Arcade races like Blur and Split/Second weren’t selling, brilliant companies were shutting, racing and even blockbuster series like Need for Speed were having trouble maintaining their previous levels of popularity until recently. It seemed that the days of the expensive racing game, and of the genre as a thrilling mass-market attraction outside of Mario Kart and Gran Turismo, were past.
The outlook is brighter today, which is great news for racing fans. Forza Horizon revitalised the driving game market, independent developers have brought back the fun of retro-style arcade racers, competition in the PC simulation racing scene is at an all-time high, and EA paid an unbelievable $1.2 billion to acquire Codemasters because of the company’s successful run with the Formula One licence.
As this is a genre that benefits from technological advancements, we focus on newer titles, but we also include a few classics that have endured the test of time. As always, we’re concentrating on games that are accessible and compatible with modern systems. In order to provide some variety, we have broken down our list into four categories: open-world racing games, which combine racing and exploration across a large map; arcade racing games, which focus on the immediate and fun, and less on the realistic; motorsport games, which are based on licenced real-world sports; and sim racing games, which focus on the realistic.
MOST EXCITING FREE-ROAMING RACING GAMES
The New and Improved Forza Horizon 5
Forza Horizon is a gorgeous, uplifting series of racing games for everyone, set on enormous, real-world-inspired settings, that began as a spin-off of the Forza Motorsport circuit-racing series but has now become the main event. Horizon 5 takes the concept to Mexico in another loving package, with the expansive narrative, knockabout multiplayer, moreish vehicle collection, and festival good feelings we anticipate from Horizon games. The game also appears on our lists of the top Game Pass titles and the best Xbox Series X/S games. Horizon 5 doesn’t add anything new (apart from the fantastic co-op feature, Horizon Tour), but it improves upon everything the previous game achieved and has a more well-organized campaign to help players wade through the absurdly large amount of content. Even the aesthetics are outstanding.
Hot Pursuit Remastered for Need for Speed
It’s easy to forget that, for a short moment with Criterion at the helm, the Need for Speed games offered some of the greatest driving experiences available, especially considering that the series would soon revert to its usual rut. The remaster only serves to cement the sense that Hot Pursuit was the series’ pinnacle, with its gritty fighting and open highways ingrained into everything that makes Need for Speed great. We eagerly anticipate Criterion’s return to leadership.
New and Improved Burnout Paradise
Burnout was Criterion’s iconic arcade racing series before they took over Need for Speed. It reimagined the exquisite boosting and drifting of 90s classics like Ridge Racer and Daytona as a dirty contact sport, complete with screen shaking, sideswipes, and twisted metal for the 00s. Burnout Paradise (2008), with its open-world environment and entirely free gameplay architecture, was even more of a forerunner. It’s hardly unexpected that a boldly contemporary game like this could hold up so well in a beautiful remake. (Can we also have remasters of Burnouts 2 and 3?)
THE PREMIERE RACING ARCADES
The New Super Mario Bros
Any Mario Kart game is a fantastic time with friends, all the way back to the 1992 Super Nintendo original. Each game in the series is known for its polished arcade controls, challenging tracks, cast of likeable characters, and a streak of random cruelty that can flip any race on its head. It’s no surprise that these racing games have broken sales records. Our selection of the greatest Switch games includes the Deluxe edition of the current Mario Kart, which may be the finest in the series since the original. It boasts excellent local and online multiplayer, a gratifying single-player mode, many customization options, gorgeous graphics, and a booming live-band soundtrack. This is especially important now, with the continual DLC support for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe through the unexpected but welcome Course Packs.
Nitro-Fueled Crash-Team Racing
When one of the most brilliant companies in the world, Naughty Dog, makes a cover version of a purportedly unique blockbuster (Mario Kart, of course), the result is Crash Team Racing. It stays true to the original story almost perfectly, yet the ultimate product is still very entertaining. This improved version by Beenox is just as good as you remember it being. If you’re looking for a local multiplayer experience and don’t have access to Switch or you simply really like Crash, Nitro-Fueled is your best bet.
To Float Inertly
While it’s true that Inertial Drift borrows a few ideas from the classic arcade racing Ridge racing Type 4, it ultimately stands on its own two feet. You can thank the game’s innovative twin-stick drift hunters feature for this; it takes a little getting used to, but it’s really unparalleled once you’ve mastered it.
Art of Rally is a little more nuanced and creative than the many other vintage races out there that play like cover copies of classics. It harkens back to a bygone era of racing games like Micro Machines with its unconventional top-down perspective and its toy-like, unlicensed automobile designs. You might call it a style, and it’s one with a lot of class. The game’s remarkable depth in the handling model makes it a more faithful representation of the sport than you may think possible. The PC release was followed by the Xbox One and Switch releases.
This fantastic banger-racer is reminiscent of the classics Destruction Derby and Flatout, and it has several recognisable and fully unauthorised automobiles (shh, don’t tell the makers). That’s to be expected, given that it was developed by the same team responsible for the original Flatout. Old vehicles with ponderous, sluggish handling that lurch and crash and lunch each other’s bodywork authentically because to a fantastic physics engine; this is the game’s fundamental concept. Uncomplicated joys.
What a Blast!
How about a racing game straight out of a modern arcade if that’s what you’re after? Some firms, like Raw Thrills, led by Robotron creator and all-around icon Eugene Jarvis, have been around for quite some time. Cruis’n Blast is a brilliantly enjoyable blend of the exuberance of an 80s arcade classic with the eye-searing gaudiness of the 90s. The Switch port adds some convenience, too. Ideal for an arcade? Maybe, but you could also say that Cruis’n Blast is the pinnacle of arcade racing in its own wacky style.