A Meditation on Racing Videogames

I’ve been on a videogame kick recently, so I ask if you will indulge me once again.  The post on the Saturn, and my memories of Daytona USA and Wipeout specifically, stirred my thoughts about the racing game genre.

I own a few racing videogames.

It hadn’t actually occurred to me quite how many racing games I own until I tried to gather most of them in one place to get this picture.  I also have several groups of games not shown here:

  • A whole era of PC racing games from 1997-2005 or so like Rally Trophy, Motorhead, Rallisport Challenege, Colin McRae 3, and others I don’t have the boxes for at my apartment.
  • A whole group of PC racing games like Midtown Madness that I just have in jewel cases from thrift stores.
  • More recent purchases like Dirt 2, Blur, Fuel, and Grid 2 that I only own digitally.

I’m not really a big car guy or even someone who really enjoys driving in real life.  It’s not really the cars that draw me into racing games.

I think what it comes down to is that I love playing videogames but I hate the “instant death” mechanic in most types of games.

That is to say that if Mario falls down a hole, he’s dead and you have to go back to the start of the level.  If a Cyber Demon’s rocket hits Doom Guy he’s dead and you go back to the start to the level.  In the vast majority of games the punishment for failure is that you the player are ripped away from whatever you’re doing and you lose progress in some way.

Racing games are in many ways the opposite of this.  If you go off the road or hit a wall generally you lose time and you’ll probably not win the race, but the the priority is to politely get you going on your way again.  Even in games like San Francisco Rush, where you can hit a wall and explode, you are quickly thrust back into the race somewhere further down the track.  It’s like if you spilled a glass of water at a nice restaurant and the waiter quickly comes over to mop it up and replace your drink.  You and he both know you just did a silly thing but he wants you back enjoying yourself as soon as possible.

That does not mean that these games are “soft”; it’s just that they don’t believe that constantly slapping you across the face is good value for money.

I mentioned in the Sega Saturn post that I don’t tend to like 2D games.  The vast majority of racing games operate from an inherently 3D perspective that places the camera either behind the car or on the car’s bumper.  In the pre-3D era there were attempts to do racing games with 3D-ish perspectives using 2D graphics, and I own a few such as Pole Position II, and Outrun.

It was difficult for 2D games to draw a convincing curving road so these games tend to make the player avoid traffic rather than attempt to portray realistic driving.

Racing games as we know them today trace their ancestry back to arcade games like Namco’s Winning Run (1988) and Sega’s Virtua Racing (1992) that were among the first to use 3D graphics and be able to draw a road in a more realistic way.

When consoles started using 3D graphics a nice looking racing game was a surefire way for console makers to show off their technology.  A nicely rendered car on some nicely rendered road with some glittering buildings behind it is much less likely to trigger the uncanny valley than a rendering of a human.  I think we can all agree that games like Gran Turismo 5 have come closer to real looking car paint than any game has come to real looking human skin.

Throughout the 1990s racing games exploded into several distinct sub-genres:

Arcade style games are the direct descendants of Virtua Racing and Winning Run, which is where the sub-genre derives it’s name.  These days, these games are seldom released in arcades.  Arcade-style racing games are not expected to have realistic handling but instead have handling designed for fun more than thought.  The brake peddle/button in many of these games is a mere formality.  Early on in the 3D racing era companies like Namco and Sega added drift mechanics to their games where you could toss the car around corners at speed rather than braking realistically.  Arcade racers like Daytona USA and Ridge Racer were very popular in the 32-bit era (Playstation, N64, Saturn) but the arrival of mainstream simulation racers drew attention away from these games in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which sadly meant many people overlooked the fantastic Ridge Racer Type 4).  The arrival of Burnout 3: Takedown in 2004 reinvigorated the sub-genre by allowing you to knock other cars off the road rather than just trying to pass them.

Beginning with games like Driver, free-roaming racing games left the predefined track and let the player roam though cities and other environments.  Crazy Taxi (1999) combined the arcade-style with free-roaming forcing the player to memorize routes through a large city in order to pick up and deliver fares.  Test Drive Unlimited (2006) allowed players to drive around the whole island of Oahu.  Burnout Paradise (2008) put the frantic Burnout style of arcade racing into an open city.

Kart racing games (named after Super Mario Kart) tend to have arcade style handling but in most cases have a recognized character like Mario or Sonic sitting in a tiny car.  In Kart racers it’s expected that you can driver over or through symbols/objects on the track to pick up weapons, which you can use to slow down or otherwise befuddle opponents, or drive over speed pads which give you a nitro boost.  In Kart games the strategy of using the weapons is as important or more important than your ability to guide the car.  The Kart racing genre is 90% Mario Kart and 10% everyone else.  If you’ve never played them, I recommend Sega’s two recent kart racing games: Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and it’s sequel Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.

Futuristic racing games are a close cousin to Kart racers because they also allow you to pick up weapons on the track to hurt opponents.  Generally futuristic racing games have more realistic graphics than Kart games and a cyberpunk/dystopian visual atmosphere accompanied by a electronica soundtrack.  Wipeout is the patron saint of futuristic racing games.

Simulation racing games seek to exactly simulate the handling characteristics of a real car.  Games like the Gran Turismo series, F355 Challenge and the famous Grand Prix Legends take great pride in the way they have exactly replicated real tracks and the handling of real cars on those tracks.  There are actually people who have become real drivers after learning in these games.  Gran Turismo popularized the idea that mainstream simulation games should have dozens of realistically rendered sports cars that need to be collected by the player.  In Gran Turismo the incentive to race is to collect cars.  Today Microsoft’s Forza series and Sony’s Gran Turismo are the kings of mainstream simulation racing.

There is another sub-genre that doesn’t really have an established name that is somewhere between the simulation and arcade styles of handling.  I like to call it sim-arcade.  The Dreamcast’s Metropolis Street Racer is an early example of this type of game.  Codemasters’ Grid and Grid 2 are more recent examples.  In sim-arcade racing games you still have to think about your line and braking correctly for the turns but it’s not quite as anal about it as the simulation games.  A lot of people confuse this style for the arcade-style because they assume that any game that is not full-on simulation must be arcade style.  A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t have to use the brake except to trigger a drift, you’re playing an arcade style racing game.  If you have to actually brake for a turn and you’re not playing a sim, it’s probably this sim-arcade style.  There can be a arrogance among simulation players that more realistic games are better but I tend to really enjoy the sim-arcade style.

Descending from 1995’s Sega Rally Championship rally racing games are intended to replicate rally driving on off-road surfaces.  The actual sport of rally racing takes place as a series of time trials cars drive individually but some of these games allow players to drive against other cars as well.  The Sega Rally games take a more arcade approach to handling while Codemasters’ Colin McRae Rally and Dirt games take a more balanced approach somewhere between sim and arcade.  Today Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown basically own this genre.

I wish I could say that the current state of the racing game genre is as rich and vibrant as it was in the past.  There is a crunch going on in the videogame industry where game budgets are increasing faster than sales and the large videogame publishers increasingly feel they can’t take risks about what their customers will buy.  I suspect that racing games have become labeled risky niche products while military-style first person shooters like Call of Duty and third person action games like Assassin’s Creed are commanding big budget development dollars.

In 2010 when Disney and Activision put out  well-advertised arcade-style racing games (Split/Second and Blur, respectively) sales were abysmal and the excellent studios behind those games (Black Rock and Bizarre Creations, respectively) were closed.  The fact that both games looked superficially similar, which confused potential customers and the fact that both games were released in the same week up against  the blockbuster hit Red Dead Redemption does not seem to have entered any executives minds as to why sales were poor.  A chill seemed to descend upon the arcade racing subgenre after that with only Electronic Arts carrying the torch after that with their Need for Speed games.

The videogame playing public, it seems, are sick of just going around in circles and developers can’t seem to figure out what to do next.

Lately developers have been keen to invent shockingly dumb and bizarre plots to justify racing games:

  • In Split/Second the game is supposed to be some massive reality TV show where the producers have conveniently rigged and entire abandoned city to explode while daredevils race through it in order to provide interesting television.
  • In Driver: San Francisco the main character is actually having a coma dream where he believes he can jump into the consciousnesses of drivers in San Francisco and complete tasks in their cars.  I wish I was making this up.

Racing games, like puzzle games, are probably better off without plots.

Still, I think racing games need a kick in the pants in order to stay a relevant mainstream genre.

In other genres, like side-scrolling shooters and platformers the influence of indie developers are helping those genres find the souls they had lost under the weight of big budget design by committee.  I’m hoping something similar happens with racing games.  I am extremely enthusiastic about the 90s Arcade Racer game on Kickstarter that is a love letter to the arcade racing games that Sega made in the late 1990s (Super GT/SCUD Race and Daytona USA 2) that they were too stubborn to release on consoles.

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