What was the first racing game that made you feel like a racing pro? What was the first game where you truly felt like you were actually driving a race or sports car for real? Was it an arcade game? Maybe a PC game or was it a console game?
When I was a kid, we were lucky to have possibly one of the best arcades in the country. Fun & Games Arcade in Framingham, MA. It opened in 1974 and at it’s height it had hundreds of games. Anything from Qbert and PacMan to Pole Position and more pinball machines than you can imagine. It was nirvana to any kid with a paper route and a pocket full of quarters.
Even as a young boy, I was drawn to the racing games. At the arcade, the bulk of my quarters seemed to find their way into Pole Position, Outrun, Manx TT Super Bike, NASCAR Arcade and the more realistic F355 Challenge. It was a thrill to grab the wheel, push the pedal to the metal and put yourself up against your friends, the high score or fastest lap time!
I can still remember the first time me and my friends discovered Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing on PC. It was a game changer! It opened up a whole new world of online racing. It was the first time you could sit behind a wheel and pedals in your own home and race against other people online with no need for quarters. We would try to race a full Daytona 500 or Talladega 400. Switching off at each pit stop. It was a true team experience and you just hoped you weren’t the one to put the car in the wall.
The early PC games were great and certainly game changers but they still felt somewhat arcade like. The first game that I remember truly feeling that I was wheeling an actual car around a race track was Viper Racing. The graphics were still more PacMan than Forza but it was one of the first games to account for pitch and yaw in the handling of the cars. When you drifted through a corner, it felt like you were really spinning the tires and getting the car sideways rather than sliding on a sheet of ice hoping the car would catch before you would careen off the track. It definitely added a new level of realism.
The next leap in realism that I can remember was the Need for Speed series by EA Sports. These games had the realism of Viper Racing and took the graphics to a new level! They even had a special “render” version for people who had the top of the line graphics cards that really made the cars and environment look almost like the real thing. They were also the first games that gave me a sensation of speed. The icing on the cake was a line up of licensed cars that would have looked great on any young boys wall. From a Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s to Porsche’s and police cars.
The next big leap in PC games for me was the iRacing game from Red Sox owner John Henry and Roush Fenway Racing. This is considered one of the most hardcore racing simulations with tracks and cars rendered in the most realistic detail. Each track and car are laser scanned down to the littlest detail. They also brought a driver licensing and rating systems that fairly pairs drivers to others who are at the same level of driving skill. The one downside is that it is a subscription service where most tracks and cars must be purchased to be able to race them.
I was a late comer to the console racing scene but have become hooked to the Gran Turismo series for PS4. It is a great mix of all the games I have played in the past. It has the graphics, the realism, the cars and tracks and has regular free updates that offer new cars, tracks and events that keep it fresh. It also has a great community system to help you find and connect with fellow racers and some of the best paint customization I have seen in any game. One of the things it lacks is a car customization when it comes to mechanical and body upgrades but each car is very adjustable when it comes to shocks, transmission and other handling attributes. The other knock is that the online racing can sometimes devolve into a smash up derby like atmosphere and the penalty system leaves something to be desired.
What does the future hold for racing games and simulators? I am not sure but I very much look forward to the next leap in technology! What ever the next level brings us to, I can guarantee that we will likely not be disappointed!