Arcade emulation has meant that decades of gaming heritage has been preserved for future generations. Unfortunately in the case of racing games, preserved does not necessarily mean playable unless you’re willing to invest in the appropriate hardware. Most driving games are naturally designed to be played with a steering wheel or set of plastic handlebars so in a lot of cases nothing else will really work. With a bit of fiddling you can set some games up to work with a control pad but this is often a frustrating experience with mixed results. There are however, a few games out there which were designed to be played in a standard arcade cabinet with a stick and buttons. Typically these are overhead or isometric games and for some reason most of them seem to be rallying games.
Here is a small selection of these stick controlled racing games and I promise they’re all good. If you don’t own an arcade stick you can just as easily use a control pad or even a keyboard to play. These aren’t the only games like this that you can play in MAME but for my money they’re the best of their kind and the ones that I suggest people play first before delving any deeper.
Neo Drift Out: New Technology (Visco, 1996)
This is the third game in the Drift Out series and is, in my opinion, the best. It’s quite a basic rally themed game with 3 licensed vehicles to choose from and 7 stages which you race in a fixed order. The real charm of this game is the handling which is quite easy to get the hang of and really encourages you to throw the car around the many bends on the twisting courses. It’s really satisfying when you manage to power slide around a corner and take out a line of cones with the back-end of your car. It isn’t an especially hard game to beat but it’s worth playing a few times over. A basic single credit run of the game still leaves scope for improving your stage times. Although it hasn’t exactly got a big scene surrounding it, I’ve seen runs of this game with quite a spread of times so all you e-sports maestros out there have something to aim for if you take a liking to this game.
1000 Miglia: Great 1000 Mile Rally (Kaneko, 1994)
Vintage racing is a theme that is rarely explored in games so 1000 Miglia sticks in my mind somewhat. It’s based on the Mille Miglia, an endurance race that originally ran from 1927 to 1957. You can pick from a variety of vintage sports cars but as far as I can tell the only difference between them is purely cosmetic. It’s a longer game than Neo Drift Out at 12 stages but is actually slightly easier as you don’t need to race them in order; rather than doing them all sequentially you can select your course. This makes it easier to practise troublesome stages without messing around setting up savestates. The handling isn’t quite as fast and loose as Neo Drift Out and the stages have very few shortcuts or alternate paths but it’s still a lot fun. The only thing it’s really missing is music during the stages, all you get is engine noise. Kaneko released a sequel to this game in 1995 but all it has going for it over the original is flashier graphics, I don’t think it’s actually as good a game overall.
Overtop (ADK, 1996)
Overtop is by far the easiest game on this list but probably the one with the most replay value. Rather than multiple stages it has one continuous track split into multiple segments that take you through a variety of terrain. It’s quite a short course but it has several alternate routes and shortcuts that are either beneficial or detrimental based on whichever vehicle you choose. The vehicle selection is quite extensive with each choice having its own terrain advantages and different handling characteristics. Out of all the games listed here, this is the one that I have played the most and I still revisit it from time to time. It’s not very demanding but sometimes I don’t want a challenge. Overtop is just a good simple game with a nice soundtrack that doesn’t take very long to play and that’s often good enough for me. I give this one a strong recommendation.
Extreme Downhill (Sammy, 1995)
This is a bit of a wildcard. It’s a skiing game and some people would probably not consider it a racer because of that. But when you break it down to its bare bones, Extreme Downhill is really just a rallying game without an accelerator. It’s a checkpoint based isometric game that’s very similar to the games I’ve mentioned so far, the only difference is you only have directional controls and a brake. It’s quite a tricky game actually, the difficulty ramps up gradually but the final few courses have a very tight time limit so you have to be absolutely spot on with your turning to make it within the limit. I don’t think it’s got the same staying power as Overtop or Neo Drift Out and the overlaid skiing theme is wafer thin but I think it’s unique enough to make it worth mentioning.