed that Turbo Outrun and others like it just couldn’t match. There were three Lotus games in all and the first two were enjoyable. Sadly, they never made their way to the SNES. However…
Top Gear... Not that one.
Top Gear (SNES/Mega Drive)
A completely unrelated game to what the name suggests (trademarks and licensing weren’t as well sewn up back in the early 90s it seems) which Gremlin Interactive also developed. There are no licences but there is all of the speed and the fun that Lotus games.
There were three games in this franchise too, including Top Gear 3000, adhering to the very 90s trope of setting things over 1100 years in to the future. But all of them followed a similar style of chase camera lap racing past nice backdrops with the ability to upgrade your car. with all of the fun and joy of the Lotus games, even if it was all track based.
Behind the wheel of a Ferrari F40, complete with dead insects on the windscreen
The Duel: Test Drive 2 (SNES/Mega Drive)
There are three cars in The Duel. The iconic Ferrari F40, the Porsche 959 and the Lamborghini Diablo. Back in 1989, most games relied on a chase camera with many different panels across the screen. These informative panels would normally show you the course or your time for example, but it also gives developer more power as the gameplay screen is smaller.
Test Drive 2 went behind the steering wheel instead of these informative panels, which put you in the cockpits of the 80s behemoths. The four tracks have both sides of the road, police pursuits and the need to refuel at gas stations. You get a limited amount of cars rather than constantly restarting in a new car.
The driving was tricky too. You could blow your engine by over-revving it. You could tell when the car was sliding around when you approached turning with too much speed. It might not have looked the best, but the gameplay was certainly arcade quality. Plus you had the occasional windscreen bug.
What you can see next to the time is the poor flag man flying off in to the sunset.
Super Monaco GP (Mega Drive)
Speaking of arcade quality, this early entry for the Mega Drive still stands today as one of the best. An enjoyable career mode that sees you scramble up the performance tables like a mercenary, demolishing rivals as you go.
The Formula One game was a heady mix of real-life tracks, mock names and insanely quick cornering. There were several Formula One inspired or licensed games on these consoles, with the official F1 game from Domark, Nigel Mansell's World Championship based on the 1992 season, and the Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge.
But in my opinion, not one game managed to recreate the playability and the fun of Super Monaco GP. Plus you can hit the man with the chequered flag as you cross the line and he flies off in to air, never to be seen again.
More violence than a Wacky Races episode
Street Racer (SNES)
There were many games that adopted the angled viewpoint on the SNES. Two of which are yet to come. Another is the Suzuka 8 Hours bike game. But Street Racer took the Mario Kart formula, added a little cartoon violence to it and made an incredibly fun game.
Two additional game modes, Rumble and Soccer, added more fun and the AI adapted to your performances, getting more difficult as you improved. In addition to the power ups that are almost completely the same as Super Mario Kart, with an added side-punch very reminiscent of Road Rash. Speaking of which...
It was an entirely natural thing to smash the rider next to you with your fist, apparently
Road Rash (Mega Drive)
So often, Road Rash has been the subject of poor imitation. Whatever game or sequel tried to replicate it's magic formula of fast motorbike racing, scrolling scenery, pumping music and tetchy violence, they never quite managed it.
When I mention that I love racing games, especially retro ones, someone always says Road Rash. There was something about it that just seemed to click with gamers. Was it the simple controls? The occasional punches? I'm not sure I can put my finger on it and given the lack of other games that have managed to capture its style, I'm not sure anyone else can either.
Futuristic racing perfectly captured. We think. It is in the future, after all, we don't know yet.
Lets just stop for a moment and think of the impact of F-Zero. It inspired Wipeout and Daytona USA. It has one of the best game soundtracks of the time. It was recently re-released as a part of the SNES Classic Mini console package and it has not aged a day.
Created by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, many other games tried to match its futuristic racing style. Arguably, only Wipeout has even come close. But it is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable racing games of this generation. It's viewpoint and style has been copied by many and only really bettered by another system exclusive.
None finer than Super Mario Kart, which is why it's still a popular game franchise today.
Super Mario Kart (SNES)
It's impossible to do a list like this without mentioning Super Mario Kart. It redefined racing games insomuch as it took away the one of the biggest problems for many casual gamers - the cars. When you talk about Mario Kart, any of them, you hardly ever mention the car or type of kart you are driving. It's all about the characters
Sure the game has several different car options, with higher CC engines representing difficulty, but the karts themselves are just vehicles (both literal and metaphorical) for the main point of the game which was the carnage you could cause with the various power ups.
Of course it is the multiplayer element that really made this game special. Short, dynamic and exciting races in split screen are still some of the best local multiplayer moments every experienced by gamers in racing games. You'll be hard pressed to find anyone, even if they hate cars or racing, that will not have a fond memory of Super Mario Kart.