Retro racing – the origins of racing games

Retro racing – the origins of racing games

A time travel through the biggest milestones in the history of racing games.

Photo credit: Dusterer / RMC Retro

If you want to play some racing games, what do you do? You can conveniently plug in your PlayStation in your living room. All you need is the console and your TV. Or perhaps you prefer the PC and assembled an impressive sim rig, with several monitors, a comfy seat and an assortment of wheels to choose from. Everything is right in your apartment and you can enter the cockpit whenever you want.

Now hop into a DeLorean and turn back time by around 30-50 years. You might encounter a third option: playing racing games on some peculiar, colorful machines in an arcade hall. Let’s time travel to the year 1974 and explore the origins of racing games – with some of the biggest milestones and the expertise of content creator RetroManCave. Neil alias RetroManCave is a specialist in all things retro, old computers, consoles and tech history. He also published a video on one of the most interesting gems among retro racing systems, which is also featured in this overview. So let the time travel begin!

1974: Gran Trak 10 (the first racing game)

On July 24 in 1974, the first step in racing game history was made: Atari released the arcade Gran Trak 10. Racing was one of the earliest genres in the pixelated world of video games in general and Gran Trak 10 immediately tried to convey a realistic experience. The arcade machine featured a steering wheel, pedals and a gear shift to control the little cluster of pixles. This white shape that is seen in the video was the car and the player had to navigate it through a circuit of white dots before the time ran out. Gran Trak 10 was also the first game to ever use ROM memory.

1976: Atari Night Driver (first first-person perspective)

The concept of Night Driver is simple: your car’s headlights illuminate the posts on both sides of the road. The goal is to stay on the road as long as possible. What made the game so special over forty years ago was its viewing angle. Night Driver is considered to herald the first-person perspective in racing games.

However, technical limitations forced the developer to use a nifty trick to achieve the novelty: the car was added as plastic cut-out to the arcade machine under its screen and was not part of the digital track.

1976: Moto-Cross / Fonz (first motorbike game)

Cars are not the only popular vehicles to go full-speed with. Motorbikes have always been a major part of the motorsports scene and therefore, the first two-wheelers dashed across the screen of video games. Sega developed the first title to feature motorbikes which was called Moto-Cross. In the US, the game got rebranded as Fonz, referring to Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli from the sitcom Happy Days. The nameless driver was simply redesigned to represent Fonz and the arcade got a new paintjob et voilà, TV-fans could race as their favorite character.

Moto-Cross came with a fresh three-dimensional third-person perspective, as well as the first haptic feedback in racing games. The player controlled the driver with handlebars on the machine similar to a real bike. By turning the handlebars, the bike would corner and by twisting them, the bike would accelerate. The bars vibrated when crashing into an opponent.

1980: Rally-X Namco (first continuous, melodic background music)

Although Namco’s Rally-X from 1980 did not revolutionize racing mechanics, it definitely improved video games in general. It was the first video game with continuous, melodic background music.

By todays’ standard, the track might sound a bit monotonous. But back then, it opened the doors for many great tunes to follow. The top down Rally-X also included a radar that showed the vehicle’s position.

1981: Sega Turbo (first third-person perspective)

Sega took a big leap in 1981 as they brought the first racing game to the market that heralded the third-person perspective. In Turbo, players saw the entire car from behind. This point of view quickly became the standard.

The cabinet also came with a steering wheel, a gearshift, and an accelerator pedal for maximum realism. While the vehicles visually resemble Formula 1 cars, Turbo was neither licensed nor intended to be a simulation. The goal of the game was to race against a multitude of cars and stay ahead of at least 30 of them before a timer would expire. Cars had several lives that got deducted once they hit an ambulance, for example.

1982: Pole Position (first game that was based on a real circuit)

Pole Position achieved one of the biggest milestones in the history of racing games: it was based on a real racing circuit (Fuji Speedway in Japan) and was the first to feature a qualifying lap. There, drivers of a Formula 1 car had to complete a time trial before advancing to the actual Grand Prix. On top of that, Pole Position improved the third person perspective.

The game was not only technically advanced, it also enchanted the players as it gave a realistic feeling of speed and handling. It set many milestones and firsts in the history of racing games and many games followed in its footsteps. Modern day titles still follow Pole Position‘s basic recipe when it comes to the general game design.

1984: REVS (first racing game you could play at home)

Gaming in arcade halls might be an adventurous pastime, but sometimes, you just don’t want to leave the house and still play some games. Geoff Crammond released the first version of a home-racing-simulator in 1984: REVS is an unofficial simulation of the British Formula 3 season.

The simulator was developed for the BBC Micro, the British Broadcasting Corporation Microcomputer System. The device was a microcomputer that was sold over 1.5 million times. Originally, the BBC Micro was built for educational purposes and many schools were equipped with the computer. Perhaps some clever students were able to sneak the game into their class room and go for a virtual spin. Expert RetroManCave adds:

REVS’ use of an analogue joystick set itself apart from the home arcade racers. Driving aids help you ease into the game, and if you try Geoff Crammond’s later F1GP series you can immediately recognize its heritage having played REVS.

1985: Hang-On (first game that was controlled with motion)

Sega once again captured another milestone with their arcade title Hang-On. The cabinet came with a motorbike which players had to sit on. By using force feedback, the in-game vehicle was controlled with your own body movements on the bike. This was a first in the history of racing games, one of the earliest approaches of motion control and full-body gaming experience. With that, Hang-On was celebrated as the first realistic motorbike simulation.

If you didn’t have the chance to test out the game in arcade halls back in the 80s, there is still a chance that you might have seen Hang-On somewhere else. Yu Suzuki was one of the designers of the title and later went on to create the famous series Shenmue. In the first and second editions of Shenmue, Hang-On was included as a mini-game.

1987: Final Lap (first simultaneous multiplayer)

Racing alone might be fun, but racing with friends and completely demolishing them because you already practiced the game for weeks is better. Final Lap by Namco offered a multiplayer-mode for up to eight players at once. Of course the drivers couldn’t challenge each other via the internet, but there could be up to four two-player arcade cabinets linked together.

As Final Lap is a direct successor to Pole Position, players have to race on the Suzuka Circuit in a licensed Formula 1 circuit as well. Even if you don’t have as many as eight friends to race with, it still offered a great experience as the cabinet came with a seat. The graphics back then were a treat as well, as the driver’s car looked extremely realistic for the time.

1989: Indianapolis 500: The Simulation (first simulation)

While the titles above all ventured into the realm of arcade racing, Papyrus Design Group took the first step towards a simulation. Indianapolis 500: The Simulation was released in 1989 for MS-DOS, the Microsoft Disk Operating System.

The game showcases the 1989 Indianapolis 500 season, the most prestigious event in the annual IndyCar series. Unlike previous titles, the game also aimed to portray physics, car handling and telemetry. It also included a garage system where the drivers could modify wings, tires or shocks. RetroManCave tested this old gem, and noticed the surprising pace of the game:

Indianapolis 500 moved at a pace I’d not seen before on the Commodore Amiga 500, it flew. Off the track, tweaks to your camber, tire inflation, wing angles and a whole lot more gave this game plenty of depth.

1989: Hard Drivin’

“The world’s first authentic driving simulation game!” Atari made a huge claim in 1989 to promote their arcade Hard Drivin’, but it was not a hollow promise. While the game was not a simulation in terms of representing a specific real-world racing class with licenses and accurate portrayal of real circuits, it was definitely authentic in terms of the feeling of driving a real car, as RetroManCave explains:

Hard Drivin’ introduced a level of simulation not seen before in the arcades with real time 3D visuals, force feedback steering, a manual gearshift and clutch. It also utilized two TMS34010 chips, some of the first programmable graphics processor chips, or what we would now call a GPU.

1989: The unique Sega Video Driver

Arguably one of the most peculiar but also most striking games for racing fans was created by Sega in 1986: the Sega Video Driver which was a portable toy. RetroManCave owns an example in his broad collection and shared some information on the unique machine:

Sega Video Driver (1989) was Sega’s attempt at the ‘interactive VHS movie’ craze in the late ‘80s. The toy included a racing car which sat on a rail in front of your TV and moved from left to right with the steering wheel turns. A sensor on the front of the toy car detected white boxes discretely displayed on the TV under a film of American highways which you ‘drove’ on. Stay away from the white boxes which lined up with the crash barriers and you scored points. In short, it was awful!


About RMC – The Cave:

The name says it all: Neil aka RetroManCave is an expert in tech history, retro computers and consoles, as well as video games. His main platform for content creation is YouTube, where he has gathered over 118,000 subscribers. From small “Tech Nibbles” to “Retro Tea Breaks” with special guests, over to presenting old computers straight to digging up peculiarities like the Sega Video Driver or special Lightguns, RMC has a broad spectrum of videos on offer.

Make sure to follow him on social media:

Our time travel now comes to an end. Is there any other retro racing game that revolutionized the genre and is worth mentioning? Tell us on Twitter at @overtake_gg!