With car enthusiasts spending less time on the road these days, there is still one way to get your fix: car video games. One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, the video game console, is there to keep our foot on the gas pedal, metaphorically speaking – even in these trying times. But one question lingers: what is the best car-based video game of all time?
With new installments of Forza, Gran Turismo, Dirt and others continuing to saturate the market, we thought it only necessary to weed through nearly four decades of digital driving and put together a list of what we believe to be the 20 best car-based video games of all time. Some games from as early as 1982, to others as recently as present day. It's safe to say not everyone will agree with our choices, so feel free to leave any angry feedback in the comments section below.
20. Gran Turismo Sport (tie)
The Gran Turismo franchise has a strong showing on our top 20 list. But the 13th(!) installment in the series, Gran Turismo Sport, cracks our top 20 thanks to its strong online racing presence and a huge selection of cars and tracks (though, it ties with another game – we really couldn't decide between the two). Introduced in 2017 and updated continually over the past three years, Gran Turismo Sport offers more than 300 cars to choose from, dozens of racing series, and over 30 tracks. It's the most option-heavy Gran Turismo ever.
20. Cruis’n World (tie)
Cruis'n World is one of the few great arcade games on this list. A sequel to the 1994 hit, Cruis'n USA, World's 1996 arcade release added more tracks, cars, and locations than its predecessor – as its name implies, many of the drivable tracks were in countries like Egypt, Japan, and China. And for the 1998 Nintendo 64 release, developers even added the moon (yes, the moon) as a drivable level. Just beware of pixelated animals crossing the road.
With the Nascar season on hold temporarily, iRacing has had a lot of good publicity as of late. Pro drivers (via their own home racing rigs) used iRacing to battle each other virtually on the track over the past few weeks, and it certainly made for good T.V. But the subscription series (it costs about $99 per year) has been around since 2008 and is widely regarded by fans as one of the most realistic racing simulators anywhere. And it's not just Nascar, either; iRacing encompasses almost all types of racing, on dirt, asphalt, and otherwise.
18. Burnout Paradise
It took some time for the Burnout series to find its footing. Sure, one could argue that Burnout 3: Takedown is a classic, but in 2008, Burnout Paradise changed the genre entirely. Paradise introduced us to the open-world concept for the first time, and brought with it hundreds of unlicensed, off-brand, unlockable cars and multiple racing (and crashing) events to choose from. Unfortunately, the next-up Burnout Crash! wasn't as highly regarded by fans and critics.
17. Mario Kart Wii
Of the many Mario Kart games – the franchise stretches all the way back to 1992 – Mario Kart Wii comes only second to Super Mario Kart. That may seem like an odd choice, but let us explain. The Nintendo Wii's innovative motion controller and steering wheel accessory added a totally new element to the franchise. For the first time, you could actually play Mario Kart as intended: with a proper steering wheel. And, the new tracks, karts, and characters to go with the updated classic elements only enhanced the fun. Mario Kart Wii was an underrated game.
Racing games don’t much simpler than Ivan "Ironman" Stewart’s Super Off Road. Each track consists of just one screen, and the only major action on screen is the cars going around the course. Despite the barebones gameplay, this is one of the most fun racing games ever, particularly in the arcade.
Four people could play at once, and each person has his or her own steering wheel and pedals. Unlike a real wheel, though, there’s no stopping point. To make a hard turn, you’d whip it hard, let the wheel spin freely, and then catch it at just the right time. The experience was nothing like real driving but still a huge thrill.
The first few installments of the Need for Speed franchise were pretty basic: get behind the wheel of multi-million-dollar exotic, race, run from the cops – or both. Which, admittedly, is super fun. But the first Need For Speed: Underground flipped the script. Players could customize their vehicles for the first time, and the car list included more-attainable options like the Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan Sentra, and others. It also allowed you to compete in multiple events like a traditional circuit race, as well as knockout races, sprint races, and even drifting. It was, by far, the most intuitive NFS game ever when it launched.
14. Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed
The fifth installment Need For Speed installment was unlike any before it. Released for Playstation, Windows, and Gameboy Advance in 2000, Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed (as its name implies) was created specifically for Porsche fanboys. There were multiple unique gameplay types, including a career mode that started players with Porsche vehicles from 1955, as well as a "Factory Driver" mode that was the first real storyline in the entire NFS series. At launch, the game didn't garner as many accolades as other NFS installments before it, but 20 years later, it's a cult classic.
13. Daytona USA
Daytooonaaaa! This game beckoned you over in the arcade by screaming its name in what of the catchiest pieces of video game music ever. After dropping in your quarters, you got to experience the best arcade racing game of the time.
Daytona USA offered players fantastic graphics (for the time) and an exciting driving model that was the perfect blend of realism and arcade fun. Even a little kid could pitch the car into a slide and drift around a corner. Things got even more fun if you found a bunch of networked cabinets that added the thrill of multiplayer to the experience. There was nothing like the glory of challenging your parents or sibling to a game and beating them in a race.
12. Twisted Metal 2
The original Twisted Metal came out for Playstation in 1995, introducing us to the wild world of vehicles driven by clowns shooting each other with rocket launchers. But the franchise didn't hit its stride until the release of Twisted Metal 2 in the U.S. two years later. New playable landscapes like L.A., Moscow, and Paris; wild vehicles; and plenty of additional weaponry added even more depth to a game that was already fun as hell. Unfortunately, Twisted Metal 3 never found the same success, nor did the many, many iterations that followed.
There have been many good titles in the Forza series – we already featured the latest Horizon installment featured in the top-five. Similarly, the latest iteration of the track-focused Motorsport franchise is the best of them all thanks to a very wide range of cars, real-world tracks, and a physics engine that offers a great combination of realism with just enough arcade-flair to keep the learning curve from being too extreme. It’s also backed by a strong online community of racers, and though it’s getting a bit dated, it’s still a thoroughly satisfying sim until the next-gen Xbox Series X and its new offerings arrive later in 2020.
10. Crazy Taxi
"Crazy" is the keyword here. Everyone's favorite taxi game was released on the Sega console in 1999, as well as in most arcades the same year, before making its way to systems like Gamecube, Dreamcast, and Playstation 2 in years following. The goal was to hurtle around driving passengers to their destinations as quickly as possible. It may have been relatively low on the realism scale, but it was high on the fun scale. Is it time, perhaps, for an updated game called Crazy Uber?
Most of the games on this list are racing focused, but Rocket League (released in 2015) takes a totally different approach. Think of it as indoor soccer, but instead of using humans, each player pilots a rocket-powered vehicle in an attempt to score goals with an oversized soccer ball. Up to eight people can play at once, separated into two different teams, with matches typically lasting about five minutes. And in just five years, Rocket League has turned into an eSports phenomenon, spawning the Rocket League Championship Series and netting skilled players hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash winnings. Few other games on this list have had as much initial success as Rocket League, and it continues to climb.
What could be better than sliding virtual Subarus and Mitsubishis around some of the world’s most challenging dirt tracks? Colin McRae Rally – now known simply as Dirt – was first introduced in 1998 for the PlayStation system and Microsoft Windows, and included a variety of cars, tracks, and customization options from the get go. It was the closest you could get to a rally stage without having to get mud under your fingernails, and spawned 11 different successors, including the most recent installation, Dirt 4, which launched earlier this year.
The original Need For Speed game in 1994 kickstarted the much-loved franchise on the Playstation console, but it wasn’t until the third installment in 1998 where the NFS storyline really hit its stride. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit gave you the chance to run from the cops (or be a cop) while behind the wheel of some of the most exotic supercars on the planet; everything from the Ferrari 550 Maranello, to the Jaguar XJR-15, to the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR.
The original Hot Pursuit title spawned five other pursuit-themed Need for Speed games to follow. Though it lacked an open-world concept that fans of the franchise grew to love in later installments, it made up for it with high-quality graphics and intense gameplay. You were a kid running from the cops, simple as that.
There’s no question that, in the modern realm of sim racing titles, the Forza Horizon series emphasizes arcade-style action over strict driving simulations. That said, few racing titles are as addicting as Horizon 4 thanks to an absolutely massive library of cars – nearly 700 at the latest count that includes everything from the Koenigsegg Agera RS to a Ford Cortina and even everyone’s favorite microcar, the Peel P50. The graphics are absolutely stunning in 4k resolution, and the open-world online environment encompassing the English countryside is rife with opportunities to race, drift, embark on adventures, or just cruise with other players in your favorite customized ride.
The pioneer of the karting genre in video games, the original Super Mario Kart still holds up. There have been numerous sequels in the series, all of which follow the same formula, but you have to give credit to what started it all. It offered an easy point of entry for gamers of any experience level, but its tracks held plenty of secrets and shortcuts for those who wanted to have the quickest time out of all their friends – friends who were, of course, sitting beside you on the couch. Oh, and it still has the best battle mode of any Mario Kart game.
There’s certainly something to be said for the original Gran Turismo, as it was a serious game-changer (pun intended) for racing games. However, Gran Turismo 4 took the franchise in a new direction. Not only did it launch with 650 cars, it also introduced numerous real-world tracks to the series including the mighty Nürburgring Nordschleife and Circuit de la Sarthe. Not only that, but adventurous gamers could tackle both tracks in full-on 24-hour endurance sessions. Twenty-four straight hours of gaming? Hell. Yes.
Gran Turismo 4 also stands out among the rest because it addressed another key facet that all auto enthusiasts share: the love of taking cool photos of cool cars. GT4’s new photo mode was easy-to-use, allowing gamers to place cars in custom locations or grab action shots on any track, and the settings were such that sometimes it was tough to tell a game photo from a real one.
Outrun is less a racing game and more of a driving game. A driver, ostensibly you, and a blonde ride through beautiful, undulating terrain in a convertible Ferrari Testarossa. Select your preferred song before the game begins, and then travel through five stages to the finish line. Branching paths mean that there are a total of 15 areas to explore, and the environments show significant variety, including everything from windmill-lined roads to driving underneath countless stone arches. To make the experience even more immersive, the deluxe version of the arcade cabinet features a single-seat cockpit that moves with the action.
In the early days of gaming – 1982 to be exact – this was the definitive racing game, and an extremely popular arcade attraction. Pole Position was the first racing game to feature an actual track, Fuji Speedway, and it was so popular that it had a stand-up arcade sequel, Pole Position II. The game was ported to numerous early consoles, including the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and the Intellivision, and still stands the test of time with impressive attention to detail.
Gran Turismo 2 took the successful original concept of a polygon-based racing game from the first installment and exploded it with more cars, more tracks, and better graphics. Honestly, it pushed the PlayStation to its limit. Later installments, of course, offered amazing graphics and hundreds of track and vehicle options, but back then it was less about how the cars looked and more about the selection, the ability to customize, and those amazing camera angles and sweeps in the replays. Credit this game with exploding the genre that Forza and others eventually entered.
Carmageddon: Straight racing games are fun, but racing while crashing into each other and mowing down as many pedestrians as possible is arguably even more fun. Gameplay is about fantasy, about doing things who would never do in the real world, and Carmageddon owns this space. If we were doing a top 11 list, Carmageddon would have made the cut.
The Simpsons Road Rage: Think of this game as a riff on Crazy Taxi, except you do it all with Simpsons characters, and while driving some of the weirdest and wildest cars from the beloved cartoon series. Published in 2001, Road Road was followed shortly thereafter by Simpsons Hit & Run, which was less Crazy Taxi more Grand Theft Auto, and not nearly as good.
Midnight Club: This series is an open-world street-racing game set in virtual recreations of major world cities. You drive non-licensed cars – e.g. the "Citi Turbo" that looks remarkably like a modified EJ-series Honda Civic – and motorcycles. The best part, let's be honest, was the ability to smash, crash, jump, and drift virtual cars all around darkened city streets, including banging into other computer-driven traffic and using nitrous-oxide booster upgrades. It wasn't very realistic, but it was huge fun.