Got the Need for Speed? Read our History of Driving Games
by Ed Scott
Driving games come in all shapes and sizes – from the hyper-realism of Forza Horizon 2 to the far-off fantasy world of Mario Kart 8, with GTA V following its own ultra-violent path somewhere along the line – but have you ever wondered how we got here?
The 1970s – get your motor running
Back in 1974, Atari released Gran Trak 10 – it’s anyone’s guess what happened to the first nine, or why they never picked a more futuristic sounding number, like 2000 – a coin-operated arcade machine which gave players an overhead view of a race track around which players had to manoeuvre a race car.
The monochrome action was controlled by pedals, a gear shift and a steering wheel all of which were housed in the arcade cabinet – it may not look much, but it was ground-breaking stuff.
Atari followed this up in 1976 with Night Driver, the first racing game to offer players a first-person perspective as they drove down an increasingly complex set of pitch-black tracks – the idea being to stay on the road and avoid the trackside barriers.
The decade ended with Victorbeam’s Speed Freak, its 3-D vector-based graphics giving gamers a glimpse of what was to come in the 80s…
The 1980s – The golden age of driving games
As technology accelerated in the 1980s, so driving games became faster and more complex as the decade wore on – Namco’s Pole Position, with its colourful graphics and racing car-shaped cabinet leading the way.
So forward thinking was this F1 racing game it was the first to feature product placement with trackside banners advertising Pepsi, Cannon and Martini.
In 1983, Midway released Spy Hunter and introduced weapons to the genre, the aim of this fast-paced top scroller being to obliterate the enemy cars and get as far along the never-ending road as possible.
Speed along to 1986 and Sega’s OutRun became the next big thing on the driving game circuit – Sega’s Super-scaler technology adding more depth to the game via its dynamic backgrounds. And players could even change the radio station as they drove.
Before the 80s became the 90s, Chase HQ was the next game to move the genre on, taking OutRun’s gameplay and adding guns and a good old-fashioned cops and robbers narrative.
The 1990s – The decade driving games came home
Although home computer platforms like the Commodore and Spectrum meant gamers could play games like Outrun and Chase HQ from the comfort of their own bedroom, the graphics and gameplay were nowhere near as good as on the arcade originals.
But technology was to move forward at an even faster rate in the 90s as more and more gamers got powerful home PCs and consoles.
Sega’s Virtua Racing brought 3D graphics and changing camera angles to the party and then Namco took things a step further with Ridge Racer which offered a variety of game modes, circuits and cars.
The real game changer of the 90s came in 1997 though, with the release of Gran Turismo – ‘The Real Driving Simulator’ – on the PlayStation. Such was the game’s emphasis on realism, players had to pass a set of driving tests before they could get to grips with the games 140 cars and 11 circuits.
A special mention must also go to Sega’s Crazy Taxi, which took the driving game off the circuit and into an open-plan cityscape, paving the way for the latter-day Grand Theft Auto series – the first two of which, as well as bonus London edition, were played with a bird’s eye view of the city, this all changed with the turn of the millenium though.
And let’s not forget that Nintendo brought us Mario Kart in the 90s, an unfeasibly addictive racing game that was more fun to play than most on account of its wacky characters, cars, weapons and easy controls.
The 2000s – no limits
2001 saw the release of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 3 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox – and it changed the gaming landscape completely, being a completely open-plan game where you could get in any car (or vehicle) and drive around a massive cityscape with limitless character interactions.
Now in its fifth iteration, with several spin-offs such as Vice City and San Andreas, it’s no surprise that this has gone on to be one of the most successful and critically acclaimed games of all time.
2001 also saw Sony release its third Gran Turismo game and, not to be outdone, Microsoft released an Xbox rival in Project Gotham Racing.
Microsoft then moved the genre on again in 2005 with Forza Motorsport – offering 231 licensed vehicles, all of which were affected by cosmetic and mechanical damage, to bring another element of realism to the party. Not only that, but vehicles could also be customised.
All the while Nintendo was bringing gamers upgraded versions of Mario Kart across all its platforms, culminating in the recent release of Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U – one of the most addictive and fun driving games anyone could wish for.
And for lovers of next gen consoles, things just keep on improving all the time – to the point where it’s hard to believe that it’s computer generated cars – and not real footage – careering around the virtual circuits.
What’s your favourite driving video game? Leave a comment!
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