Racing Games – Why the 2000s Was the Best Decade for Them

    Do you ever find yourself playing a modern racing game such as Forza Horizon 5 and enjoying yourself, but feeling as if the game could be improved with a cheesy storyline similar to Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the original)? You’re not alone. Racing games have come a long way, yet I feel as if something has been lost in the process. Vehicle physics has been refined and visuals are often beautiful, but some sort of magic is missing. Why is that? By looking at the aughts, we’ll find that answer.

    Arcade vs. Simulation Racing Games

    What is the difference between an arcade and a simulation racing game? It’s a bit more complicated than some may think. The fact of the matter is that arcade and simulation are two ends of a spectrum, instead of being categories you can easily group racing games into. For example, if Assetto Corsa Competizione is far on the simulation end of the spectrum, then something like Ridge Racer would be far on the arcade end of the spectrum. A game like Project Gotham Racing would be somewhere in between those two other games.

    I believe that a good chunk of the spectrum has been missing in recent years. There may be the odd Need for Speed release here and there, but the arcade side of the spectrum seems lacking. There seems to be a huge gap between Forza Horizon and Mario Kart that just doesn’t get as much attention these days. I love sim racers, don’t get me wrong. However, when Forza Horizon 5 is considered the current big arcade racing game, I can’t help but feel that arcade racers aren’t exactly what they used to be.

    Looking back at the 2000s, there was more selection across the arcade-to-simulation spectrum. Whether you wanted a hardcore simulation, a vague resemblance of how a real car handles, or a completely unrealistic racing title, there was a respectable game out there for you. Need for Speed took a more simcade approach (with more emphasis on the arcade end of the spectrum) while Midnight Club went for a far more wild and chaotic approach. Both were street racing series, but they felt extremely distinct from each other. With greater coverage across the spectrum came more variety.

    A Huge Selection of Games to Choose From

    One big reason why a lot of 2000s racing games are so memorable for me is the diversity of titles. Whether you want an accessible sim you can play on a controller or a racing game that doesn’t involve cars at all, you have choices. Just about every motorsports niche had some sort of notable representation in the 2000s. Want a hardcore rally simulator? 2004’s Richard Burns Rally is still considered to be one of the finest examples of one. Want to experience tough battles that are reminiscent of Initial D? Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Drift and its sequel have got you covered.

    The 2000s were also a good decade for racing games with more out-there concepts. Sonic Riders still has some of the most unique mechanics I have encountered in a racing game. The Sonic kart racers Sega would eventually publish are fine, but I wish the sequels to Riders were more successful. Besides Sonic, the F-Zero franchise saw its last home console release in the 2000s. F-Zero GX is considered to be one of the best titles in the franchise, but it would never receive a sequel.

    There’s still some selection to be had these days. is a stellar physics sandbox and the DiRT Rally games can provide a fun rally challenge. However, I still don’t think the last decade holds a candle to the sheer amount of quality racing games you could play in the 2000s. Now, most efforts to do anything different with the genre often provide underwhelming results. Longtime fans are often not satisfied with modern Need for Speed titles. The Crew and its sequel were also subject to plenty of critiques. Hopefully the upcoming Test Drive Unlimited: Solar Crown can change this trend, but I won’t get my hopes up too high.

    The Lost Art of the Career Mode

    Gran Turismo 4 Career Mode

    Remember when single-player campaigns in racing games were a bit like Pokémon but with cars? The “CaRPG” format of games is still present to this day, but nowhere near as prevalent. Not every game needs this formula, but I wish there was more of it. Being able to jump into a career mode with a satisfying progression system is something I value. I often find myself playing older racing games because of this.

    During the 2000s, it was very common for your average racing game to have a career mode with a progression system. Even lesser-known titles could have expansive career modes. Having an RPG-like progression system wasn’t the only way to accomplish this either. Games such as Project Gotham Racing had fun single-player modes that weren’t dependent on grinding currency and upgrading vehicles. You had a lot of different career modes to choose from.

    Nowadays, fun single-player content doesn’t seem to be as high a priority for racing games as it used to. Career modes still exist, but they feel like a shadow of their former selves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking the approach of a game like Forza Horizon 5. There should be racing games out there for people who just want to jump in and play without the grind of unlocking faster vehicles. I just think it’s a shame that the options for fun career modes are limited these days.

    Stylistic Identity

    Racing Games

    Many recent racing games are directed toward car culture enthusiasts. However, most games these days don’t seem to stylistically differentiate from each other too much. Graphics in modern racing games are top-notch, but the art direction between games often blends in my head. When big racing game releases were more plentiful, developers had to make their games stylized to stand out from the crowd.

    Take Auto Modellista for example. I often still see it discussed on the internet to this day. The reason why isn’t because of its gameplay. Auto Modellista is remembered for its unique cel-shaded visuals that haven’t quite been replicated by any racing game since. The new Need for Speed game incorporates some cel-shading techniques, but not to the same degree as Auto Modellista. I’d argue that the game now represents the desire for more stylized games in the genre.

    Besides Auto Modellista, there are plenty of examples of racing games with distinct styles. Need for Speed: Underground and its sequel were bright and colorful despite taking place at night (and then Most Wanted would basically invert the aesthetic of those games). Gran Turismo 4 possibly had the most classy presentation of any racing game ever made. The Burnout games had an explosive visual style that perfectly matched their chaotic gameplay. The 2000s were full of games that weren’t afraid to show off a bold art direction. I just think racing games could attract bigger audiences if they went back to a more 2000s approach to aesthetics.

    Innovating Racing Games

    Need For Speed Most Wanted

    Innovations for racing games still occur. Visuals, physics, and simulation quality have been continuously improved. However, I believe that there is more to innovating the racing game genre than that. The 2000s was evidence that racing games could appeal to much more than a car culture niche. Some of the most influential racing games ever made come from that decade. Test Drive: Unlimited essentially laid out the blueprint for the Forza Horizon series. The Need for Speed franchise has been trying to escape the shadow of the Underground games and the original Most Wanted to limited success.

    Racing games used to be cool (and they still are), but I don’t think there’s any denying that the audience they attract is more niche now. I believe this doesn’t have to be the case. None of this is to say that racing games are bad now. There are quite a few from recent years that I enjoy. However, I feel as though modern racing games don’t capture the pure excitement of 2000s games. There’s still hope for the genre and there are still titles that I’m looking forward to. With that being said, whether or not the genre can boom again as it did in the aughts is still yet to be seen.

    Itch has a strong passion for PC gaming and retro consoles (especially the Dreamcast). From Melty Blood: Actress Again to Forza Horizon, he will play just about anything that catches his eye. Ever since playing Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit as a young child, he has been in love with the medium of video games and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

    Latest articles

    Related articles