A person is shown playing a racing game on his television at home.

The History of Cars in Video Games (Part Three): The Modern Age

Here we are – the last part of our discussion. If you’re new here, I encourage you to read parts one and two and then return here to get the whole picture. For those returning readers, I’m glad to have you here, and this part of our discussion will bring us to the modern age of cars in video games. If you play racing games on your gaming computer or home console – even your mobile phone, for you mobile gamers out there – you may have likely heard of many of these games that I will be speaking about – some of which are still current franchises. The younger readers in the audience who grew up primarily in the 3D-polygonal era of video games will likely find something they remember here if racing or simulation games are on their list of favorites. Once we reach the current day, I will give you a glimpse into where I think the history of cars in video games is going next. Let’s begin!

3D Arcade Racing Games Are Born (1992-1994)

Early on, developers had learned neat tricks to emulate a 3D playspace, but it was in the 1990s when polygons became the new norm for displaying characters on screen––cars included. Like the decades we spoke of prior, home consoles and their respective racing games were one thing, but the arcade was another. In 1992, Sega released Virtua Racing, directed by Mr. Yu Suzuki and created on Sega’s legendary Model 1 arcade board. Virtua Racing was ahead of the pack for its time, thanks to the Model 1 arcade board.

Virtua Racing’s fully-modeled 3D world ranged from roads to pine trees, bridges, etc. The sense of realism in the game and the sense of placement in the world was palpable, as every race began with a 3D-modeled pit crew putting the tires on your car, and while incredibly simplistic by today’s standards, the game had depth thanks to shadows drawn under the car and each of the four wheels. The tires also created tire tracks on the road, and hitting other vehicles sent sparks flying. Virtua Racing is available in an updated form with a higher framerate, widescreen, and high resolution, which you can purchase on the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Sega’s prolificity reached new heights by producing the successor to Virtua Racing’s arcade machine: the Model 2. The Model 2 cost around $15,000, so arcade owners knew this was not your average arcade game. The Model 2 housed some of my all-time favorite games, including Virtua Fighter and The House of the Dead. Still, this arcade board was first introduced to the world in 1993 with perhaps my all-time favorite 3D arcade racing game: Daytona USA, and began appearing at arcades in the spring of 1994.

Daytona USA is harder to come by in its original form, as the last official release of the game was delisted from the Xbox Live Arcade service in February 2023. Daytona USA was a tremendous leap in graphical fidelity over Virtua Racing, and by today’s standards, it still is a perfectly serviceable arcade title. The game ran twice the frame rate as Virtua Racing, meaning animation and gameplay were fluid to the eye, and response time was imperceptible.

The world of Daytona USA was brimming with life thanks to fantastic texture work, high-polygon counts, a sense of speed, and, according to John Linneman of DigitalFoundry, the game made early use of texture filtering, meaning textures lacked the sharp razor-blade edges in games that preceded it.

Legendary Racing Franchises Hit the Scene (1994 – 2001)

It was in the 1990s when home consoles and computers began seeing racing franchises that you may be familiar with today. For example, Need For Speed first launched on the Panasonic 3DO Interactive Multiplayer––a bust of a home console that cost $700 upon release ($1,469, adjusted for inflation) and sold only about 2 million consoles in its three miserable years on the market. However, as mentioned, Need For Speed was first launched on the 3DO by a still-adolescent Electronic Arts, commonly known as EA. The reasoning behind the partnership was simple: Electronic Arts supported 3DO with good faith, as one Mr. Trip Hawkins founded both companies.

Games That Had a Lasting Impact (Or Didn’t)

The first game in the franchise was The Need For Speed. While initially launching on the 3DO around the holiday season in 1994, it would reach home computers, the Sega Saturn, and the Sony PlayStation in the following years, featuring better performance and slight changes to the overall presentation.

Overseas a short year prior, Namco would release Ridge Racer to the world, quickly becoming one of the most beloved arcade racing games ever. Ridge Racer is fun, fast-paced, and strongly emphasizes turning corners––usually by drifting. The Ridge Racer franchise spawned an incredible amount of games, but as of 2023, the franchise is nothing but dormant. Ridge Racer launched on the Sony PlayStation a year before Need for Speed, but they ultimately appealed to two different crowds.

For all the Ridge Racer and Need for Speed people were playing, something was brewing around the corner, published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Many racing game fans already know what game I’m talking about, but to those who don’t, the title is Gran Turismo.

Gran Turismo blew the doors open for an accurate racing simulation on the original PlayStation, and it became a household name, not only for PlayStation fans but for racing game fans everywhere, from the Far East to America and beyond. Gran Turismo’s impact is so powerful that there are World Series events where the best players duke it out for supremacy. Toyota, Michelin, Mazda, and several more manufacturers sponsored the 2022 Gran Turismo World Series. Gran Turismo tournaments can win gamers upwards of a quarter of a million dollars, which is no joke. This prospect inspired the Gran Turismo movie based on a true story, which was announced in May 2023 and is set to release in August 2023.

Many of you may be Xbox gamers, and some know the original Xbox launched in late 2001. Alongside the original Xbox were several games launched on November 15, 2001, including the world-renowned franchise Halo and Microsoft’s in-house racing game, Project Gotham Racing. I played quite a bit of this game when it launched, and I have memories of my family taking turns racing a yellow Chevy Camaro SS, trying to place the best lap time on the tracks. Project Gotham Racing and Gran Turismo would spawn numerous sequels, but for the former, the last game released was Project Gotham Racing 4 in 2007, once the juggernaut that is Forza Motorsport released in 2005 and proved to be the next step for Microsoft. This discussion leads us into the HD era.

3D Racing Games Reach New Heights (2007- 2013)

The Xbox 360 launched in November 2005 as the successor to the original Xbox. The PlayStation 2 is still the best-selling console of all time, but the Xbox 360’s largest rival, the PlayStation 3, launched in November 2006. These consoles brought high-definition racing games to the home, and if you had the right tech, it was unlike anything at the time. Microsoft would continue to produce Forza games once Project Gotham Racing was discontinued, including Forza Motorsport 2, 3, 4, and 5 between 2007 and 2013.

2007 through 2013 saw numerous racing games, and it is impossible to cover them all. Still, some of the most prolific ones from my memory include Sony’s MotorStorm, Burnout Paradise, Blur, and many others. Burnout Paradise is especially popular, as its soundtrack includes Killswitch Engage, Guns n’ Roses, Avril Lavigne, and much more.

I’m quite a fan of Forza, and while I poured countless hours into Forza Motorsport 7 (released in 2017), my favorite racing game of all time is the Forza Horizon series, first released on the Xbox 360 in 2012. There isn’t a Gran Turismo game like it. Forza Horizon lets you drive hundreds of licensed cars in an open-world environment where driving at high speeds and causing destruction can rack up your points. And, it’s an open world brimming with life with real people playing on their consoles that you can choose to race or cruise with. Each game features a different locale to explore: Forza Horizon 3 took place in Australia, Forza Horizon 4 in Great Britain, and the latest one, Forza Horizon 5, is set in a gorgeously realized recreation of Mexico.

Gran Turismo’s release schedule was a bit more time, sometimes to a fault. Gran Turismo 7 launched nine years after Gran Turismo 6, and Gran Turismo 5 launched six years after Gran Turismo 4. Regardless, the games are always some of the most visually appealing with an unforgettable gameplay style, so hardcore racing fans often believe the waits are worth it. The realism behind Gran Turismo is what keeps simulation enthusiasts coming back, but some feel the lack of damage on the car model keeps it from being a truly immersive simulation. I do feel these sentiments, but it’s not a game-breaker to me.

We’ve Reached Our Destination (2013-2023)

Modern-day racing games are what they are today with the games that came before them. Nowadays, we have the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X|S. Racing games will always push the limits of technological boundaries. Unsurprisingly, the most popular racing games are Forza MotorSport, Forza Horizon, and Gran Turismo. As we have discussed, these games have quite a legacy.

Other franchises have also come, and some have gone, in the time since––games like The Crew and Project Cars. Graphics are in an entirely different league now. Thanks to photorealism and the advent of real-time ray tracing, game worlds can now realistically reflect shiny materials on an automobile and puddles on the ground, creating realistic shadows unlike ever before. It is no longer hard to imagine yourself behind the wheel of a simulated car, but how far can we go?

The Future of Racing Games

Let’s wrap up our discussion today on simulations and the implementation of Virtual Reality in video games. When I was younger, I had a force feedback racing wheel for my Windows PC. This wheel would cause realistic resistance when turning, and the two pedals on the ground allowed me to stop and go. In these early days, my favorite type of driving simulation was truck driving simulators. These not only gave me a better understanding of real-world road laws at a young age and spawned hours of entertainment, but it was fun and safe for a younger person like myself to do.

I would later purchase a more intricate racing wheel for my gaming computer, complete with a 900-degree turning radius and a two-speed shifter. H-shifters, E-brakes, and more peripherals inspired by their real-world counterparts are readily available nowadays. Many gamers – console players included – can purchase feature-packed racing wheels for many of their favorite games, and these wheels work wonders in all types of simulations – Nascar, F1, and even truck simulators, which I find myself playing American Truck Simulator on Steam on a rainy Sunday with my favorite music playing sometimes.

Today, you can get Virtual Reality headsets that lend depth thanks to stereoscopic 3D and head-tracking. When combined with these racing wheels I mentioned, it feels like you are stepping into another world, or you could sit down and pretend you are in a virtual cockpit driving a race car. There are many virtual reality racing games now, and combined with a racing wheel peripheral; it is becoming the go-to method for playing racing games for casual gamers, professional esports gamers, and live-streamers alike. Many of us have not had this much fun with a racing game since the early arcade days––all it took was that rekindling of imagination and a fresh set of peripherals, which I knew I’d experience again someday. Video games are the best way to achieve it. There is an argument to be made that peripherals take up quite a bit of closet space when not in use, but if you enjoy these gaming experiences enough, it is something you learn to put up with.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There will never be another time when there are no cars in video games, so seeing where things go next will be fascinating. Triple A engine developers like those at Epic Games who work on the Unreal Engine recently showed off their new reflective material capabilities and other graphical enhancements for the recently released Unreal Engine 5. The demo showed a highly-detailed Rivian vehicle driving through a woodsy trail. The future is bright, and now that you know how far back this medium goes, you can keep an eye out for all of the exciting advancements that will come in the following years.

Can you imagine a time when we rent out virtual cockpits that control real-world race cars the same way you control a drone? It might be tricky, and who knows what will happen when you crash it. But I’m convinced that anything is possible thanks to inventions like virtual reality. If you have gotten this far and are not one to play video games but enjoy all things automotive, then you should try a racing or simulation game! It might change your mind. And if you enjoy all things automotive, your friends at AutoInfluence are here for you! I hope you learned something about one of the most exciting forms of media and entertainment invented – it is something near and dear to my heart, and conducting this research was equally as enjoyable.