Picture the scene: it’s early December 1995. You’ve just watched a ruddy cheeked Scotsman called Colin McRae lift rallying’s highest prize, becoming the only Brit to have done so in the history of the WRC, fending off the likes of Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol in the process. The desire to emulate the success of your hero is palpable, but being a good decade off the legal driving age means there’s only one way to live out your stage-smashing fantasies, and it involves clutching a roll of 50 pence pieces in your sweaty palm, plus a walk to the local arcade.
The game in question? Why, SEGA Rally of course. To those of us of a certain vintage, SEGA Rally will forever be associated with trips to the arcade, local leisure centre, or in my own case, a not particularly salubrious pub, one I’d harangue my father to go for a pint in specifically so I could live out my gravel-chucking dreams.
Not that SEGA Rally was a particularly faithful recreation of the sport of rallying, something I was acutely aware of at the time and needed little encouragement to spout. All cars competing against one another on a circuit? A long-in-the-tooth Delta Integrale being a match for a then new (and illegally boosted) Celica GT-4? I don’t think so!
Still, the choice of cars was at least interesting and probably said more about your taste in rally machinery than anything else, though I never hesitated to pick the Celica…unless I’d managed to unlock the Stratos, naturally.
It didn’t take long before SEGA Rally was joined by a host of other, nearly as brilliant racing games, many of which were either designed for, or subsequently found their way onto, the console market. This is neither the time nor the place to go into detail discussing them all, but the suggestions below seem to fit with the whole Retropower ethos – interesting, left field cars, basically.
Gran Turismo 1 & 2
It’s hard to overstate just how much of an impact GT series had on the home racing game market when it burst onto the scene in 1997. Not only were the graphics impressive, the car list was vast, particularly the second iteration. It was also one of the first games to pioneer the concept of earning money in order to purchase cars and thereby advance…just don’t mention those sodding licence tests.
TOCA Touring Cars 1 & 2
Further evidence that motorsport was at something of a peak in the mid to late ‘90s can be found in the BTCC of the period, with the Super Touring era sparking an influx of manufacturers to the grid of what was still a domestic, UK-only championship. So popular was the series that it spawned a pair of dedicated games, TOCA 1 and 2, and both were excellent.
Not only was it possible to blast around Snetterton in a Nissan Primera Super Tourer, you could do so with Tiff Needell’s commentary blaring in your ear. It was also tough – few games before or since have done as good a job of depicted the thrill of jostling in the mid-pack of a race grid, and woe betide you if you put so much as a wheel on the slippy grass!
Something of an underappreciated gem but a game that was dangerously addictive – as anyone who’s had to beg for extra change for one last go will doubtless attest! The concept was simple as it was enjoyable; pick one of five different cars (a Mini, Renault 5 Alpine, an Autobianchi, Mk1 Golf GTI…and a Bugatti EB110), then tear around a track looking not unlike a scruffier, hillier version of the Monaco F1 circuit. Best of all, GTI Club boasted such novel additions as open-world play, hidden shortcuts, and was an early pioneer of the arcade game handbrake, something you were encouraged to make full use of at any and all occasions.
You could argue, and argue quite convincingly, that no arcade game has been as much fun as Daytona USA multiplayer. There was little more satisfying than careening headlong into your best mate’s pixelated NASCAR before watching them spear off into the infield, ideally taking a multitude of other cars with them. It wasn’t the most nuanced of games even for a mid ’90s arcade racer, but that didn’t matter then and it certainly doesn’t now; you owe it to yourself to give Daytona USA another bash the next time you get a chance.
Colin McRae Rally 1 & 2
SEGA Rally opened the floodgates and proved to game developers that people would happily buy and play a game centred on the muddy, sometimes confusing sport of rallying, but it was left to the Colin McRae franchise to take things to the next level.
The passage of time has served to dilute the impact that CMR games had when launched two and a bit decades ago, but back in 1997 there were nothing short of mind-blowing. The stages were challenging, the damage realistic (well, as realistic as your PS1 or PC at the time could muster), and the car selection impressive. Plus you had Nicky Grist calling the pacenotes, his dulcet Welsh tones invariably making your massive ‘offs’ and over-ambitious ‘cuts’ that bit more bearable.
If you remember this, then we have bad news for you – you’re getting on a bit! Outrun hit arcades back in 1986, and while it had all the realism of a flame retardant ice cube it looked amazing, so much so that you could even make out the outline of the blonde passenger in your Ferrari Testarossa drop-top. (A car which never officially existed) Other innovative features included 3D graphics – of a sort, the ability to pick from a selection of ’80s tastic soundtracks, and even a moving cabinet. Heady, life-affirming stuff!
Forza Horizon 4
It isn’t realistic in any way shape or form nor does it pretend to be, but if you’d have told 10 year old me that I would one day be able to race a digitally rendered Escort Cosworth across Pendine Sands in Wales, I’d have laughed in your face. The very fact that the Forza Horizon series exists tells you all you need to know about the popularity of open world race games, while the fact that the latest edition is set in ‘Blighty’ is merely the icing on the high octane cake. Plus the rain graphics are sensational, an important point for any UK-based offering.
DiRT Rally 1 & 2
No game, at least no console game, has done a better job of recreating the wafer thin line between hero and zero than DiRT Rally. Doubtless there have been more realistic offerings – Richard Burns Rally, we’re looking at you, but seldom has hustling a Group 4 Lancia Stratos through a rutted Welsh special stage been as rewarding. You’ll have to get to grips with the game first though, which will invariably involve you scattering choice parts of said car across most of the aforementioned Welsh forest!
Need For Speed Underground 2
The polar opposite of DiRT Rally above and Project CARS below, Need For Speed Underground 2 (NFSU2) was nevertheless compulsory playing, certainly if you ‘came of age’ in gaming terms at the start of the noughties. Focussed on tuner culture the game allowed you to modify dozens of popular models, from prosaic first gen Focuses to far more exotic, now rarified cars like the Supra and R34 GTR. It also had an iconic soundtrack featuring everything from The Doors to Skindred, so there’s that…
It was either this or Assetto Corsa, both are genre defining sim racers with rabidly passionate followings. There are few better games if your never happier than when delving into the minutiae of racing, so tweaking boost levels, adjusting tyre pressures and fussing over bump and rebound setups. Not only is it possible to do all of this (and much, much more) in Project CARS, it’s pretty much essential if you want to progress or transform a ‘snatchy,’ un-drivable mess of a car into something you might actually enjoy hammering around a circuit.