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The Best Car and Racing Arcade Games from the 1980s

If you’re like me, your first driving lessons where at the arcade. (This might explain my auto insurance rates.) I’d have to sit on the edge of the seat to reach the pedals and my little blonde mop barely peaked over the top of the worn rubber steering wheel so I could drive my virtual vehicle into the very first wall I saw. Yeah… I was terrible at arcade racing games as a kid… and don’t even get me started on trying to figure out the ‘manual transmission’ option on some of the arcade racing games. That, coupled with the fact I didn’t believe in using the brake pedal, made for some pretty incredible last place finishes.

I was the worst video game driver out of my friends but I probably had the most fun because I LOVE arcade racing games! Even today when I get a chance to sit down and lose big-time on a classic arcade racing game, I take it!

This got me thinking about the best car and racing arcade games from the 80’s and wanting to relive those terrible (yet fun) competitions from my past. Let’s take a digital drive down megabyte memory lane and relive those great arcade racing games from the 1980s!

Pole Position – Namco - 1982

Formula One? More like Formula FUN! If you never played this sweet arcade race riot then you need to stop reading this, find the nearest arcade with the game and play it- NOW! Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you get back…

HEY! You’re back! Pretty awesome game right? I thought you’d see things my way! (*writer winks and waves you to come join the article again*)

Pole Position was one of the very first arcade racing games and considered to be one of the most influential arcade games ever made! Selling over 21,000 machines it was the highest-grossing game of 1983.

The game came in 2 versions: an upright arcade cabinet and sit-down cabinet with a cockpit. (You know it’s from the 80’s by the first in-game advertisement being for cigarettes!) Players first qualified by completing a time trial lap and then would compete against 7 CPU competitors in a championship race. The game was a challenge because you had to steer-clear of other racers and billboards or you’d end up a ball of flames and not qualify for the championship race, a spot I found myself in more than a few times.

Classic and timeless, Pole Position paved the way for the arcade racing games that followed and follow they did!

Spy Hunter – Bally Midway -1983

The vertically scrolling, James Bond-Inspired racing game featured an overhead view of your G-6155 Interceptor sports car as you dodged and shot enemies in helicopters, cars and boats! An action-packed arcade game, Spy Hunter let players score points by staying alive and destroying enemy vehicles in explosive style.

A weapons van could be periodically called via a blinking button to get 3 special weapons: oil slicks, smoke screens and surface-to-air-missiles to defeat your enemies. The whole time you’d be dodging enemy cars and boats and keeping an eye out for bomb-dropping helicopters and the remaining craters from their bomb barrages. These helicopters where the bane of my arcade existence!

You might remember when you’d take a fork in the road you’d end up in different weather and geography, but still engaging enemies and blowing them to smithereens. It seemed no matter how many enemies you beat or how many forks you took the game never ended and that’s because it didn’t! So no matter how many enemies you obliterated or road forks you navigated the fun never stopped!

A great blend of missile shooting action and aggressive driving skills, Spy Hunter was like watching an action movie with yourself in the starring role!

You’d be hard-pressed to find an original Spy Hunter arcade cabinet these days in decent condition but game manufacturers still produce multicade cabinets with Spy Hunter! Chicago Gaming’s Arcade Legends 3 Arcade game cabinet features Spy Hunter and Spy Hunter II, so you can still enjoy the battle race action!

GP World – Sega - 1984

Speaking of arcade games that were ahead of their time, GP World by Sega was a fusion of video games and the real world race track video footage. I remember the ‘graphics’ blowing my RC-Cola-soaked-mind the first time I saw them. I scratched my mullet and asked “Is that a REAL race track with clunky digitally rendered race cars superimposed upon it?! THAT’S WICKED AWESOME?!”

We can all laugh now, but back then this was newest and coolest technology!

Made possible through the use of a laser disc player (think of the arcade classic Dragon’s Lair), real footage of actual race tracks was recorded and then made into the background for the game. Players controlled the cars and were given the most realistic arcade racing experience they could find up to that point. Although the game play wasn’t as good as Pole Position the realism of the game gave it some staying power and it was also the first of its kind, so it can definitely be called a pioneering arcade racing game.

It’s easy to see the influence that GP World has had on arcade racing games with the fact that the format of the game still lives on today in great arcade driving games like Cruis'n Blast Driving Arcade Game.

Out Run – Sega - 1986

If you knew anything about 80’s cool, then you knew about and played the 1986 racing arcade game Out Run.

The game was the pinnacle of 80’s-style cool! Sports cars, palm trees, a sunglasses-sporting-polo-wearing preppy driving his blonde bombshell girlfriend around at top speed! The game even featured the fly option to choose your own music via the steering wheel to begin the game. Players were transported to a sunny beachside race track to peel-out in their radical red Ferrari with a beautiful blonde co-pilot.

Sega’s most successful arcade cabinet game of the 80s, Out Run pitted the player against a timer with a destination to reach before your time expired (like some deep metaphor for life itself). Featuring non-linear game play (a first for racing games), racers could choose what order they wanted to race the tracks and complete them in any order they chose. Players could reach checkpoints for more time and choose their final destination with its own unique ending scenes. I remember my friends and me losing it over the fact the game let you choose your own path to victory.

The 3rd person rear perspective camera gave the player a view close to the ground, simulating the Ferrari’s low profile, while the winding and dipping road obscured upcoming traffic players had to avoid. It’s easy to see how 30 years later the game still influences today’s arcade driving games with perspectives similar to Maximum Tune 5 arcade racing game and many other arcade racing games.

If you were lucky enough to play one of the sit-down versions you can probably remember the soundtrack being blasted out of the headrest speakers right next to your ears. An unbelievably cool, if not deafening, experience.

Selling over 30,000 cabinets by the 90s, Out Run was one of the most successful arcade racing games of the 80s and easily makes our list of top 80’s racing games!

Final Lap – Namco - 1987

Final Lap from Namco was a direct successor to Pole Position and was made using the new System-2 hardware. I remember the graphics being noticeably better than other racing games when I saw Final Lap in the arcade for the first time. What I couldn’t figure out is why they had bought 4 units. Why would my small town arcade need FOUR of these arcade racing games? Then I realized that all the players racing in front of me were racing AGAINST EACH OTHER! Final Lap featured the revolutionary ability to link the games together to compete head-to-head with 8 competitors on 4 sit-down arcade units. By simultaneously starting games, players could race against one another for unmatched arcade racing fun!

Now-a-days we all just take for granted that every racing game is multiplayer with the ability to play your friends like Mario Kart Arcade GP DX Driving Game or Raw Thrills MotoGP 42” Deluxe Arcade Game but back then this was a whole new realm of racing video games.

This game was also a bodacious break-through because it featured the first ‘rubber-banding’ element that allowed for less talented players (like yours truly) to never be too far behind the leader, giving them an actual shot at winning the race.

With better graphics and much better multi-player racing gameplay, Final Lap was a big step forward in arcade racing games as we know them today.

RC Pro-Am – Rare - 1988

Although R.C. Pro-Am was never a proper arcade game cabinet we still think that it deserves to be on the list just from its influence on the arcade racing genre alone. Featuring the unique overhead isometric perspective and centering around the collection and use of various weapons its influence is seen on later titles like Mario Kart Arcade GP DX.

The single player racing game would race the player against 3 other competitors in a battle competition to finish in the first 3 places to advance to the next race. With each victory players would receive trophies for their place and for their high scores.

The twisting and turning R.C. tracks challenged players to control their cars while avoiding oil slicks, water puddles, rain squalls, pop-up barriers, and ammunition depleting skulls. Racing around an unbelievable 24 race tracks players could collect speed boost items as well as weapons to disable their opponents. (Sound familiar Mario Kart Arcade GP DX?)

With the remote controlled car racing theme and battle-style racing, R.C. Pro-Am blew the lid off what arcade driving games could be. We know we aren’t alone when we say that R.C. Pro-Am racing is one of the best racing video games ever made and it’s easy to see why with its challenging tracks, action-packed game play and righteous race battles.

Chase H.Q. – Taito - 1988

So it’s 1988. Robert Palmer is tearing-up the charts with “Simply Irresistible”, your favorite show is “The Wonder Years” and there’s a video game where you are a sports-car-driving policeman trying to ram a criminal vehicle off the road! Does life get any better than this?!? Probably not!

Chase H.Q. arcade game was everything I wanted in an arcade racing game in 1988:

A schweet sports car? Check.

Better graphics than I’d seen in a video game up to that point? Check.

Actual missions instead of just racing around in circles? CHECK!

Players had to take down fugitives in 5 levels after Nancy at Chase H.Q. would give them the fugitive’s information and location. Then it was up to you to beat the timer and catch up to the fugitive car before time was up! Forks in the road would make your distance shorter or longer and players had to avoid traffic and navigate hairpin turns to reach the criminal getaway car in time.

The coolest part was being able to ram the fugitive car off of the road to capture the criminal. Compared in many ways to the arcade racing hit Out Run, Chase H.Q. gave players a chance to not only drive fast but fight crime as well!

It doesn’t take a video game expert to see how this game started a crime-fighting-while-driving trend that continues to this day, even if you might be the one committing the crimes in newer games.

The game’s influence can be seen on most current arcade racing games like Cruis'n Blast Driving Arcade Game and is still one of the coolest arcade games to come out of the 80s!

Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road - Leland Corporation, Rare - 1989

Even if you never played one, if you spent any time around arcades, skating rinks or movies theatres in the 80s, chances are you at least saw an Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road arcade game cabinet. It was the old school arcade cabinet with a huge marquee and 3 steering wheels protruding from the front, like some kind of arcade race game monster from another dimension where fun came before function.

Three players could go head-to head and compete (or play the computer) in racing off-road, dirt tracks with an aerial view of the racing action. Players earned money and points by placing in the races and would be able to advance to the next race with the option of upgrading their vehicle or buying more nitro. (I always opted for more nitro. I feel the need, the need for speed!) The goal was to get to the end of the season with the most money earned.

The game was one of the first games that allowed players to upgrade their vehicle by winning points and money. Now this is a common feature in most arcade racing games like Maximum Tune 5 2 Player Racing Arcade Game but it shows just how influential Super Off Road Arcade was in the video game racing industry.

With 8 excellent tracks and 99 fantabulous races, the off-road racing antics never stopped. In fact, with that many races, there’re probably games still going today that started in ‘89!

Hard Drivin’ – Atari - 1989

Billed as “The World’s First Authentic Driving Simulation Game” Hard Drivin’ arcade racing was one of the first games to feature the 3D polygon driving environments via a simulator cabinet with a force feedback steering wheel. A combination that made for quite the interactive driving experience for gamers.

Let’s be honest here, you look at the graphics on this game and say “What?! C’mon! What’s so ‘authentic’ about those blocks and bits?” but when this stunt racing game came out, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. This looked like virtual reality to my young eyes and transported me into the driver’s seat of some fictionalized movie set where I was the official stunt driver.

Hard Drivin’ put the players into an ‘expensive sports car’ (read: Ferrari Testarossa ala Out Run) and set the perspective as first person, so you are inside the stunt car, looking out the windshield. What made this game different from any other racing arcade game were the stunt loops, draw bridges, ramps and huge banked curves! With the option to drive the ‘Speed Track’ or ‘Stunt Track’ drivers could choose to hone their racing chops or stunt skills.

If you played Hard Drivin’ you have to remember the replay scenes. This was a first of its kind and something that I couldn’t get enough of as a kid. I remember intentionally driving as fast as I could to go completely out-of-control and roll into a ball of flames. Then the computer would play a replay of my last ill-fated stunt, in a wide angle with dramatic digital music enhancing the action as my car exploded into a pixelated ball of flames! In another first, after you crashed, the game would reset you back to your last check point before you crashed. This feature or ones close to it are now found on most arcade racing games like Cruis’n Blast Driving Arcade Game and Super Bikes 3 Arcade Game.

The 1980s arcade cabinet featured a super-realistic manual transmission with a clutch and you could even stall your car if you were a noob and didn’t know how to drive stick. To make the physics as real as possible, Atari worked with the test driver and based the physics of the engine, transmission, suspension and tires on equations developed by one of the world’s leading experts in car modeling.

Hard Drivin’ arcade racing gameis a great example of a break-through arcade game that thought outside of the gearbox to make a unique game that still has a place in video game history.

The 80’s were a great time for neon colors, radical hair and huge advancements in video game technology funded by our part-time jobs and pitiful allowances. These games have stood the test of time but a lot of these retro arcade cabinets have fallen into disrepair, making them hard to find and harder to repair. (Game Room Guys carries all the arcade video game parts and accessories to fix up old arcade cabinets if you are lucky enough to find a good one.)

New arcade racing games like Mario Kart Arcade GP DX, Raw Thrills MotoGP or Maximum Tune 5 are all the fun of the old arcade racing games but with better graphics, more tracks and more vehicle options. So although they might not be the games of your youth, they are just as much fun and are inspiring the racing games of tomorrow.

Game Room Guys carries Arcade Racing Game Cabinets as well as Multicade Arcade Game Cabinets, Pool Tables, Air Hockey tables, Ping Pong Tables, Pinball Machines, Shuffleboard Tables, Skee Ball Machines, Darts and Dartboards, Bubble Hockey, Foosball Tables and all the game room parts and accessories to keep your good times going! That’s why when it comes to all of your game room needs, we’re the guys!


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