“Underrated” is a loaded word. Something could be underrated because it was critically panned, but later garnered a cult following; or because it was well-liked enough for its day, but its legacy has been mostly erased with the passage of time.
Last week, I put up a list of the 10 most overrated racing games. (Predictably, lots of you took issue with the placement of Need For Speed: Most Wanted. That’s fine; it sort of proved the point.) Anyway, unlike those beloved titles, the following 13 racing games either didn’t receive the praise or attention they deserved upon their release, or no longer get that appreciation today. In some cases, as with Bizarre Creation’s Blur above, corporate meddling ruined the future of what could have been a pillar of the modern genre landscape. We’ll never know exactly what we missed out on, but we can dream. Let’s dream together.
13. Burnout Dominator (2007)
The Burnout series has never really put a foot wrong, and yet I still regularly forget Burnout Dominator exists. There’s good reason for that: it released on the PS2 and PSP after the PS3 came out, as a consolation prize for fans who’d yet to move onto next generation systems, where Burnout Paradise was to debut.
Criterion Games had just about maxed out the PS2 for everything it was worth with Burnout 3 and Revenge, but Dominator — a spinoff developed by EA UK — looked more to the first and second games in the franchise for inspiration. So, the actual “Burnout” technique of chaining boosts, from which the games derive their name, actually returns here. It’s a more technically challenging arcade racer, where the focus is on driving finesse than destruction. Also, it looked especially good on PSP.
12. Sega GT 2002/Online (2002, 2004)
Sega GT 2002 was Sega’s second and final attempt at trying to steal the car-PG crown from Gran Turismo. The trouble was that it released in the shadow of the colossus that was Gran Turismo 3. As such, Sega GT 2002 got passed over, but it didn’t deserve to.
No, Sega GT 2002 wasn’t as good as GT3, but it did have a much more ambitious car roster with lots of neat little features, like the ability to privately sell your car and decorate your garage with photos snapped in replays. This was before GT4 made Photo Mode a hot commodity. Also, it just had a delightfully weird vibe with an amazing soundtrack — a common quirk of all Sega products. Sega GT Online was a patch on the original title that released a little more than a year later, with Xbox Live multiplayer support. To this day, these are some of the only games I know of where you can drive the best automobile ever made, the Jiotto Caspita. (The other is coming up next!)
11. Auto Modellista (2002)
2002 was a wonderful year for racing games. The same year we got Sega GT 2002, Capcom gave the world Auto Modellista — the Gran Turismo clone designed to look like a manga in motion. Sure, it had an undercooked campaign that was mind-numbingly easy, and lots of people didn’t get down with the handling (they were wrong, it’s fine), but Auto Modellista was a singular experience that nobody has tried to replicate since in the genre, and that’s a damn shame.
10. World Driver Championship (1999)
The Nintendo 64 was not a great platform for racing. OK — you have F-Zero X and Wave Race 64, a mediocre Mario Kart entry once the nostalgia is stripped away, and Beetle Adventure Racing which, admittedly, is a masterpiece. What else? I mean, the console’s design always reminded me of an FD RX-7, but even that couldn’t excuse the fact it simply didn’t have enough good material for us nerds who like to go fast.
World Driver Championship was Boss Game Studios’ attempt to rectify that. This game plays and certainly looks better than it has any right to on Nintendo’s RAM-starved console; hell, it could almost pass for a Dreamcast title months before the Dreamcast came out. The graphical prowess was mostly down to Boss knowing the N64 hardware like the back of its hand, and re-engineering some low-level code to squeeze exceptional power out of Nintendo’s curvy black box.
9. Midnight Club 2 (2003)
Midnight Club is not an underrated series, but Midnight Club II is an underrated game. The third entry tends to get a lot of attention because it has the most content by far, and licensed cars — something missing from the first and second installments. The tradeoff is that MC3 also feels more like every other street racing game of its time, whereas MC2 has charm in the form of its characters, and is just plain cool. Unlike Need for Speed: Underground, it actually felt like a product of the underground — something almost dangerous, with cutting-edge music, a general mystique about it and a trio of open-world cities teeming with secrets, shortcuts and opportunities to get major airtime.
8. Fast RMX (2017)
Nintendo hasn’t put out a new 3D F-Zero since Sega made the best one, but honestly that’s not as terrible as fans of the franchise make it out to be, thanks to Shin’en Multimedia’s Fast RMX. This antigravity racer launched alongside the Nintendo Switch and was an early showcase for what the hybrid console could do. It still looks excellent, especially on an OLED model, and though it may be controversial to say, from a handling and mechanics standpoint I actually find it more fun to drive — or pilot, whatever — than any F-Zero title. Unfortunately, just like F-Zero it is also unapologetically, ungodly difficult.
7. Rally de Europe (2000)
Here’s an ultra-obscure PlayStation arcade rally gem that never left Japan. Because Rally de Europe wasn’t sold in the West, I actually didn’t know about it or check it out until 2020, two decades after it released. Both this game and its very similar predecessor Rally de Africa can best be described as “budget Sega Rally.” They’re not quite as technically proficient as Sega’s classic, but they’re just as easy to pick up and play, with some gorgeous low-poly modelling work that is playfully retro looking back today, but reasonably detailed for its time. Good luck finding a physical copy.
6. Porsche Challenge (1997)
Porsche Challenge is basically a slickly-produced interactive advertisement for the 986 Porsche Boxster — you know, the car that introduced Porsche’s best headlights ever. This new entry-level Porsche was a very big deal to the brand at the time, designed for a younger generation of consumers, and so Stuttgart partnered up with Sony to design a video game based entirely around it. It’s not particularly content rich as it only has the Boxster and four tracks, but it was a technical tour-de-force for its era that handled very smoothly — just like the mid-engined roadster itself.
5. Blur (2010)
By now you’ve probably heard the tragic story behind Blur, British developer Bizarre Creations’ final racing game after the studio was purchased by Activision. Blur was basically Mario Kart with real cars and more sophisticated physics. And like Mario Kart, as fun as it was in isolation, the game truly came alive with friends. Regrettably Blur didn’t meet Activision’s absurdly unreasonable expectations to “do for racing games what Call of Duty did for shooters,” and so the sequel in development was swiftly cancelled, and Bizarre — also the masterminds behind the Xbox’s exceptional Project Gotham Racing franchise — closed its doors.
4. Project Gotham Racing 3 (2005)
And speaking of Project Gotham Racing, the vast success of Forza Horizon has pretty much overshadowed Microsoft’s earlier arcade racing series. That’s a shame, because PGR was pretty much a perfect string of games, with Bizarre moving from strength to strength with every release. The third entry wasn’t the biggest or even the best according to most fans, but no other system launch title has ever blown me away quite like it. PGR3 felt like a true generational leap with its crisp motion blur and fully modelled interiors for all cars, and I had a blast zooming around London, Tokyo, Las Vegas and New York City in year one of the Xbox 360’s lifespan.
3. Driveclub (2014)
Driveclub deserved better. A string of delays, broken online functionality at launch and a release in proximity with Forza Horizon 2 basically doomed Evolution Studios’ final game out of the gate. Tragic, because it ended up being my favourite racing experience of the generation after a slew of significant updates, including one that added weather effects that have still yet to be matched, eight years on. The servers have been long since shut down and the paid DLC removed from the PlayStation Store, so unless you had the game when it was still on sale — or have access to an account with all the extra content — you can’t experience Driveclub at its best.
2. Scud Race and Daytona USA 2 (1996, 1998)
Here’s a twofer for #2. Sega faithful assuredly do not underrate Scud Race (known in the U.S. as Sega Super GT) and its sequel, Daytona USA 2. However, these arcade-exclusive racers are well over 20 years old now, and working examples are fading left and right — as are arcades, for that matter. Neither Scud Race, a glorious blue-skies thrill ride starring ’90s supercars, nor the NASCAR caricature that is Daytona USA 2 ever saw home console releases, though Sega did use Scud Race as a tech demo to showcase the Dreamcast’s capabilities before it launched. A modern PC or console port of one or both is my personal gaming white whale; I’ll cry if I ever see the day.
1. Test Drive Le Mans/Le Mans 24 Hours (2000)
The Dreamcast and PS2 versions of Test Drive Le Mans — a.k.a. Le Mans 24 Hours outside the States — is quite simply the best racing game ever made about a real-world motorsports event. Two decades ago, TDLM had massive 24-car grids, fully dynamic weather and day/night cycles and tire and fuel wear. You could run the entire 24 Hours of Le Mans in real time if you were so bold or — more likely — speed it up and experience it all in 24 minutes. It captured the spirit of the world’s greatest race like no other game has, and all this time later I’m losing faith anything will rise up to challenge it.
There you have it: 13 underrated racing games that deserve to be played. Some are certainly easier to source than others, but next time you find your interest waning from the likes of Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Horizon 5, I suggest you carve out a little time to try one out. You may just be surprised what you missed. As always, I encourage you to share your favourite forgotten racers in the comments.