For about as long as there have been video games, there have been video games about cars. It’s a natural extension of the technology: We sit in front of a machine to be transported, virtually, behind the wheel of another one. Like fighting games and first-person shooters, driving games put us in command of experiences too dangerous to enjoy for real, liberating us from concerns of safety and responsibility and inviting us, all too gleefully, to push the limits of what can be done. Maybe you drive every day—a commute to work, an errand to the corner store. Driving games take that experience and amplify it, transforming the banality of the car into something extraordinary: an object to steal, to race, to destroy. Games do a lot with a four wheels and an engine. In life your car is bound to the rules of the road. In games it can go anywhere, do anything.
Desert Bus (1995)
The object of Desert Bus, a minigame included in the SegaCD novelty anthology Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, is simply to drive from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in real time, without veering off road. The trip takes eight hours to complete. There are no pit stops, side-missions, enemies, or save points, and the bus subtly pulls to the right, which means you have to pay careful attention to steering. Desert Bus has been called “the worst video game ever created,” and it isn’t difficult to understand why: It’s tedium incarnate. But that’s also the genius of the only driving game to ever authentically simulate the stupefying boredom of being on the road. That’s not merely novel—it’s audacious.
Crazy Taxi (1999)
On the Sega Dreamcast, where it figured too prominently into the burgeoning platform’s lineup, Crazy Taxi seemed a mite insubstantial: a wisp of a game, each session over only minutes after starting, as repetitive as the two unceasing Offspring songs on the soundtrack. This was only a problem of context, as Crazy Taxi was made for the coin-op simplicity of an arcade, where its manic rhythms could be indulged, fleetingly, for a few quarters at a time. It was there, as a standalone machine, that players could sweat out the pressure of each time limit, hurtling down side streets to check off one last fare.
Daytona USA (1993)
For gamers of a certain age, the euphoria felt when slumping down into a Daytona USA machine for the first time was revelatory. Here was a car that could be driven, could be raced, that felt, looked, and sounded like the real thing. 3D was in its infancy, and the virtual Daytona racetracks, gendered in glorious color, seemed no less than a quantum leap. Naturally the game lost something across its years-later ports to the home-console market (the Sega Saturn iteration never stood a chance), but wherever modern racing games approach an illusion of realism, Daytona’s influence vividly remains.
Star Wars Episode I – Racer (1999)
If Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace ever came close to justifying its dismal existence, it was surely here, in Star Wars Episode I - Racer, the only worthwhile video-game adaptation of the film amid a seemingly endless deluge of them. It was probably clear from the outset that the film’s podracing sequence, however ineptly mounted on screen, could be translated quite seamlessly to the world of gaming, but it no doubt surprised even franchise die hards to find that the end result wasn’t only good, but, astonishingly, sort of great. This is driving—of a kind—at its fastest, lightest, and perhaps most exciting.
Micro Machines (1991)
Part of the reason early game developers avoided the top-down perspective for driving titles was that navigation posed an obvious challenge: Without a long-range view of what’s ahead, players were bound to start crashing into objects when they suddenly appeared. But Micro Machines, a budget game by Codemasters, seized upon this fault as its distinguishing feature: Zipping around a veritable obstacle course without any clear idea of what’s more than a few feet ahead transformed ordinary racing into a nerve-wracking exercise in game tension. It was a brilliant modulation on a well-known formula, and it made Micro Machines one of the essential driving games of its generation.