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Fifth & Six Generation Emulators Provide an Unlikely Racing Game Fix

A couple years back, there was this really obscure article written on Jalopnik explaining how the most underrated cheap truck you could buy was a 2001 Toyota Tundra. It was definitely written as a filler piece by Andrew Collins, his used truck shopping adventure that nobody really cares about at the end of the day blown up into a full-length article to appease his overlords desperate for content, but the core argument he made was pretty sound. The truck itself wasn’t exactly spectacular compared to then-new 2015 models, but the package struck a compromise between capability and economy that Collins claims “everybody forgets [it] exists.”

And… he’s right. When shopping for a truck, full stop, people sometimes get fixated on what’s new and shiny, neglecting a decade’s worth of used vehicles in the process.

There’s also a fantastic line from Andrew about how “last decade’s ‘luxury’ is today’s ‘just right’” – the features you’d come to expect as standard in a new vehicle today, were featured in high end trim packages fifteen to twenty years ago and are now in an extremely affordable price range. You can buy a used truck, and aside from some rust underneath the door, it doesn’t feel dated once inside the cockpit and generally serves it’s purpose quite well.

The same mentality applies to racing games in the year 2021.

I’m definitely noticing some fatigue when it comes to modern racing titles, and you can see it in forum posts or little quips on twitter here and there. Those who have spent a good chunk of time partaking in the hobby over the last handful of years have slowly come to realize that iRacing’s tire issues, Need for Speed’s numerous hidden driving assists, and the constantly changing physics or FFB in Automobilista 2, are all situations that may carry on indefinitely.

A lot of you haven’t lost your passion for cars or auto racing, but feel like you’re running out of options in terms of games to play. Each piece of software you buy ends up feeling like an eternal science project after the first few evenings spent bombing around the track, and you lack the motivation to sit down in the rig. Your go-to to unwind may have been Forza 7 or The Crew 2, but they’re just not cutting it anymore, either, since both essentially feel like the same game.

I’m here to say that like the 2001 Toyota Tundra, “last generation’s luxury is today’s just right” can also apply to the racing games of yesteryear that you’ve likely forgotten about.

While not every PS2 or GameCube game is worth revisiting – I don’t think anyone’s itching to play Street Racing Syndicate – some of the critically acclaimed racers from that console generation still hold up quite well, especially when upscaled through an emulator and played with a modern steering wheel setup.

In short, there’s no reason to be bored of racing games – there’s an entire library you’re now missing out on, and it’s a beautiful thing.

What were once actual science projects, Dolphin and PCSX2 now both run extremely well on mid-range gaming PC’s. Whether you were a Nintendo fanboy or part of the Sony master race, both emulators feature extremely high compatibility rates across 95% of each console’s respective library, and both feature steering wheel support – with Dolphin it’s automatically built-in (select the Steering Wheel option when configuring your controller), whereas for PCSX2 it’s as easy as downloading a simple drag and drop plug-in. If there’s a game with minor graphics hiccups, there is almost always a wiki entry explaining how to get around them in seconds – usually by ticking a single box inside the Emulator’s config screen.

Both emulators also make activating Action Replay cheats or installing 100% save files, piss easy – the lengthy single player grind associated with some games like Gran Turismo or Enthusia, can now be entirely neglected and the games treated more like a sandbox. If it pissed you off growing up that you never quite had the time to unlock the Formula One cars in Gran Turismo 3, that’s no longer a problem.

Throwing it back even further, a recently-released plugin for an obscure PSX controller also allows for the use of your modern PC racing wheel in original Sony PlayStation games. I personally don’t recommend going this route because you’ll quickly learn that beyond the pair of Gran Turismo titles, many PSX racers didn’t age all that well, but blasting around the tracks of your childhood at incomprehensible speeds can be hilarious for an evening or two regardless.

It can be quite time consuming to sift through potentially hundreds of racing games to experiment with on these emulators, so I’ve narrowed it down to just the five that you should try if this idea or revisiting old games with a modern sim setup piques your interest. These titles all feature a relatively painless configuration process, and the core gameplay experience involves great handling, great AI, and some sort of compelling singleplayer mode. These five games will sell you on the concept immediately, and from there on out it’s only natural to experiment with other Need for Speed games not listed, various entries in the Gran Turismo franchise, and obscure stuff you may have forgotten about likeRumble Racing.

Need for Speed Hot Pursuit 2 PS2 Gameplay HD (PCSX2) - YouTube

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2

Tips: Inside “Video Plugin Settings”, tick the box to enable “HW Hacks”, and inside the “Advanced Settings” screen, set “Skipdraw Range” to a value of 5.

Hot Pursuit 2 marks the finite end of the “OG NFS” era, before the franchise began aimlessly chasing trends and experimenting with odd design choices such as storylines and open world maps. The 2002 release was quite convoluted – Black Box had been contracted to develop the PS2 variant, whereas EA Seattle helped on the Windows, Xbox, and GameCube versions of the title. The result is two drastically different versions of a simple premise – supercars in exotic locations – with everything from track mesh to menu layout varying wildly based on the version you picked up. It might be tempting to try the GameCube edition because Dolphin by default runs a little better – don’t. It’s not the same game.

The PS2 version was deemed the superior iteration upon release by pretty much every major gaming site, featuring a much tighter handling model, slicker menus, and a surprisingly detailed force feedback model which makes this game worth playing through PCSX2 via the Qemu USB wheel plug-in. The game also allows you to pick between Normal and Extreme handling presets before each race, with the extreme preset resembling a softer front sway bar and stiffer rear springs for a bit more rotation if the track calls for it. Back in the day I found this completely useless on a Dualshock but with the speeds you hit using a proper racing wheel, car setup does become a factor in the back half of the game.

The game itself doesn’t include any of the customization or RPG-lite elements seen in future NFS titles, but it doesn’t need to. This is really the culmination of everything NFS had built up to that point, which at the time was a very simple arcade racer in which you had a fully fleshed out roster of supercars to pick from, and had to deal with the police every few sectors.

The driving model impressed me with how predictable and grounded in reality it was, allowing me to push fairly hard and get up on the wheel without having to learn how to play the game as you would with other arcade racers that have little handling quirks or mechanics. Track design is the most intricate and challenging in the series, though a little too long during early segments of each single player mode when you’re stuck driving Opel and BMW roadsters. Once you’re in the high end stuff reserved for the end of the game, the high speed chicanes and undulations keep you on your toes, and laptimes aren’t the odysseys they once were. It’s an NFS game for elite drivers.

Where Hot Pursuit 2 shines from a modern standpoint is in the curated experience. The game offers two major single player campaign modes – one with a police presence, one without – totaling some 70+ events. As this was really the last game before EA began chasing after a more casual audience with the NFS series, the AI are ruthless and exhibit extreme rubber-banding tendencies. The mix of good, simple arcade driving physics alongside blisteringly quick AI and a cohesive single player mode make this a great pick up and play arcade racer that has aged extremely well. Some of the challenges late in campaign mode are completely insane.

Enthusia Professional Racing PS2 Gameplay HD (PCSX2) - YouTube

Enthusia Professional Racing

Tips: There are some minor graphics issues, follow the settings listed in the description of this video.

It was difficult to determine whether to include Gran Turismo or Enthusia on this list; both are effectively the same JRPG-style car collecting meta-game, yet go about that process in vastly different ways.

While Gran Turismo is the better known franchise and one you’d immediately gravitate towards after configuring PCSX2, playing it with a wheel I think results in a situation akin to “never meet your heroes” – by default the tires are too grippy, the aero too effective, and the singleplayer grind you probably enjoyed as a child or teen some fifteen years ago is now extremely boring and contrived. Enthusia I think is the better experience out of the box, one that doesn’t necessarily rely on nostalgia goggles to hold your interest. It also helps that a lot of people haven’t played this game or were even aware of it’s existence, making it potentially feel like a brand new game to a huge portion of the sim racing community.

By default the cars have a much better sensation of weight to them compared to old Gran Turismo games, and the tire model allows for the kind of big, lazy four wheel slides you’ve probably experienced a fair bit throwing around numerous street cars in Assetto Corsa. Cars rotate under braking quite nicely and it’s easy to get into the “rhythm” a lot of professional race car drivers talk about. The driving model is never about moving your hands as quickly as possible and exhausting yourself in pursuit of a geometrically perfect line, but rather being smooth and consistent. To me it’s quite interesting turning hotlaps in some of the slower “meme” cars featured in Enthusia – such as the Mazda Eunos Roadster or the Chevy Astro Van – as the physics advancements touted as a main selling point for Assetto Corsa seem to have been replicated on inferior hardware some eight years prior to AC’s release. You could repackage the driving model in Enthusia, sell it to the PC sim crowd in 2021, and nobody would really notice a difference.

What makes Enthusia unique beyond it’s stellar driving model, is the package it’s been wrapped up in and I think this will be compelling for a lot of sim racers. Gran Turismo – a favorite of many sim racers – simply asks you to win races however you see fit, whereas Enthusia actively pushes you to be a better driver.

The game’s core progression mechanic gives out significantly greater in-game rewards for intentionally handicapping yourself and racing in a slower car, and even includes a pseudo iRacing-style safety system that punishes you for barging AI cars out of the way or bouncing off the wall. Enthusia also features it’s own set of license tests and challenge to compete directly with GT’s list of modes, but they too have expanded on GT’s “get from point A to point B on this segment of track as fast as possible” motif, instead including more intricate best line challenges and visual gates to pass through to directly help improve your driving fundamentals.

In many ways, it’s the skeleton of a PC sim with the structure and depth of a console game – something only a Japanese developer in the mid 2000’s could crank out. A game like this, with such an oddball progression structure that would only appeal to capable sim racers, will simply never be made again. In fact, when the game was first released, you could argue it’s target audience wouldn’t exist for another ten years. It was really this hidden gift to the sim racing community whose potential is only now fully realized thanks to emulators.

If you wanted a version of Assetto Corsa with a more cohesive single player campaign mode and an equally diverse selection of cars, this is it.

NASCAR: Dirt to DAYTONA Screenshot 1 - GameCube - The Gamers' Temple

NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona
(Dolphin or PCSX2)

Tips: If you’re using Dolphin, you can enable the free look option inside the emulator configuration panel and move the cockpit seat position – something we take for granted in modern sims.

My North American bias is showing here, but truth be told the Formula One games on fifth and sixth generation consoles never really held up to the stellar offering of PC sims already available at the time. Regardless of what was released for the Xbox, PlayStation, or GameCube, F1 Challenge 99-02 and rFactor were just that much better.

This wasn’t the case with NASCAR games, as the stellar Papyrus sims on the PC were supplemented with equally high quality console-exclusive titles. The Electronic Arts Thunder series usually offered more content, more licensed drivers, and more unlockables, but the best overall game was generally regarded to be NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona, a title developed by Monster Games and based on the 2002 Winston Cup season.

The core physics engine first saw action in Sierra’s Viper Racing and was one of the first times in a PC sim we’d experienced cars that could move around freely in 3D space (in other words, catch air off jumps and flip), and had a tangible level of weight to them. Yes, it was present in GPL and SODA Off-Road Racing, but this was the first time it was done convincingly. The engine was repackaged for Hasbro’s NASCAR Heat series that saw a few releases between 2000 and 2002, with the original PC release accumulating a huge modding community behind it.

What Dirt to Daytona lacks in licenses – the Dodge cars fielded by Ray Evernham are absent, and future seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson doesn’t exist – it makes up for in the sheer size of a game you’re getting. Four distinct racing series on the NASCAR ladder are represented, and a beefy single player career mode that sees you climb said ladder is supplemented by an equally large list of Beat the Heat scenarios that see you avoiding wrecks or chasing down the leaders on worn tires, plus a more generic hotlap challenge mode. Regardless of what mode you’re in, passing certain fastest lap thresholds earns you points that are then put towards unlockables such as the ability for AI drivers to retaliate after getting bumped, or a special hardcore handling model. Even for 2021, this game is massively deep.

The current crop of NASCAR Heat games released from 2016 to 2020 are generally criticized for a handling model which sees cars a bit too glued to the race track, but this isn’t the case in Dirt to Daytona which makes this easily recommendable to the more hardcore crowd of sim racers. Whether it being due to the lack of aero in Generation 4 stock cars, or a slightly more unforgiving tire model, cars are a lot more slippery at cookie cutter speedways, and small setup adjustments have much more noticeable changes. The Whelen Modifieds and dirt street stock cars also provide really unique driving experiences, as opposed to the simplistic renditions of the dirt late model you see in modern heat games. The street stocks are pieces of shit that can be lazily chucked into a corner and take a ton of abuse; the Modifieds blast around faux renditions of Wall Stadium like fighter jets in a supermarket and seemingly have endless grip – as they should.

The attention to detail borders on obsessive; matching car models draft better together at super speedways. If you’re driving a Pontiac and pull up behind another Grand Prix, the draft meter will fill completely; it won’t if you’re behind a Monte Carlo. While it’s possible other sims replicate this, Dirt to Daytona happily provides physical proof.

The game is a must-drive for stock car fans and provides a more complete, more polished experience than the current crop of NASCAR games running on largely the same physics engine. It also helps that this chronicles the sport in it’s prime, with Dale Jr still proudly rocking the Budweiser colors and Rockingham still on the schedule.

F-Zero GX - Dolphin Emulator Wiki

F-Zero GX

Tips: Dolphin has a VR plug-in; I don’t suggest using it for this game unless you want vomit all over your carpet.

When talking about sixth generation arcade racers, consensus in regards to which is the absolute best is usually split down the middle between Criterion’s Burnout series, and F-Zero GX – a joint project between SEGA and Nintendo.

Burnout is my personal choice, but compatibility for Burnout 3: Takedown just isn’t quite there yet, the game requiring you to flip between rendering modes every single race, a process which can get stupidly tedious if you’re just trying to hang out and enjoy the game. F-Zero GX, on the other hand, is boot up and play.

The pre-Wii era of Nintendo was a company hell-bent on destroying the confidence of children. The original sequel to Super Mario Bros. was deemed so difficult that an entirely separate game was prepared for North American markets, but Nintendo abandoned this mentality as projects like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Punch-Out came to define their first two gaming consoles, as did the more insane third-party projects like Battletoads and Contra. Throughout the 32-bit revolution of the 1990’s, Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple and the imminent deadline surrounding all activities inMajora’s Mask threw unnecessarily difficult puzzles at kids, whereas Donkey Kong 64 brought the idea of a collect-a-thon to it’s logical conclusion – unending pain, suffering, and backtracking.

F-Zero GX I think marked the pinnacle of this insanity; a racing game in which most people would be unable to progress beyond the initial difficulty levels, due to the reflexes and skill required.

The back-half of GX features AI pilots that compete at an unrelenting pace, and track design throughout the five available cups quickly progresses from predictable speedways with smooth, flowing corners into all-time technical nightmares. It’s a lot to digest for someone who doesn’t play the game regularly, but in a lot of ways that’s what makes GX so compelling – video games just aren’t made like this anymore.

Whether you opt to play the game with a standard gamepad, or attempt to replicate the F-Zero AX arcade experience with a proper racing wheel, one thing remains incredibly clear – this is an extremely polished game that doesn’t feel seventeen years old. Upscaled on Dolphin, the art direction and overall visual fidelity holds up extremely well. There’s a sort of cartoonish realism in the environment – not unlike Halo 3 – that is used quite liberally. Texture work, especially on the machines themselves, is intricately detailed – closer inspection reveals rust and paint chips on the leading edges which are subjected to high speeds and temperatures.

The gameplay itself… look, these machines don’t exist in real life. There’s really no benchmark as to what’s realistic here and what’s not. What is important, is that the game features really tight controls thanks to being a joint collaboration between the two most prominent devs on the platform, and even some of the advanced exploits were intentionally left in by the dev team because they worked so well. That’s a sign of a quality game.

Provided your eyes can keep up, there’s a beefy game here that is supplemented by Action Replay codes that unlock even more exclusive content originally restricted to the Japanese edition of the game, as well as those who brought their GameCube memory card to rare arcade cabinets in the early 2000’s. The game features dueling campaign modes in the form of a traditional Grand Prix circuit and a more linear story mode, both featuring multiple difficulty options that border on insane. Staff ghosts are available to challenge for those who have somehow conquered the relentless AI, and there’s a vehicle creation mode that allows you to create your own racer from a pretty sizeable list of preset parts. There’s a lot to do and it’s all pretty fleshed out.

It’s not a sim by any means, but it’s a racer you should probably play at some point if you haven’t already. The game didn’t age.

NFS High Stakes (PSX) - Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 vs. Ferrari 550 Maranello  Hot Pursuit Duel - YouTube

Need for Speed: High Stakes

Tips: Each region in which High Stakes was released, features a different car roster. The NA build features the Camaro and Firebird, the AU build contains several Ford & Holden sedans including a V8SC Commodore, and the JP build includes the Nissan Skyline R34.

The lone PSX entry, I think a lot of people expect me to recommend either the first or second Gran Turismo release due to their sheer popularity and the kind of car culture “movement” they started in the late 90’s. Like the PS2 entries, the original GT games aren’t as great as you remember them – with a steering wheel, the physics are quickly exposed as overly gripped up cars that rocket along each circuit at unbelievable speeds, with the game itself being quite grindy in nature.

One game that held up surprisingly well on the PSX after driving it with a wheel, was the fourth iteration in the Need for Speed franchise: High Stakes. This was supposed to be the arcade alternative to Gran Turismo, but with a wheel, the roles have been reversed. It’s bizarre, but it seems the intricacies of each handling model were masked largely by the fact that the majority of us played these games exclusively with a gamepad, and not all of us had a dualshock controller at the time.

Being able to revisit it with the preferred tool of choice – a wheel – and years of sim experience, High Stakes ended up being the better overall package.

The cars in High Stakes I felt had more weight to them than what I’d experienced in Gran Turismo; my first laps in the stock BMW roadster not exactly conveying that I was playing an arcade racer, and the visual fidelity of both the vehicles and environments were leaps and bounds ahead of what GT offered. As you increased the speed with higher-end cars, I found High Stakes required more precision and for me to actually think about what I was doing, whereas GT took the NFS Shift or Project CARS approach – too much initial bite, too much aero, and not enough reliance on driving fundamentals. The whole thing was just weird to experience as it more or less shit on two decade’s worth of PR and fanboy banter, but the claims EA made some twenty years ago about Need for Speed still being a simulator under the hood, those weren’t entirely inaccurate.

High Stakes also gives you more exciting ways to play, which may be a juvenile way of looking at things, but when revisiting old games, nostalgia alone can only go so far. Races against a field of erratic AI opponents that very clearly rely on rubber-banding to keep things interesting are supplemented by races in which you try to survive against an equally erratic and aggressive police force, and both are equally entertaining. Yes, GT has the car count nailed down, the official motorsports atmosphere, and certainly the longer career mode, but you have to take off the nostalgia goggles and realize just how much of GT’s experience is inflated via grinding and filler content, with the races themselves being largely boring affairs against primitive AI.

And when it comes down to it, you’re in for a rude awakening if you’re expecting sim-style handling. It’s a lot more arcade than you remember it when you have that much control over your car.

Those are just the five racing games I’d recommend off the bat for people curious about emulation and wanting to be sold on it within the first hour, but the sky is really the limit when it comes to playing old titles with a modern sim setup.

Given these games had to ship with minimal bugs or else, a lot of these games aged extremely well, and you don’t have to divert a portion of your evening to either configuring it, or waiting for the devs to push out a patch.

You boot it up, and it works.

This also isn’t FIFA or Madden, where we needed a few console generations just for the processing power to make certain elements of the game more realistic

Because the concept of racing is so simple and there are so few elements required – predictable handling cars going around a track, and an AI that more or less turns laptimes on par with the player – it’s quite difficult to find a racing game from “retro” console generations in which things spectacularly fall apart on you with shocking regularity.

With tire models being so primitive at this stage in the history of racing games, instances of low speed spins that you’d see in games like iRacing are non-existent. The other fringe situations you’d see in recent sims like the original Project CARS – where the entire field of AI cars clog at a narrow point in the track and stop moving altogether – this isn’t a risk. You learn very quickly that these are brand new phenomenons only associated with modern sim racing.

Which… may or may not fuel my opinions on modern sim racing just a wee bit, but when you spend an evening with Hot Pursuit II or Enthusia in which nothing falls apart, only to transfer over to a new title and see AI cars barrel rolling off kerbing, you start to see why emulation is a viable option in 2021.

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