The underlying psychology behind sport is easy to understand and contrary to what some will have you believe, there’s not any hidden meanings. It’s about winning; simple as. Whether you miss out on first by a millisecond or you’re come dead last, you’ve ended up with exactly the same result – you’ve lost. Human nature drives us to be the best of the best, and while the saying 'it's the taking part that counts,' means something as a child, it’s not long before the mantra loses its effect.
If we move to video games, we can see how the same concept is a cornerstone of the medium. Even if it’s not competitive multiplayer, you're still trying to 'win' the game. Very few titles have you playing for enjoyment’s sake; instead they present a mission and reward you accordingly.
What you’re doing is essentially competing against yourself. It’s the same concept found in sport. Where it gets interesting is when your objective’s blocked. When you face adversity preventing, the feeling of satisfaction upon completion is multiplied. These barriers could be anything; skilled opponents maybe, taxing level design or in this article's case, speed.
We all play racing titles for the same reason; to experience the virtual thrill of speed. It's about the power of an accelerating engine and a blurring of reality as you go faster and faster.
But like anything in life, too much of a good thing can end in tragedy. Thankfully in its digital form, the consequence is a quick respawn or a level restart. There aren’t really any repercussions for sending your supercar into a wall, bar the Game Over screen.
Overcoming these hazards is what motivates us to play speed-based racers. Gran Turismo and Forza may be great racing titles, but they're not what this article is concerned with. Sure they're fast, but we're looking at games that place speed, and surviving the obstacles that come with it, as their main selling points. It’s the games that require lighting fast reactions and full concentration.
Please bear in mind, this list is in no particular order and for fairness’ sake, we’re only allowing one game from each franchise.
Burnout 2: Point of Impact (PS2, Xbox & Gamecube – 2002)
Are you really surprised? Was there really anywhere else to begin? It’s the most well known and expected entry in our list. The hardest part about Burnout’s inclusion is choosing a definitive game from such an iconic series. Should we look at the innovative open-world Paradise or do we start with the dawn and its PS2 debut?
Neither. We choose the fans favourite; Burnout 2: Point of Impact. Later games might have increased the traffic density (and definitely the visceral destruction), but they quickly begun to forget why people loved the series. By introducing the ability to shunt traffic in your favour, it removed the sensation of being constantly on edge. Dropping your guard for even a second would result in catastrophic results.
However when you got it right, it did the opposite. It made you feel like a gaming god. Weaving in-between traffic with ominous headlights heading towards you was utterly exhilarating and with a classic soundtrack heightening the tension, it was reaction-testing perfection.
Throw in the fact that a friend could split screen, essentially doubling up the danger, and it’s not hard to see why Point of Impact is considered the genesis of street racing. Still to this day it’s near untouchable.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii & PC – 2010)
The above leads us nicely onto Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. When the Burnout boys announced they were jumping on EA’s ailing franchise, many doubters worried that the publisher was forcing the decision. EA’s history as a protector of purchased studios is hardly a strong one.
But as the months passed it became apparent that this wasn't a career break to milk the NFS cashcow. It was obvious that it was a genuine project of love – a mere career extension for Criterion. If we look back, we can see that the studio actually did the unthinkable and made the series a credible, loved franchise again.
They might have removed Burnout’s traffic, but you can see the heavy influence the series had on Hot Pursuit. It certainly wasn’t a clone with an alternative name, but rather a return to what the UK-based developers do best: long linear tracks full of drifting and shortcuts.
Where the reactions argument comes in is with the sneaky overtaking the alternative routes offer. Your eyes must be wide open, ready to deviate when the opportunity arises. This is made all the harder by the incessant police who have a habit of chasing you relentlessly.
Throw in some needle-eye-squeezing through tiny roadblock gaps and you’ve got a real reaction test. One that needs balls.
And the hardest part? Burning Laps. They’re practically constant boost-fests where a single crash yields a restart. Hot Pursuit may seem like an accommodating reboot, but in reality it’s as hardcore as they come.
Split Second: Velocity (Xbox 360, PS3 & PC – 2010)
Keeping up the trend of current-gen console racers is Black Rock Studio’s tongue-in-cheek racer. The requirement for split-second timing is not more evident on this list than here. It’s the ultimate test of nerve and attention span. While the above games give you momentary respite, Split Second is tough. There’s no chance to even take a breath.
Where the game succeeds is with its destructible triggered environments. At a drop of a hat things can explode, fly at you and generally test your metal. It’s all the more sinister because controlling the insta-destruction are other players.
Really though it’s the online multiplayer where the action can be found. With humans controlling the set pieces (which range from, boats careering into towns, explosive barrels dropping from hovering helicopters, to the most spectacular, planes emergency landing on your bonnet), it’s a never-ending assault on the senses.
Given the fact that the whole layout of the raceway can change, it’s even more taxing. These Uber-changes occur when players save up their powerups and unleash them on those leading the pack. The game’s never the same twice and it strongly earns its place here.
Trackmania United (PC – 2006)
Never has the Enter key been so used in a game. Trackmania is all about getting the perfect run. Exclusively online, (or at least that’s where the fun is), it’s about throwing a variety of differently handling cars around super-creation tracks. There’s nothing else like it in the gaming world and as a result, it has a strong, devout following.
Trackmania’s key selling point is its powerful track creation tool that it ships with. Its thriving community embraced it and as a result, ensures the game is still going strong long after its original 2006 release. The amount of content that’s churned out is impressive and the quality on show is humbling. No-one’s getting paid; they’re simply doing it for the love of the game.
However this does mean that track creators are free to enforce their sadistic tendencies for the perfect-lap-time on others. Trackmania has to be played to understand its appeal. It’s both ridiculously fun and frustrating at the same time.
You undertake what is essentially a balancing act round a car’s playground. Loop-the-loops, 90 degree inclines, flips and jumps – it’s all there. Merely nudge the wall and your lap time is defunct. You won’t even come close to the top 10. People spend days learning the tracks because they’re that complicated. You need to be on form, every single lap.
Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament (Sega Mega Drive, SNES & PC – 1994/96)
It’s obvious to see where Trackmania gets its inspiration from. It’s a hark back to the days of 16 bit gaming. While the above is engrained in semi-real situations (cars on a track), Micro Machines went a step further.
It transported players off a racetrack and into everyday life. This meant you slide around pool tables, use rulers as bridges, jump across breakfast rooms, and dodge ponds. Its twitchy controls meant you had to nurse the cars around the tracks as opposed to flat out speed.
This is made difficult by the overhead view. Unless you knew the tracks, you never really had a clue what was coming. As a result, when a turn did come up (rolling off the edge generally resulted in lost life, in head-to-head mode), you needed knee-jerk speed to make it round.
With obstacles in the way, a track edge that saw you explode and the fact that the aim in head-to-head was to get in front enough to make your opponent explode, (and thus lose one of their five lives), it was a tricky affair. No game has really come close to matching Micro Machines 2 for its frantic, panic cornering and tricky control methods.
Colin McRae DiRT (Xbox 360 & PS3 – 2007)
Watch Out! Rock! Watch Out! Tree! Restart. Before the series took an adrenaline shot, Colin McRae was about rallying. Rushing along dusty tracks, relying on your co-driver, power sliding off slopes – it all seems a bit dull compared to the Ken Block in-your-face sequels.
However prior to its shift, it was much more punishing. There’s no rewinding time if you career off a cliff – this meant you had to be right on the money with your cornering and throttle. This is the gentleman’s reaction racer. While the other titles on this list place themselves in the land of what-if, DiRT was grounded in reality.
When it eventually introduced its quick-fix Flashback system it lost a lot of what made it great. Anyone who played the original will remember the speed of Pines Peak. Whether it was a sweeping forest wind-a-thon or a tight, narrow English village track, DiRT had you sweating through every second.
Wipeout (PS1, Sega Saturn & PC – 1995)
My god was Wipeout insane. This was one game where the need for speed should have been its tagline. Offering an alternative setting to many of the games on this list, the original Wipeout was about hovering your way around massive tracks at breakneck speed.
And when you came to those boosts? It wouldn’t have surprised us if you’d actually taken off. With missiles and bombs flying around you, the constant threat of obliteration at enemy hands meant you not only had to control your craft, but at the same time dodge incoming threats from all directions.
It wouldn’t have worked in any other form (a PS2 near-launch title with bikes tried and failed spectacularly). Wipeout is the fastest and the most insane entry. While it lacks the tight corners or shifts in direction that the others have, its speed is enough to warrant inclusion.
It’s still perfectly playable today and a HD remake exists on the usual current generation e-stores.
F-Zero (NES – 1992)
Is this the beginning? Wipeout’s obviously got its granddaddy F-Zero to thank for its futuristic reaction racing. In an era where quickly moving objects meant huge technological power, F-Zero was ahead of its time.
It realised the battle between speed vs. player long before any other game had. While the rest of us were playing Super Mario Kart, the hardcore were breaking the sound barrier with F-Zero. Super Mario Kart is obviously a gaming-elite franchise, but as far as origins go in reactionary racing, Nintendo’s title was the beginning.
Daytona USA (Arcade – 1993)
Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaytona. There’s few arcade sound bites that mean so much to so many people. Time Crisis’ “Action” might strike a chord and Street Fighter certainly has its fans, but the jittery audio of Daytona was enough to pull you over for your precious pounds.
It eventually made it to home consoles, but the real fun was in the racing seat down your local arcade. Once behind the wheel you were plopped at the rear of the pack with a swarm of fellow racers. The main aim? Make it through to first place before the clock ran out.
Only the best would manage it against an AI that desperately jostled and rammed you in an effort to hold onto its position. The constantly ticking of time meant you were always rushed for overtaking and often caused you to take drastic measures.
Much like a scene in James Bond where the time prompts urgency, Daytona had the threat of game over pulling the strings. It certainly wasn’t the most eloquent of racers and it’s certainly not the fastest on the list, but none of the others have the never-ending march of time matching the rush of speed.
Star Wars: Episode I Racer (Nintendo 64, PC & Dreamcast – 1999)
And to conclude? George Lucas might have butchered the Star Wars film franchise with Episode I, but when it comes to games that require your full awareness, few come close to pod racing. Don’t let a young Annie trick you; he’s got the force on his side.
Episode I Racer had you hugging the canyon floor at near-light speed, flying through narrow caves and generally balancing your racer on a knife edge. To The Max was a phrase invented for the game. It might have faded into the memory of gamers, but when it comes to a combination of speed, reaction-requirements and all round fun, Episode Racer hit the nail on the head.
It’s a shame that Lucas Arts Games has decreased in quality over the years – we’re sure that the modern generation could use a decent pod racing game. And we’re not talking Star Wars Kinect.