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The best racing games, driving sims, and overall car games of all time, according to enthusiasts

You know it's about to get real when we get the whole squad together to commemorate the best racing games.

Image credit: Acceleramota.com

In the documentary Apex: The Story of the Hypercar, Dan Greenawalt, the creative director behind the Forza Motorsport games said video games are the catalyst for the next generation of car enthusiasts. That carmakers have “fundamentally changed their relationship to video games” and have “empowered us to actually stoke passion” in a younger crowd. That’s not to say all the best racing games are new releases, but as driving simulators become increasingly more realistic so too does the dream of a motorsports career for non-trust fund babies.

That said, today’s car games aren’t just for the aspiring racecar drivers training for the Nurburgring. If you’re new to the genre, don’t worry, the urge to squeeze 741 horsepower out of a Toyota GR Yaris comes later. As is the case with most modern video games, there’s a “best racing game” for everyone in 2023. F1 weirdos like Sheilah have, well, F1. Even the indie snobs get to do a little racing, as a treat, in The Art of Rally. Depending on who you ask, Need for Speed is back or it sucks or it never went away.

As we near the imminent arrival of heavy hitters including Forza Motorsport and Test Drive Unlimited: Solar Crown, these are the best racing games, driving simulators, and otherwise, interactive car-related media you can check out or revisit in the meantime.

Gran Turismo 7

by Gabe Carey

Image credit: Polyphony Digital

While the Forza Horizon series was the key to the ignition of my automotive interests, Gran Turismo 7 was the fuel that fired up the cylinders. Driving in the open-world Forza Horizon games is realistic but in a way that also harkens back to the classic arcade-style racers like Burnout and Need for Speed which had declined in popularity by the mid-2010s. It combined high-production visuals and sound but the handling was more forgiving than what you’d get with a capital ‘S’ Sim racer.

In true Japanese game developer fashion, Polyphony let an entire console generation pass between the release of Gran Turismo 6 and its successor. Sure, there was Gran Turismo Sport for the PlayStation 4, but GT‘s brand recognition had already dwindled in favor of Assetto Corsa during Gran Turismo 7‘s lengthy development cycle. But unlike Assetto Corsa, Gran Turismo 7 was not made for the lifelong car enthusiast who grew up playing the classics. You know, that car kid from your childhood that had a tuned WRX with BBS rims and a tint by the time they hit puberty?

Gran Turismo 7 is Car Culture 101 for the next generation of enthusiasts who don’t know where to start. It’s at once an automotive history lesson and a performance driving school disguised as a video game. Even more so if you splurge on a decent wheel like the Logitech G923 or the primo Thrustmaster T-GT II. When you boot it up for the first time, Gran Turismo 7 serves you 8 minutes of glorious unskippable cutscenes showcasing the evolution of the automobile. Then it’s off to the races. Well, sort of.

The campaign is then broken up into more than 60 “menu books” found at the GT Café (sound familiar?), each with its own unique challenges themed after a different type of car. Along the way, you’ll not only unlock multiplayer, but you’ll learn a lot if you take the time to read. My one complaint is the notable lack of accessibility options in Gran Turismo 7 for adjusting the text size on both the PS4 and PlayStation 5.

Forza Horizon

by Jeric Jaleco

Image credit: Playground Games

I wanted to pick the easy answers. Gran Turismo 4, Need For Speed: Underground, etc. But who am I kidding? I was a pipsqueak when those legends came out, and as iconic as they’ll be, now and always, what did they really do except teach me Skylines were fast and racing is cool? To elementary school me, not much. But the OG Forza Horizon, that now-11-year old Xbox 360 masterpiece? Utterly life-changing. And that’s no hyperbole.

The then-new concept rocked gamers and car enthusiasts alike. You mean this game is halfway between arcade and sim racing in an open world centered around a massive music and motorsports festival? Yeah. High school me found that pretty damn influential. The car list was mesmerizing, and the in-game dynamics made any car fun. Hell, a stock FR-S was just as hellacious Initial D’ing my way down Red Rock Canyon as a Ferrari 458. Try saying that about any recent Need for Speed game. Oh, and don’t forget this was the first and (so far) only Forza with a legitimate story, complete with drawn-out cutscenes, boss races, an overarching plot, and a main antagonist – eat a dick, Darius Flynt!

Perhaps most groundbreaking of all was how it molded me into the gearhead I am today. All my friends love Horizon too, as it’s one of the few games we can all collectively play, and it’s undoubtedly been a big inspiration for us to seek new adventures on distant roads. One of our ultimate goals as a group is to fully realize our Horizon dreams and attend a #GRIDLIFE festival, racing all day and jamming all night. This game showcased new cars that became dream cars of mine, and the soundtrack featured certified bangers that are still on my road trip and childhood nostalgia playlists today. So yeah. The original Forza Horizon is the winner for me. I’ll see you at the festival, superstars. 

Need for Speed Underground 2

by Nathan Meyer

Image credit: Electronic Arts

This is the game that put Need for Speed on the map. My high school sweetheart made me choose between Need for Speed Underground 2 and her – let’s just say, my virtual MK4 Golf GTI and I had some good times after that.

It doesn’t have sim racer physics, but there’s a fun factor that even Forza Horizon has yet to replicate. It’s the first game in the franchise to have an open world. AI racers will challenge you while you’re cruising. You aren’t chasing your tail all the time because there’s no police. No fast travel means you spend your time just enjoying the game, and the hidden shops give the map purpose. The world feels vibrant. You can take your car for magazine shoots!

The customization is like In-N-out. After you build your car here, everything else just doesn’t hit the same. You can take your car to the Dyno and tune it the way a mechanic would. 2000s licensing costs mean that your favorite car parts brands like HKS and GReddy are in the game. There’s an endless amount of body kits, rims and paint options. You can even put massive subwoofers in the trunk.

Speed Crew

by Sheilah Villari

Image credit Wild Fields

Speed Crew for Nintendo Switch and PC has effortlessly cruised into my go-to spot for a relaxing game to wind down with after a long day. While it’s not overly complicated, it certainly presents a thrilling challenge as you accelerate through its 48 levels. Here, you step into the fast-paced shoes of a pit crew member, starting off in the vibrant 70s racing circuit. Your mission? To be the absolute best within the allotted race timeframe.

The game’s journey propels you toward championships, with each new level advancing not just your skills, but the decade you’re in, too. This nifty feature adds a delightful visual flair, transforming the game’s aesthetics and the design of the characters as you progress.

And what characters they are! Each one brimming with charm and moving with the lightning-quick hustle you’d expect from an actual pit crew in any motorsport. Select from four unique character options, name your team, and hit the tracks. I made sure to stay on-brand, naming mine “Alfred Romeo Racing,” and keeping company with creatively named teams like “Jilliams,” “McFlaren,” and “Red Hullers.”

With an option to play alongside up to four friends, Speed Crew could easily slide into your Mario Kart night for a change of pace. Yet, it’s equally satisfying to fly solo, changing tires, repairing damaged fenders, or swapping engines after a long day at the business factory. But remember, keep your eyes on the racing monsters roaring in, and the ticking clock. Just like in real racing, penalties fly as fast as the cars, impacting your leaderboard standing. With future updates promising new levels and modes, I’m excited to see how Speed Crew evolves.

Burnout 3: Takedown

by Joe Tilleli

Image credit: Criterion Software

I’m sorry but with all due respect, no one here knows what they’re talking about. Great games all around but nothing matches the adrenaline-fueled sensations of the Burnout series – particularly Burnout 3: Takedown. Originally released to the PS2 and original Xbox, this smash hit was adored by critics and regular folk alike with its Metacritic score ranking it as the second greatest game of its release year, and the best racing game of the Xbox generation.

Burnout 3 has a more arcadey feel than more modern racing games due to its fast pacing and emphasis on vehicular carnage. The premise is simple – elbow your way into pole position, but here, the elbowing is lethal. Players spend races ramming their cars against opponent vehicles forcing them to crash in what the game calls a Takedown. Playing Burnout 3 is like taking the wheel in your very own Justin Lin-directed Fast and Furious movie.

Like any good racing game, there are several modes to choose from including standard races, Road Rage where the goal is to see who can score the most Takedowns, World Tour which acts as a single-player career mode, and lastly Crash Mode. In that last one, you’re set not far from a high-traffic intersection while tasked with causing as much monetary damage as possible. It scratches that lizard brain itch in our head that makes us want to push our foot all the way down on the gas pedal and see what happens. 

And while all of this is happening, you are listening to a soundtrack that is just banger after banger. Just watch this intro set to Lazy Generation by The F-Ups and tell me I’m wrong.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!!

by Roger Feeley-Lussier

This one is a bit of a layup. Everyone knows Mario Kart. If you spent even an hour in a college dorm in the past 30 years, you’ve probably played (or at least seen someone playing) one of the now 14 games in this series. Check out The Gaming Historian’s YouTube Essay about Super Mario Kart if you want a deep dive into the history of this genre-defining franchise. 

I chose Mario Kart: Double Dash!! because it’s the entry I’ve put the most hours into. My sister gave me her GameCube when she graduated from college and it only came with a handful of games. Fortunately, this meager collection included Double Dash!! In the mid-00s I got to play it a bunch more thanks to the Wii’s backwards compatibility. I spent countless nights in my 20s dodging bananas and tossing blue shells carelessly from the back of the pack. One of my roommates became so obsessed he memorized all the courses, making it considerably less fun to play with him. 

In the mid-to-late 00s, Mario Kart found its way into every aspect of my life. Around that time, my band was playing an all-ages show at a church in Allston, MA. We were opening for a group called New Years Day, who – and I’m not throwing shade here – were huge on Myspace. Before the show, they invited me to their van and showed me a Nintendo 64 rigged to a small CRT, primarily for playing Mario Kart 64 on long drives. I challenged them to a few races and thought nothing of it, heading back to play our set. I think I taught one of them to drift.

The next day the band’s singer, who also had a big following on Myspace, added me to her top 8. I’ll never know why. Maybe I was just that good at Mario Kart.

Gran Turismo 4

by Chris Teague

Image credit Polyphony Digital

I’m going to take a step back in time to Gran Turismo 4, one of the first racing games I became obsessed with. As a total Nintendo kid growing up, I didn’t even realize how many other game systems there were until well after I started college, which didn’t help my GPA at all. 

Armed with a job and a little disposable income, Gran Turismo 4 arrived at the point in my life when I was shopping for shitboxes and started tinkering with my own cars. Since it came out only a few years after the first Fast and Furious film, Gran Turismo 4 fed my JDM cravings and opened my eyes to more than the most popular car brands.

Now, at 40 years old, it’s fun to look back at GT4, though I have to agree with Gabe that Gran Turismo 7 is one of the best racing games ever. Even so, it won’t make the impact on my life the fourth iteration did, and for that reason above all others, Gran Turismo 4 is my pick. 

Author

Gabe Carey
the authorGabe Carey
Founder of Acceleramota and NYCars & Coffee. I used to be a tech journalist. I still am, but I used to be too.