The 80s are well-known for a lot of things. While the Western home console market was crashing, arcades became a huge cultural mecca for teenagers and cabinets were chirping and whirring to the beat of New Wave punk. Genres of games were being pioneered and new ways to make arcade cabinets brought innovation and immersion.
This trend continued into the 90s, until Arcades were supplanted by home consoles and computer gaming in the mid-2000s. When it comes to racing games, their boom started in the 80s and lasted well into the 2000s, so it would be impossible to make a comprehensive list of the top racing games for arcades without splitting it up, so consider this the first installment.
Let’s travel back to the day of synthesizers and giant hair and count down the top 5 80s arcade racing games.
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5) Pole Position 2 (developed by Namco, published by Namco for Japan and Atari, Inc. 1982)
Pole Position 2 is notable for a few reasons on the technical side of things. The sequel to Pole Position was easy to integrate with the original cabinet. By switching out a few chips from a Pole Position cabinet and updating it to the new version, money and manufacturing costs were low and allowed arcades to save money and space, without having to order entirely new cabinet hardware.
The other great thing about the game is that it is just as much fun as the first game in the series, but with improved graphics, different tracks to race on, and even debris-laden explosions. The opening theme was also a new addition to the game. Pole Position would just play on a demo loop, but the newer version added a catchy opening theme to draw players in and engage with the cabinet.
The game itself is elegant in its simplicity. Drive your Formula One racer down the track at breakneck speeds, trying to avoid crashing and making your checkpoints before time runs out, all the while hoping to put your initials up on the high score screen.
4) Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road (developed by Leland Corporation, published by Virgin Games 1989)
Also known as Super Off Road, this arcade classic pits you and up to 2 other human players against an AI-controlled car to battle for first place on indoor dirt race tracks. This is not a simple get first place and win type of thing either. Depending on where you place during a race, you will earn points and cash. Whoever ends up with the most points ultimately wins, while the cash is used to buy upgrades for your car, so you can gain an advantage over your rivals.
This cabinet also had an upgrade in 1989. By adding another board to the chipset, it could have an additional 8 tracks to race on, as well as the option to choose between the classic truck and dune buggy. The overhead isometric view of the track and the ability to play with multiple people at the same time made this particular arcade game stand out, and it is, of course, a blast to play. The only thing more fun than trouncing a bot in a race is schooling a stranger or a friend.
3) Outrun (developed and published by Sega 1986)
When you think of 80s racing games, you are bound to think of Outrun. It was one of Sega’s best-selling arcade cabinets and also one of the most visually iconic. The graphics technology was built just for the game as well, offering cutting edge sprite scaling and faux 3d track movement. The track actually simulates going over hills, down into dips and around blind corners, obscuring the player’s view of traffic and adding a level of challenge that was not seen before the advent of Outrun.
It also boasts a selectable soundtrack – another first – with three different themes to jam to while pelting around corners in your convertible. The cabinets themselves came in four variants. Two were standup cabinets, one with force feedback in the steering wheel to add to the immersion of the game. The other models were sit-down style cabinets, offering a bucket seat with speakers built into the back, to give you the experience of driving down scenic vistas.
The crowning achievement in all this is not just being a fun, choose-your-own-adventure-style racing game, it is the fact that the whole game was developed in just ten months with a team of 11 people.
2) Buggy Boy (developed by Tatsumi, published by Tatsumi for Japan, Data East for North America and Taito rest of the world 1985)
Buggy Boy is a third-person, chase camera style arcade racer similar to Outrun in many respects, but what makes it stand out is that it is a stunt-based racing game. In addition to trying to get the fastest time possible, you must avoid obstacles and drive through gates or collect flags to boost your score. There are also logs and tree stumps to vault over. Getting airborne and getting your buggy up on two wheels also racks up your score as well.
This is a racer that rewards players for taking risks and channeling your inner Evel Knievel. The cartoonish sprite style and vibrant colors are a joy to behold, and if you are lucky, you can find the original cabinet with the triple monitor display, giving you a panoramic view of the course you are driving down.
The 80s were a great time to be a racing game fan. There are a plethora of choices when it comes to fun cabinets, and as such, it was difficult to pick only five to put on a list. There will be recognition for the racer who came in sixth. While they might not have grabbed the checkered flag, they are still worthy of recognition.
Hard Drivin’ (developed by Tengen, Domark and Sterling Silver, published by Namco for Japan and Atari Games for North America 1989)
Hard Drivin’ was one of two polygonal racers to be produced in the 80s. The cabinet offered force feedback in the steering wheel, and unlike racing games at the time, also sported a clutch and stick shift. The norm at the time was a low and a high gear setting to simplify gameplay, but Hard Drivin’ went all out with its recreation of driving.
The game also featured its own physics engine and a cockpit view, with gauges and mirrors. It is far from a dry simulator though. The main gameplay loop centers around, well, loops and other stunts to be performed to make it around the track. Should you crash, you will also be treated to a fun replay from an aerial view to really see the carnage from a different angle.
It pushed a lot of boundaries for the time, technologically speaking. It is a pretty rare cabinet, especially since all the bells and whistles made it pretty expensive back then. The money invested really shows in the final product though, and if you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, it is worth a couple of quarters to try it out.
Alright, ready to race to the number 1 on this list? Let’s go!
1) Super Sprint (developed and published by Atari 1986)
At first glance, Super Sprint is a lot like Super Off Road, right down to the three-player cabinet and isometric track view, but the key difference is in the nasty tricks the game has in store for you as you progress. Not only are you vying for first place against your fellow racers, but you are also battling the elements and the track itself.
Tornadoes can spawn and cause you to veer into a wall and explode. Oil slicks will appear to cause you to spin out and lose control of your car, and there are ramps to fall off of, and colliding with a wall at speed will also cause inadvertent immolation. This changes up the game considerably and makes it even more fun to try and snatch victory. It is not all hazards though. The track will also offer you wrenches that you can trade between races to purchase powerups to help mitigate the dangers the game hurls at you.
The multiplayer mode basically makes its replay value extremely high, especially if you play “cooperatively” to leave fourth place to the green car (the AI-controlled one), thus avoiding being kicked out. Talk about live to race another day…
I hope you enjoyed this high-speed dash down memory lane, retro folks. Arcade racers were a staple of the gaming scene for about two decades and with the constant innovation and imagination, the designers put on display, it is easy to see why they were popular.
If you find yourself in an arcade bar, keep an eye out for these cabinets. It is well worth a bucket of quarters to hop into a plastic bucket seat, or gather around a cabinet with friends and try these games out if you have not already. Join me next time for the follow-up to this list, and I will regale you with the cabinets that made an impact on the 90s.
Did I miss any or do you have any arcade racing favorites that I did not include? Then please share your thoughts in the comments below!