These nine retro driving games will shift your nostalgia into top gear

A screen-grab from Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed.
A screen-grab from Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed.

With the motoring industry at a standstill like every other sector under a world battling Covid-19, you will have noticed that this team has become better acquainted with the art of the online listicle.

If you fall into the millennial category, the one you are about to read now is likely to induce a strong bout of nostalgia. Full disclosure: I was born in 1992. Endless noise from a toddler astride a plastic motorcycle on the concrete hallway in my apartment block got me thinking. Every petrolhead has stories about the childhood pastimes that kindled a love for all things wheeled.

And those whose dates of birth coincided with the era that saw notable strides in the area of digital leisure are bound to reference countless kilometres spent behind keyboards or holding controllers.

These were my favourite virtual car game titles growing up, capped at the year 2005, during which point the onset of a light pre-teen moustache prompted other pursuits. Like shaving.

Colin McRae Rally — 1998

Seven-year old me had no idea who Colin McRae was. But the airborne Subaru Impreza on the cover of the PlayStation game was enough to pique the interest of a car-crazy kid.

It featured a dozen vehicles (including bonus treats like the Ford RS2000 and Audi Quattro S1) as well as a tutorial mode with instruction from the man himself. Colin McRae Rally 2.0 was the follow-up and the game evolved into the Dirt series.

Mr McRae, among your many achievements is the inspiration you gave to a legion of sofa-based junior dreamers. Rest in peace.

Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit — 1998

Cops and robbers with high-octane twist! You could evade law enforcement in exotica such as the Lamborghini Diablo SV and Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR.

Or if you could not beat them, join them, serving in the force replete with a fleet of siren-fitted performance cars. Some environments felt as though they could have been modelled on parts of SA, like the Hometown track, which looked like the Free State in my young mind.

One also recalls how typing “Spoiled” as the character name on introduction would unlock all cars and circuits. A nifty cheat.

Midtown Madness — 1999

Published by Microsoft, Midtown Madness was a game compatible with Windows 95 and 98. And it was superb!

Gameplay was more arcade-style than simulator, allowing players to roam free through the streets of Chicago in a variety of rides such as a fourth-generation Mustang. But Midtown Madness 2 for Windows 2000 and XP (wow!) was even better, because you could drive in two different cities: San Francisco and London.

The cars were diverse, from a Volkswagen Beetle RS to a Ford F-350 and even a massive Freightliner.

Need for Speed: High Stakes — 1999

First, an apology to my best friend, whose PC copy of this game I am yet to return to this day.

As the name suggests, this instalment of the Need for Speed franchise introduced an element of gambling to proceedings, where in career mode you would bet your car against opponents in races.

An interesting mix of cars featured, too, from a Mercedes-Benz SLK at the bottom end, to a BMW M5 in between and a Ferrari 550 Maranello if you had really earned your keep. The in-car perspective was fantastic.

So too was the vehicle showcase function of the game, which offered a detailed narration of each car on offer: great trivia for detention-time banter.

Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed — 2000

Porsche is undeniably among an elite group of marques whose pedigree warrants the development of an entire video game. And so, it happened at the turn of the new millennium.

Porsche Unleashed let us experience the wares bearing the famed crest, from 1955 to what was then the peak of the entire lineage, the 996 iteration of the iconic 911 and the 986 Boxster. Gameplay seemed as realistic as it could be at the time.

Note what happened, for example, if you lifted off the throttle (space bar) while driving a 930 Turbo, mid-corner. There were also oddities like the Volkswagen-badged 914 to be driven.

Methinks a remake is in order, given how much the Stuttgart manufacturer has evolved since that period.

Gran Turismo 3 — 2001

For reasons that escape me, the predecessors to the third Gran Turismo game never made it into my collection. Could have been over chore-related misdemeanours or something.

Anyway, some might recall number three as being a game-changer in the most literal sense. For starters, it represented the first time the title had been made available for the then-new PlayStation 2 format.

Secondly, the calibre of resolution and clarity (for its time, of course) had us all fervently believing that yes, this was indeed “The real driving simulator” as the tagline extolled. But what was truly astounding was the sheer number of machines on offer.

Yes, there were the obvious heroes (Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Honda NSX, various Nissan Skylines) but the more left-field stars of performance motoring featured too. Renault Clio V6, anyone? Also, one learnt that a Mazda MX-5 (NA) offered the best value for the allocated credits when starting off in the entry ranks of the game.

Lotus Challenge — 2001

An underrated ode to an equally underrated brand: the world needs to see the revival of Lotus. Not many people were lucky enough to bag a copy of Lotus Challenge for PlayStation 2, it seemed.

But what a great tribute it was to the efforts of Colin Chapman and his legacy. Top marks for accuracy with regards to the catalogue of models, right from the 7, to the Esprit and the Elise. Even the cult favourite Carlton could be driven.

The realistic nature of damage sustained was impressive, too, noting how sad a poor 1962 Elan would look if driven into a wall with its pop-up lights in the active position.

Need for Speed: Underground — 2003

To the window! To the wall! Oh yes, you know the reference and you know the song. This was the game that capitalised on the ever-increasing fascination with tuner culture, as popularised of course by the creation of a certain franchise with an alliterative title.

Underground was just epic. From the endless scope of customisation, to the storyline with its interwoven cinematic sequences, it was a game that one lived in for a long time. In two-player mode, friends and I would race while dropping dialogue from the beloved Fast & Furious original.

And if you deny doing the same, then you are lying. Like Brian did, in that scene with Hector and the Spoon engines.

Gran Turismo 4 — 2004

I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 2004 and I was 11, attending the Auto Africa exhibition. At which copies of a Gran Turismo 4 demo were given to the public — a special format of the game punting the first-generation BMW 1-Series that had just been launched. It was a taste of things to come, allowing players to virtually sample the 120d.

Amusingly, this was the first time a diesel car was featured in the game. Months later I managed to get my hands on the full game. And it did not disappoint. The pool of cars expanded dramatically, even stretching as far back as 1886 with the Daimler Motor Carriage.

At this point, I realised that my lack of a PlayStation 2 memory card would severely affect my progress. Playing all through the night, only to have grandma switch it off unknowingly the next morning, was not going to be sustainable.