Racing games are just about my favorite genre in the industry. In fact, my earliest memory of playing video games is of sitting in my mom’s office, playing through a few racing titles on an N64 which belonged to one of her colleagues. This was the early 2000s, so the gaming world was pretty accustomed to 3D already. I totally missed the ‘golden era’, but after going back and trying a few classic titles from that period of time, I must say— it’s great that we’ve moved on from those times.
I recently had the chance to review three racing games: The Crew 2, Horizon Chase Turbo, and Slipstream. I’ve been having fun with all of them and gave each a reasonably high score. But, having played them back to back, it was rather jarring.
The Crew 2 is a fully open-world racer, and its key mechanic is the fact that you can not only race on land, but also pilot planes and powerboats. This is a standout feature and is definitely something that would not have been possible a few generations ago. That said, Slipstream and Horizon Chase Turbo couldn’t be more different from The Crew 2. While all three games are classified as arcade racers, they stand on two ends of the spectrum. The Crew 2 shows just how far technology has come, while Slipstream and Horizon Chase Turbo completely embrace the look and feel of racing games of old, from the late 80s/90s. Having now tried both ‘flavours’ simultaneously, it’s made me appreciate that the genre is no longer confined to the severe hardware limitations of early consoles. Really, I have to applaud the developers back then who had to work with those limits, since it seems like they were going against all odds to deliver what was, at the time, considered to be a decent driving experience.
Games back then mostly consisted of either top-down or side-scrolling perspectives. These types of games were typically slow-paced, so this worked well for the hardware, which had limited computing power. Racing games are a whole other beast: The whole point is to simulate a sense of speed. While it could be done from a 2D or top-down perspective, the ideal angle was, of course, straight ahead. After all, that’s how real driving works. The problem was that consoles would need time to advance far enough to support something like that, and when the early, pseudo-3D racing games came onto the scene, the hardware limitations were clear to see.
Titles like the legendary OutRun, from 1986, used a lot of visual trickery to give the illusion of straight-ahead/3D movement. In layman’s terms, a special scrolling effect as used to make 2D sprites appear as if they were moving towards the player, and the vehicles were running along a track. In actuality, this wasn’t really the case. But, it ended up being good enough to entertain racing fans of the day. However, one incredibly noticeable drawback was the limited draw distance, or rather a lack thereof. Objects on the horizon would pop-in almost suddenly, giving you seconds to react. As is the case with any racing game, reflexes are key and being able to anticipate what your next move should be is crucial to success.
Back then, your vehicle was a 2D sprite that ‘slid’ over the surface rather than actually turning — this made achieving proper flow even more difficult. Really, playing Horizon Chase Turbo and Slipstream reminded me of just how hard pulling off this whole process is on a 16-bit system.
The thing about both of those titles is that they’re quite modern in terms of release, but they seek to emulate the racers of the past. They both handle it in slightly different ways, but they definitely accomplished the core goal. Slipstream is a complete recreation of a retro racer, straight down to the pixelated visuals and chiptune soundtrack. Horizon Chase Turbo is actually a fully-3D game, but it still pretends as if it’s running on 16-bit hardware. Thus, the near non-existent draw distance and narrow tracks with repeating trackside objects are still present. I find both games fun, but also rather frustrating due to their archaic mechanics. I get it, that’s the whole point, but it really just made me want to play games like The Crew 2 more.
OutRun is the only truly retro racer that I have real experience with, and that’s thanks to the 3DS port. I actually enjoy playing it from time to time, especially thanks to the killer soundtrack. Sure, the same issues I mentioned before are present (limited draw distance and weird sliding movement) but there’s something about its simple nature that’s still neat to experience, even today. That and the 3DS’ special effect actually does look pretty good in a title like this, one where objects are coming at the screen. Still, I’m beyond glad fully polygonal 3D racing became a thing in the early 90s.
Jumping to 3D was significant for all of gaming, of course, but the difference between it and the pseudo-3D style of games like OutRun was truly night and day. Once the hardware finally made that jump, developers were truly able to simulate a driving experience that looked and felt far more realistic. Even early titles like the original Gran Turismo were able to capture realistic physics and believable mechanics. Without a doubt, if there was any genre that needed 3D to happen, it was racers. Just look at the resurgence of classic game styles thanks to the indie scene. 2D platformers are now plentiful once again, but aside from niche titles like Slipstream and Horizon Chase Turbo, the amount of pseudo-3D racers today is incredibly small.
Still, despite their flaws, early racers were important. They not only showed just how far hardware could be pushed at the time, but they also served as the building blocks for the entire genre. They were the pioneers, introducing players all over to the feeling of driving in a virtual world. As a result, it makes the modern experience we have today a little more special. To see what games like The Crew 2, Forza Horizon 4 and Project CARS 2 came from, it’s incredibly impressive. And thus, I can’t wait to see how the genre continues to grow as time rolls on.