It’s time to hit the road and put the pedal to the metal as we check out the best NES racing games!
Nintendo’s hugely influential, massively popular 8-bit NES is credited for reviving the video game industry in the US in the 80s.
To this day, it’s fondly remembered by countless gamers, with its platform games, run-and-gun action adventures and RPGs having a massive impact on designers as well as players in the decades since release.
One genre that tends to go overlooked on the NES is racing – which is a shame, as there’s some real classics to be found on the console!
Not only are there an awful lot of NES racing games, but their style and content are hugely varied too, making for a wealth of different experiences.
Which are the best though?
Come with us eager drivers at Retro Dodo as we check out the best NES racing games!
Impressively, Rad Racer – developed by Square, who soon became known for their Final Fantasy series, which also originated on the NES – came with a 3D mode and was packaged with anaglyph 3D glasses, in order to make use of the unique feature.
A press of the Select button in-game enabled the 3D mode, which was genuinely superb back in the 80s.
Though not the first 3D title that Square released on the NES – that honour falls to the Space Harrier-esque 3D WorldRunner – the stereoscopic technique was put to great use in Rad Racer.
Of course, as time goes on and the ways in which we’re able to play games such as Rad Racer change, making use of the 3D effect becomes more difficult.
Thankfully, Rad Racer is a satisfying – if perhaps a little generic – Out Run style racing game even without the stereoscopic gimmick.
A timed Rad Racer stage was even included as part of the competition in the 1990 NES World Championships – and the cartridge created for that event features in our list of rare NES games!
This 1991 Electro Brain title is unusual not just because it features boat racing, but also because it offers multiple viewpoints of the action during races.
The bulk of the game is played from an overhead perspective, but races begin and end with side-scrolling sections and there are even third person, behind the boat sequences too.
In the latter sections, boats must steer and stay between flags at quite a speed; ramps and speed boosts feature prominently throughout both this and the overhead sequences too.
Winning races allows players to upgrade their boats in numerous ways, but be warned – Eliminator Boat Duel doesn’t pull any punches.
It’s a really challenging game and – thanks in part to its setting as well as its unique variety of gameplay styles – Eliminator Boat Duel feels unlike anything else on the NES.
Can we also take a minute to appreciate the incredibly 90s cover art? Just look at that crazy, psychedelic combination of colours!
Though the box art gets the car designs wrong (in-game, the types and colours of the cars are very different to those shown on the cover), Super Cars gets an awful lot of stuff right.
This top-down racer – a racing game viewpoint you’ll get used to seeing on this list – from Gremlin was originally released on home computers in the UK, in both 8-bit and 16-bit versions.
The NES port arrived a year later – published by Electro Brain – and was exclusive to the US, which means that NES owners in other territories didn’t get their hands on it at all.
Which is a real shame; Super Cars is a brilliant game which pits a single player against AI cars, with the aim to finish in the top three to move on to the next race.
Winning earns the player prize money – which can be spent on upgrades that include not just improved handling and acceleration, but items such as armour and missiles too!
Billed as ‘Racing in the 51st Century’ in the game’s subtitle, Galaxy 5000 is an intergalactic racing game played from an isometric perspective.
Though multiplayer wasn’t always feasible in NES racing games from a technical viewpoint, Galaxy 5000 can accommodate two players joining in and competing simultaneously against the AI pilots.
Five different racing craft are on offer, each with their own attributes – and these can be upgraded as progression I’d made too.
Weapons – also upgradable – also feature, so there’s the option to take out your rivals too!
A jump button allows you to jump over other craft or even attempt to cut corners, but this must be done with caution, as the tracks are floating in orbit above various planets in our Solar System.
The track disintegrates at the final stages of a race, which is another feature that gives Galaxy 5000 a unique feel.
It’s an often overlooked and underappreciated game that deserves a chance – and it definitely earns its place on the best NES racing games list!
One of many unlicensed cartridges from Tengen, Super Sprint is a port of the Atari coin-op of the same name.
The details of the fact that Tengen released unlicensed games for the NES are a fascinating story.
The short version is that Nintendo took Tengen to court over their unauthorised games and reverse engineering of the NES security lockout system; Tengen won the legal battle.
So yes, Super Sprint is an unlicensed NES game; though it took a few years to get to the 8-bit console after Atari’s arcade release, it was worth the wait.
A classic, single screen, top-down racing game, Super Sprint sees up to two players competing in a competition against AI drivers on seven different tracks.
Super Sprint is fairly basic but it is a great example of pick-up-and-play gameplay; its arcade-style simplicity is a pro, not a con!
A single screen racing game in the Super Sprint mould, Super Off Road is a rarity among NES games, in that it supports up to four players simultaneously!
This off road racer is great fun – and that excellent multiplayer mode gives it a massive advantage over similar games.
Not only that, but its arcade style action and extensive vehicle upgrade system gives it a great amount of replay value too.
It’s not often that Super Off Road – – also known as Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road, thanks to a sponsorship deal with an professional off road driver at the time of release – is given the kudos it deserves, but at Retro Dodo Towers, we definitely consider it one of the very best NES racing games!
Legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto was the brains behind this early NES racing game, which was a huge success – as you’ll see from its inclusion on our best selling NES games list – spawning several sequels, spin-offs and re-releases in the decades since it first debuted.
For one example, take a look at our best racing games on Nintendo Wii list for a glimpse at what other games feature in the ‘Excite’ series!
Going back to the original though, the side view, smoothly scrolling dirt bike racing in Excitebike is such a simple, satisfying experience – and it’s extremely easy to pick up and play.
Perhaps due to this simplicity and clarity, Excitebike is an incredibly fun and addictive game.
Players can even design their own tracks to race on using an in-game mode, yet outside of Japan – the only region the Famicom Data Recorder tape drive was released – these creations couldn’t be saved and were lost when the console was turned off.
Excitebike’s scrolling graphics engine was also put to great use in one of the most important video games of all time – Super Mario Bros.
That’s right: Shigeru Miyamoto re-used it in iconic NES masterpiece Super Mario Bros, in order to smoothly achieve the different speeds that Mario could run at!
Though Rare really became household names for console owners in the 16-bit era – thanks to classic titles such as the Donkey Kong Country games – their output on the NES was incredibly strong too.
RC Pro Am is a brilliant NES racing game in which you take control of a remote control car and race at high speed around twisting tracks.
It’s played from an isometric perspective and features power ups including oil slicks and missiles.
Though the box boasts of 32 tracks to compete on, there are actually 24 different tracks; once you get past the 24th stage, each subsequent track repeats from track 1, albeit with a few new features.
The only thing that lets RC Pro Am down is a lack of a multiplayer feature – impressively, its Game Boy sequel Super RC Pro Am supported up to four player simultaneous gameplay – but other than that it’s a near perfect 8-bit racer.
Though the NES sequel RC Pro Am II also introduced four player simultaneous gameplay and lots more new features, in our opinion the arcade-style purity and immediacy of the first RC Pro Am puts it streets ahead of the sequel.
Not only that, but we think that RC Pro AM is also close to being the very best NES racing game overall, which is why it makes it to number three in our list!
We’re big fans of Micro Machines – as in, the original toys – here at Retro Dodo.
Check out our list of the best Micro Machines toys for more evidence of our love for the miniature vehicle toy line!
Despite that, it’s more than just our fondness for the toys that is the cause of us ranking Micro Machines as one of the best NES racing games – it’s a genuinely phenomenal game!
Played from a top down perspective, Micro Machines sees players racing around colourful, brilliantly designed household environments and objects, often precariously positioned above floor level – with a frequent chance of falling g off the track and onto the ground!
The multiplayer mode in Micro Machines provides near endless entertainment; it’s an incredibly addictive, simple and fast paced experience.
Without doubt one of the finest NES games overall, this would have been the top of our NES racing games list (the Super Nintendo version made it onto our best SNES racing games list too) – except there’s one hidden gem that we believe tops even the mighty Micro Machines!
The NES isn’t exactly the most capable of consoles, but that didn’t stop tons of developers from attempting to create hugely ambitious games.
Though not always successful, there’s no doubt that even the noble failures contributed to modern game design.
Thankfully, our choice for the top of the NES racing games list is far from a failure – and it’s got depth and scope that was near enough unheard of for 8-bit console games at the time it was released!
In fact, in many ways, Formula One: Built to Win is an 8-bit precursor to the likes of Gran Turismo.
In Formula One: Built to Win, players start off with a lowly Mini Cooper and must earn money through winning races, in order to purchase better car parts, improve their cars through tuning, earn more racing licenses – and build their way to entering and winning the Formula One championship.
Over the course of your racing career, you’ll enter street races (avoiding civilian cars as well as taking on other competitors) and can even earn money by gambling in Las Vegas!
The Formula One tracks are all based on their real world equivalents too.
It’s a deep and satisfying experience, yet is often overlooked in favour of more well known, arcade style racing games.
Though if you’re after a quick race, you can bypass all of the career mode stuff and take part in time trials in Free Mode!
In our opinion however, this ambitious, career-based Formula One title is undoubtedly the best NES racing game of all time!
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Jason – who lives in the UK – has had a lifelong interest in video games, which all started when he discovered Space Invaders in the early 80s. The first game he ever completed was Wonder Boy in Monster Land on the Sega Master System – which remains one of his proudest gaming achievements. Jason is a passionate writer – and has been writing about gaming since the late 90s. He currently runs pop culture blog midlifegamergeek.com, which he updates on a daily basis (and has written more than 700 articles on the blog alone!).
Outside of video games, Jason is a keen tabletop gamer, film buff and comic book fan.