History of Racing Video Games from The 70s and 80s

In this article we’ll be taking you for a retrospective look at the history of racing video games, from the first racing games in the early 70s all the way through to the late 80s. So sit back, relax as wego through some of the most iconic titles that graced the racing genre.

In 1973, Atari’s Space Race was a space-themed arcade game where players controlled spaceships that raced against opposing ships while avoiding comets and meteors. It was a competitive two-player game controlled using a two-way joystick and was presented in black and white graphics. The same year, Taito released a similar space-themed racing game Astro Race, which used an early four-way joystick.

The following year, Taito released Speed Race, an early driving racing game designed by Tomohiro Nishikado, who later went on to make the classic Space Invaders. The game’s most important innovation was its introduction of scrolling graphics, specifically overhead vertical scrolling with the course width becoming wider or narrower as the player raced against rival cars. It also featured an early racing wheel controller interface with an accelerator, gear shift, speedometer, and tachometer. It could be played in either single-player or alternating two-player, where each player attempted to beat the other’s score.

The game was re-branded as Wheels by Midway Games for release in the United States and was influential on later racing games. That same year, Atari released another early car driving game in the arcades, Gran Trak 10, which presented an overhead single-screen view of the track in low resolution white on black graphics. The aim of the game was to race against a timer while accumulating points; and when the timer reached zero the player could compare his score to a small chart on the machine for a play rating.

Now while gran track 10 had you racing against the clock, and was limited to a single player mode, Electra released a 4 player overhead view racing game the same year called Pace Car Pro which was the first racing game in history to incorporate color graphics.

In 1976, Taito released Crashing Race, a simultaneous two-player competitive car racing game where each player tries to crash as many computer-controlled cars as possible to score points. Sega’s Road Race, introduced a three-dimensional, third-person roadside scene, displaying a constantly changing forward-scrolling S-shaped road. The player had to try and avoid other cars and avoid going off the road while also racing against a clock.

That same year, Sega released Moto-Cross, an early black-and-white racing game, that also used an early three-dimensional, third-person perspective. In August 76 the game was rebranded as Man T.T, which Sega later rebranded again as Fonz, as a tie-in for the popular sitcom Happy Days. The game displayed a constantly changing forward-scrolling road and the player’s bike in a third-person perspective where the aim was to steer the vehicle across the road racing against the clock while avoiding any on-coming motorcycles. The game also introduced the use of haptic feedback, which caused the motorcycle handlebars to vibrate during a collision with another vehicle.

In October 1976, Atari released Night Driver which is considered one of the earliest first-person racing video games. Due to limitations of arcade technology at the time though, it used a printed plastic insert laid under the screen to represent the car, and like Gran Trek 10, the player raced against a clock rather than onscreen opponents.

In 1977, Micronetics released Night Racer, a first-person car racing game similar to Night Driver, while Sega released Twin Course T.T., an early simultaneous competitive two-player motorbike racing game. Road Champion, released by Taito in 1978, was another overhead-view racing game where players had to race ahead of opposing cars while avoiding collisions and cross the finish line first to become the winner.

In 1979, Sega’s Head On was a racing game that played like a maze chase game and is thus considered a precursor to the 1980 hit Pac-Man. Monaco GP, released by Sega in 1979, improved upon previous overhead-view racing games with a vertically scrolling view and color graphics. Another notable video game from the 1970s was The Driver , a racing-action game released by Kasco in 1979 that used 16 mm film to project full motion video on screen, though its gameplay had limited interaction, requiring the player to match their steering wheel, gas pedal and brakes with movements shown on screen.

In 1980, Namco’s overhead-view driving game Rally-X was the first game to feature background music, and allowed scrolling in both vertical and horizontal directions. It also featured an early example of a radar, to show the rally car’s location on the map.

Turbo, released by Sega in 1981, was the first racing game to feature a third-person perspective, rear view format. The most influential racing game was released in 1982: Pole Position, developed by Namco and published by Atari in North America. It was the first game to be based on a real racing circuit; Japans Fuji Speedway, and the first to feature a qualifying lap, where the player needed to complete a time trial before they could compete in Grand Prix races. While not the first third-person racing game as it was predated by Turbo, Pole Position established the conventions of the genre and its success inspired numerous imitators. According to IGN, it was “the first racing game based on a real-world racing circuit” and that its success, as “the highest-grossing arcade game in North America in 1983, cemented the genre in place for decades to come and inspired a horde of other racing games”.

Pole Position II was released in 1983 and featured improvements, such as giving the player the choice of different race courses as well as more colourful landscapes. TX-1, developed by Tatsumi in 1983 was licensed to Namco, who in turn licensed it to Atari in America, is considered the successor to Pole Position II. TX-1, placed a greater emphasis on realism, including forcing players to brake or downshift during corners to avoid the risk of losing control. It was also the first car driving game to use force feedback technology, which caused the steering wheel to vibrate. The game also featured a unique three-screen arcade display for a more three-dimensional perspective of the track. It also introduced nonlinear gameplay by allowing players to choose which path to drive through after each checkpoint, eventually leading to one of eight possible final destinations.

Change Lanes, released by Taito in 1983, was a third-person racer where the player’s car had fuel that reduced while driving. The player had to pick up fuel cells to refuel at each checkpoint, while avoiding crashing into cars and obstacles as it would reduce the players fuel. If the fuel ran out, the game would end!

An early attempt at creating a home driving simulator was Tomy’s Turning Turbo Dashboard, also released in 1983. It was the first ever home video game-like device to feature a racing wheel controller.

In 1984, several early racing laserdisc video games were released, including Sega’s GP World and Taito’s Laser Grand Prix which featured live-action footage. Universal’s Top Gear featured 3D animated race car driving, and Taito’s Cosmos Circuit, featured animated futuristic racing. Taito also released Kick Start, a fully third-person motorbike racing game, and Buggy Challenge, an early dirt track racing game featuring a buggy. Other early dirt racing games from that year were :Nintendo’s Excitebike and SNK’s motocross game Jumping Cross, both played from a side-scrolling view.

SNK also released Mad Crasher, an early futuristic racing game, where the player drove a futuristic motorbike along diagonal-scrolling futuristic roads suspended in mid-air, while leaping across gaps, shooting other cars, and getting bonuses and power-ups.

Another racing game that involved shooting that year was Nichibutsu’s Seicross, where the player raced a motorcycle-like craft. Other notable arcade releases that year included Konami’s Road Fighter, a vertical-scrolling racer, and Irem’s The Battle-Road, an early open-ended vehicle combat racing game that featured branching paths and up to 32 possible routes.

Another unique take on the genre that year was Plazma Line, a first-person space racing game that is considered the first computer game with 3D polygon graphics. The objective of the game was to race through outer space in a first-person view while avoiding obstacles along the way. It also featured an automap radar to keep track of the player’s position.

Racing games, in general, tended to drift toward the arcade side of reality, mainly due to hardware limitations, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s, however, untrue to say that there were no games considered simulations in their time.

In 1984, Geoff Crammond, who later developed the Grandprix series (Known collectively as GPX to its fanbase), produced what is considered the first attempt at a racing simulator on a home system called REVS, released for the BBC Microcomputer. The game offered an unofficial recreation of British Formula 3. The hardware capabilities limited the depth of the simulation and initially restricted it to one track, but it offered a semi-realistic driving experience with more detail than most other racing games at the time.

In 1985, Sega released Hang-On, a popular Grand Prix style rear-view motorbike racer, considered the first full-body-experience video game, and was regarded as the first motorbike simulator for its realism at the time, in both the handling and player’s motorbike and the artificial intelligence of the computer-controlled motorcyclists. It used force feedback technology and was also one of the first arcade games to use 16-bit graphics and Sega’s “Super Scaler” technology that allowed pseudo-3D sprite-scaling at high frame rates.

In 1986, Durell released Turbo Esprit, which had an official Lotus license, and featured working indicator lights for the car.

Also in 1986, Sega produced Out Run, one of the most graphically impressive games of its time. It used two Motorola 68000 CPUs for its 2D sprite-based driving engine, and it became an instant classic that spawned many sequels. It was notable for giving the player the non-linear choice of which route to take through the game and the choice of soundtrack to listen to while driving, represented as radio stations. The game also featured up to five multiple endings depending on the route taken, and each one was an ending sequence rather than a simple “Congratulations” as was common in game endings at the time.

That same year, Konami’s WEC Le Mans attempted to accurately simulate the 24 Hours of Le Mans competition with realistic handling, a day-night cycle, and the use of force feedback to simulate road vibration

In 1987, Namco produced Final Lap, the unofficial sequel to Pole Position II. Final Lap was the first arcade game that allowed multiple machines to be linked, allowing for multiplayer races, with up to eight players in total. It was also arguably the first racing game to implement “rubber banding” to ensure that less talented players were never too far behind the leader.

In the same year, Square released Rad Racer, one of the first stereoscopic 3Dgames, while Atari produced RoadBlasters, a driving game that also involved shooting.

Test Drive by Accolade was another popular title and the first in the long-running series that spanned over 25 years. In the game, the player could choose from one five supercars and drive along a winding cliffside road while avoiding traffic and outrunning police speed traps.

In 1988, Taito released Chase H.Q., a unique racing game where the player drove a police car in pursuit of criminals. Chase HQ ‘s gameplay, which involved ramming the enemy car while avoiding oncoming traffic has been cited as a precursor to the gameplay of later titles such as Driver and Burnout.

CBS Sony released Paris-Dakar Rally Special, an imaginative racing game with platformer and action-adventure elements, featuring Dakar Rally cars that could fire bullets. The driver was able to exit the car and explore areas in both a top-down view and a classic sidescrolling platform view.

That same year, Namco released an early 3D racing game in the arcades, Winning Run.

In 1989, Atari released Hard Driving, another arcade driving game that used 3D polygonal graphics. It also featured force feedback where the wheel would fight the player during aggressive turns, and a crash replay camera view.

That same year, the now defunct Papyrus Design Group produced their first attempt at a racing simulator, the critically acclaimed Indianapolis 500: The Simulation. Designed by David Kaemmer and Omar Khudari. The game is generally regarded as the first true auto racing simulation on a personal computer. Accurately replicating the 1989 Indianapolis 500 grid, it offered advanced 3D graphics for its time, setup options, car failures, and handling. Unlike most other racing games at the time, Indianapolis 500 attempted to simulate realistic physics and telemetry, including its portrayal of the relationship between the four contact patches and the pavement, as well as the loss of grip when making a high-speed turn, forcing the player to adopt a proper racing line and believable throttle-to-brake interaction. It also featured a garage facility to allow players to modify their vehicle, including making adjustments to their tires, shocks and wings. The damage modelling, while not accurate by today’s standards, was capable of producing some spectacular and entertaining pile-ups.

Super Monaco GP was released by Sega later that year and followed ports to multiple video games consoles and home computers in the early 1990s. It was the equal to Segas popular 1979 arcade game, Monaco GP.

That there was a rundown of the history of racing video games from the 70s and 80s, let me know what some of YOUR favourite racing games were during this era in the comments bellow.

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