Arcade Racing: Beyond the Big Four

Fans of the arcade racing genre have been a long-neglected lot, thanks to an overall lack of output from genre pillars Sega and Namco, as well as some blurring of genre lines with the proliferation of “action racers” – or rather, your typical Need For Speed or The Crew fare, with still very exaggerated handling but an overarching design far too cumbersome to fit into an arcade-style format (and often some mechanical aspects that tend to further separate them from arcade racers).

That is to say, because action racing games still sell reasonably well and get released at a fairly regular pace, and because the majority of the gaming public hasn’t consciously recognized the difference between action and arcade racing, there’s a widespread perception that arcade racing is doing well, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since the early 1990s, genuine arcade racing has been dominated by a clear “Big Four”: Sega’s Daytona USA, Sega Rally Championship, and OutRun, and Namco’s Ridge Racer. The problem comes when you realize that even those four franchises have not been seen outside of the odd port or spinoff since 2017 (but only in arcades), 2008, 2006, and 2012 respectively. Most other efforts at revitalizing the genre have either died on the vine like indie hopeful turned cautionary tale Drift Stage, or have otherwise gone into radio silence for so long that vaporware rumors can’t help but start up, as is the case with Nicalis’ ‘90s Super GT, leaving fans with little hope for a resurgence. With Horizon Chase Turbo and Hotshot Racing as the only signs of life, when you don’t extend the definition to include action racers, arcade racing is by no means “alive and well.”

Ridge Racers 2 may be the GOAT, but there’s so much more to experience in arcade racing…

Emulation and the widespread demise of region-locking are opening many doors, however, and if you’re willing to look beyond our shores and/or the current generation of hardware (or in some cases, simply beyond the advertised product), there are a lot of true gems out there for you to discover. I’d like to take a moment here to call some attention to the very best of them.

Before I start with that, though, for those of you who have yet to take a deep dive into arcade racing, recently or perhaps ever, here’s a short list of the very best Big Four experiences to be had today:

Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition (Saturn / 1997)
Sega Rally 2 (PC, Dreamcast / 2000)
OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast (PC, PS2, Xbox, PSP / 2006)
Ridge Racer(s) 2 (PSP / 2006)
Ridge Racer 7 (PS3 / 2006)

Yes, 2006 was the last truly exceptional year for arcade racing.

So, why arcade racing, anyway? After all, despite the current racing landscape not being entirely all-encompassing, it does still cater to a broad variety of gaming tastes. It can’t be that hard to find a racing experience that feeds your particular fix, can it?

To put it simply, arcade racing is “happy place” gaming at its absolute finest. Blue skies, picturesque beaches, bright lights in big cities, perpetually hummable soundtracks, a cavalcade of gorgeous hand-crafted driving roads that are an absolute joy to experience, with nothing short of paradise itself serving as the backdrop. As much as arcade racing can, and rightfully does, epitomize the kind of intense gaming competition that the arcade has tirelessly manufactured for decades, it can also be the most chill experience in the world, allowing you to lose yourself in the pick-up-and-play handling and gorgeous environments that serve as the genre’s hallmarks. In fact, any good self-respecting arcade racer will enable a reasonably capable player to slip into a meditative-like state while playing. That, in itself, is worth absolutely everything.

With all of that out of the way, here’s a list of additional arcade-style racing games you can pursue once you feel you’ve gotten everything there is to get out of the big four.

Rally de Europe (Prism-Arts / PSX / 2000)
If you look at their website today, Prism-Arts has completely disavowed its five-year run as a developer of PlayStation racing games and appears to have settled into their current role as software engineers for smart cars. However, its swan song in the game development role, Rally de Europe, gave PlayStation gamers a genuine counterpart to the Sega Saturn’s Sega Rally Championship. This game hits all the right notes, from the tight handling and colorful visuals to a memorable soundtrack and plenty of content to unlock (including its entire predecessor, 1998’s Rally de Africa). A couple of good localization deals and some quality marketing would have made it a must-own for any PlayStation racing fan. Don’t miss out on it this time around.

Side By Side Special (Taito / PSX / 1998)
In the mid-to-late 90s, iconic anime/manga series Initial D made anything related to street racing into a hot property, and arcade stalwarts Taito were there to make the most of it with their Side By Side series. Side By Side Special crams the two arcade games into a single package, providing plenty of hours of pick-up-and-play racing for fans of an approach that may have been a bit stereotypical (I once described these games as the type “where most courses are in the mountains and the starting line is always at a convenience store”) but was also absolutely a blast. This isn’t the only game in the series to appear on this list, though it is the only one under this name. More on that in a bit.

Racingroovy VS (Sammy / PSX / 1997)
Sammy Studios may primarily be known today as the formal ownership group of Sega, but they have their own deep roots in the arcades, which they showed off beautifully here. Cut very much from the same cloth as Ridge Racer (and it very well might have been built on the same engine), the true star of Racingroovy is its range of cars, which are all overflowing with personality and nuance even when compared to Namco’s homebrewn racing universe of makes and models. From street tuner Ka・E・Ru The Beat to police cruiser Deka Buster and rally giant Battle Flail, every car handles as differently as it looks, giving you a wide range of gameplay experiences from a subgenre whose selection can often feel overly homogenized.

Flag To Flag (Zoom / Dreamcast / 1999)
The first non-import on this list, Flag To Flag (or “Super Speed Racing” in Japan) was a relatively unheralded arcade racer from the Sega Dreamcast’s early days, which got caught in the undertow of higher-profile fare like Sega Rally 2 and Hydro Thunder. Still, don’t let the game’s CART branding and roster of real-life drivers fool you, Flag To Flag is an arcade experience the whole way through that hits all of the kinetic and aesthetic notes flawlessly. It’s a real shame that it represents one of only two racing games ever produced by Zoom (the other being the obscure X68000 Formula 1 sim Overtake), because they clearly have a knack for this. Bonus points to them for including a first-person view when that perspective was still all too rare in the genre. This game was included on the Dreamcast’s launch demo disc, and it marks the exact moment the system stole my heart.

Battle Gear 3 (Taito / PlayStation 2 / 2003)
When the Side By Side series grew up, it became Battle Gear. Although the series largely made its home on the Taito Type-X arcade hardware, it made a pair of appearances on the PlayStation 2, most notably with this game, Battle Gear 3, the brand’s final console appearance to date. In order to experience the game’s career mode, you’ll have to find a login/password combination online to utilize (it checks it against the game disc, not an online service, presumably to hamstring the aftermarket), but once you do that, you have yet another great arcade street racer to enjoy alongside its legacy PlayStation ancestor. Even the arcade mode, which has no login barrier, provides plenty of action for those looking for a quick pick-up-and-play arcade racing experience. For those who prefer the actual arcade experience, Battle Gear 4 Tuned is certainly an enjoyable experience in its own right.

Tokyo Road Race (Taito / PlayStation 2 / 2002)
At this point it should be obvious that if it looks like Side By Side and plays like Side By Side, there’s a really good chance that you’re playing Side By Side regardless of what it says on the box. Tokyo Road Race is a rare treat: a rebranded, English-localized PAL port of Battle Gear 2. Although BG2 did not lay on the heavy Japanese nearly so much as its sequel, having the game entirely in English is a nice bonus. Even better, the game comes with a native 60 Hz option, allowing you to enjoy it on your HDTV with no compromises to framerate. Now you have no barriers at all between yourself and this outstanding arcade ride.

Auto Modellista (Capcom / PS2, Xbox, GC / 2003)
Not a lot of people “got” Auto Modellista when it came out, and as an unfortunate result, not a lot of people got Auto Modellista when it came out. Capcom’s striking, cel-shaded foray into the racing genre was divisive to be sure – the action racing label had yet to be established, Auto Modellista wasn’t any kind of simulation, and although Project Gotham Racing was leading a charge of quirky hybrids that you either understood or you didn’t, Auto Modellista didn’t really quite fit in that box, either. Time and game design evolution have been, as usual, the best educators, and today, you can very safely slot Auto Modellista into the arcade racing genre even if its handling isn’t the immediately-welcoming fare one usually expects from an arcade racer. It’s just a shame more people couldn’t have appreciated it when the servers were up.

Virtua Racing Deluxe (Sega AM2 / 32X / 1994)
To be completely honest, Virtua Racing does not fall far outside the company of the Big Four itself, and the only thing really holding it back is the fact that it hasn’t been turned into a series in its own right. Its potential would be outstanding if Sega ever decided to tap into it. To this day, Virtua Racing is but a single game with numerous ports of wildly varying quality and ambition. Of those ports, the 32X version is unquestionably the best, representing the source material extremely well while also adding two racing disciplines and two courses to the mix. There are other versions that look better (Switch) or offer more content (Saturn), but the humble 32X still hosts the best overall representation of the game that gave birth to the modern arcade racer.

Motor Raid (Sega AM1 / Model 2, PS4 (sort of) / 1997)
Huge shout out to James Mielke for bringing this one to my attention the instant he found out I was working on this piece. Sega’s arcade racing bonafides speak for themselves, and when you take their resumé and put it to work on something that can be best described as Road Rash meets Xtreme G with laser whips, you know you’ve got something very unique on your hands. Never having seen a purpose-built console port, it’s a game that has to rely entirely on its gameplay for staying power, but fortunately it has plenty to spare. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of hunting it down in whatever’s left of the arcade landscape, you’ll be pleased to know Sega recently made it playable as a side attraction in their PS4 crime drama, Judgment.

Initial D: Special Stage (Sega Rosso / PS2 / 2003)
Of course, this list would be incomplete without an appearance from the franchise that united street racing, arcade culture, and otaku culture. Initial D: Special Stage is the first console port of the Initial D: Arcade Stage series (based on Arcade Stage 2), and remains one of the best representations of the cabinet available on console today. Despite its popularity, be aware that Initial D is not the most approachable of the street racing franchises, as Sega Rosso’s decision to cook the brand’s signature drift-heavy driving style into the games basic steering model results in a slippery feel that is hard to adjust to right out of the gate. You absolutely get from Initial D whatever you put in, but be prepared to make that investment if you want to get truly good at it, as it definitely concedes the accessibility prize to Taito and whatever they decide to call Side By Side at any given moment.

So there you have it, a primer for exploring the arcade racing genre beyond what you’re most likely to have encountered in recent years. If you have any you think I missed, by all means, make your suggestions via our Facebook and Twitter accounts. They’re there for a reason, and I certainly wouldn’t mind doing this again sometime!