I used to watch a lot of Top Gear. Not for the information or because I have an interest in cars, but for the fact that three snarky Englishmen who have some instinctual need to one-up the other is really, really funny. I think the same way when it comes to my choice in racing games; super-serious racing provides no interest for me whatsoever because I don’t care about sleek and stylish hunks of metal I can never afford. I’m playing a game, not going to an auto show.
So it is likely of no surprise that when I want to have a four-wheeled device to cart around digitally, I look to the zanier ideas. On-board weapons and power-ups and catchy and abnormal music alongside courses taken from beautiful dreams and horrifying nightmares of grand design. Throw in some element of exploration and I’m all for it as long as I’m in first. Racing games are either too serious for their ilk or the other side of the coin into madness. This article is about the best of the latter. Rev it up!
This list could not exist without this game series somewhere within it. What makes the game so unique in that respect is that it has endured past the clones and iterations by very small amounts of innovation slowly transforming into something better and better. It starts out simple enough with minor differences in handling and speed for each character culminating into a masterpiece of mania with overblown drifting mechanics and a plethora of power ups to avoid and use. Double Dash added strategy, Mario Kart DS brought extra nostalgia and online-multiplayer, and Mario Kart Wii gave us motorcycle and a dinky plastic wheel. All these small little things keep Mario Kart, and in a larger perspective Nintendo itself going into the modern era with consistently well-made products.
Diddy Kong Racing
When Rare decided to jump onto the racing bandwagon its (at the time) parent company Nintendo started, its innovation led to three vehicle types and an open-world adventure setup not done before. Combined with upgrade-able power-ups to build strategic elements into the multi-player and a solid single-player campaign, you had a very effective system. Of course, it never fails to amaze me how many characters this game had which were never used again. Conker had his chance in a very different view than Nintendo was expecting but what the happened to that turtle guy?
What also draws people to this game specifically is the difficulty. After the first battle with Wizpig, everything turns on its head and you have to bust your butt to succeed against the bosses and coin challenges. It is an incredibly-rewarding experience to beat this game fully. I have not had the luxury.
Star Wars Pod Racer
While the movie left much to be desired, the audience was able to enjoy the fast-paced action that came with a child racing what amounted to a combination of a scooter and a TIE fighter over the desert. The arcade version of Pod Racer gave you the exact same feeling. I recall to this day that I had no idea how to sit on this device because it was made to look like the one in the movie. This is why I never got very far into it, but it also shook and turned with the player when you were turning the vehicle on-screen. Another game released at the time, San Francisco Rush, also used the rumbling effect to give you that feeling of driving a car in the game. Pod Racer was more innovative than that though by allowing the controls be the pod itself…even when it turned completely upside down. Ah, the love of gaming is so great that a child could truly enjoy their game and get dizzy at the same time! It might have been that my arcade was simply that shitty, but I stand by my statement; that game made me sick to my stomach.
Crash Team Racing
On the mascot racing bandwagon, Sonic is the only one that has never really made any sense. Sure, the first one knew he was fast enough to race without a kart, but the game was so atrociously designed that walls were practically non-existent. The next time they tried it with Sonic Riders, they made the questionable decision that the hedgehog and his friends needed a board. Especially when most of them could run across water anyways. And of course now Sonic is racing alongside a whole back catalog of Sega’s greatest hits, in a car, for no good reason.
This was not the case with Crash Team Racing, which borrowed a lot of the concepts from Diddy Kong Racing with adventure modes and upgradable weapons but went a step further by adding the power slide. They also boiled it back down to kart racing instead letting degenerate hovercrafts and planes in on the action. Crash Team Racing was a solid hit because it polished all the things that made Diddy Kong Racing work.
Oh, now this takes me back. Sure, it’s not really much a “racing” game but you still had to come out ahead. You just used all those power-ups to wreak havoc upon your fellow drivers and the landscape itself. I will never get tired of bringing down the Eiffel Tower in the second game. You actually get to drive on the toppled wreckage to the city’s rooftops. This series for all its brutality continues to this day with factions and psychotic clowns ruining the world. But we should take a break from the fantastical, lest we forget there are more than a few fun games within a more realistic lens. Why would we want to? Because sometimes, they knock it right out of the ballpark and into a pyramid of toppling Sedan.
Like in this game, also known as my former gaming groups’ favorite game for one reason and one reason only: Blues-brother style pileups. In the most beautiful cars and stunning detail, scores and unlockables are achieved through challenges of racing, demolition and outright slagging cars into trash heap congestion. Burnout also definitely knows it audience; you play darts with the car by aiming it just right to crash into others. A non-exploded car is a job poorly done meant for scorn and failure. It was a constant joke in my group that only nuns and puppies were ever behind the wheel of these cars. Anything else was just too cruel and dark.
And lastly, a game which appreciates my gameplay sensibilities as well as the realistic racing and car scene. All of the cars in this game are licensed. From Audi to Volkswagen, each of these manufacturers gave Activision their vehicle likeness rights to the game designers, and a racing game was made where I could launch a missile into an actual Camaro. Kart racing has evolved, dear friends; the future is now real cars on real tracks with a speed boost from a glowing power up in my path, allowing me to ram my Chevy straight into a Mustang’s backside to take the lead. There is no other game I’ve ever played that made me truly feel like Speed Racer. Too bad we’ll never see it’s like again as its developer Bizarre Creations has since closed and its staff scattered to the winds, though many did end up at Playground Games who were responsible for last year’s excellent Forza Horizon.