DOS was once the cornerstone of a good gaming PC, back when we still used floppy discs and game sizes were measured in kilobytes. But things have changed since then, with the advent of CDs and 3D games with massive worlds. However, you’d be surprised how much fun you can have with a good DOS game.
Today, I shall take a look at the best 30 DOS racing games of all time. These may not wow you with their graphics, but you’ll be drawn in by the excellent selection of exotic cars and scenic racetracks. Plus, the soundtracks on these games are quite catchy and complement the old-school design very well.
The most fun DOS racing game is a bit of a forerunner for future car brawlers and stunt games. If you like Twisted Metal or Burnout Paradise, you’re going to love Carmageddon. The game combines track racing with exotic locations and plenty of roadside “obstacles” for you to run over with your beefed-up racing machine.
So violent was this game for its time, that some countries censored it or banned all sales. There are pedestrians on each track that can be run over, reducing them to a mangled mess of blood and bones. Smashing into your opponent’s vehicle nets you bonus points, as does running over pedestrians.
While Carmageddon is a game for those who like to enjoy loads of automotive gore and violence, Stunts is the exact opposite. It is also a stunt racer that encourages you to make daring moves. But everything takes place in a sanitized, professional environment.
Instead of crashing into pedestrians and other racers, you must complete each lap as quickly as you can. Driving mechanics are much more realistic, and each track features several challenges. There are loops, corkscrews, banked turns, slaloms, etc. to test your driving skills.
Burnout: Championship Drag Racing
Despite the name, this has no connection to the Burnout series of games that started in 2001. Championship Drag Racing was made by MediaTech West. The developers partnered with Hot Rod Magazine for promotional material and design inspiration.
This is also Bethesda’s first racing game and laid the foundation for their IHRA series of drag racing games. To be successful in Burnout: Championship Drag Racing, you must understand the basic rules of professional drag racing. Things like temperature, the elevation of the track, tires, etc. can make a big difference.
Before each run, you’re given the option to customize your vehicle. You can swap out engines, modify the bore and stroke, change compression ratios, add more powerful induction, and tweak cam timings. After the race, a detailed chart containing telemetry data is displayed to help you break down the run and optimize settings for future races.
Formula One: Grand Prix
In the US, this game was published as “World Circuit”. Much like Burnout: Championship Drag Racing, this is also a simulator game. But instead of doing the quarter mile with Top-Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, you hit the world’s most exotic racetracks in an F1 car to post the fastest laps.
The game is based on the 1991 F1 season but doesn’t contain any official team/ driver names as it isn’t licensed by the FIA or any F1 team. You can tune your car’s handling characteristics and swap out parts to improve its performance. Driving physics and track models were extremely detailed for the time and inspired many other racing sims.
The Need For Speed
Back then, NFS was created in collaboration with Road & Track magazine. Originally released for the 3DO, NFS came with 8 sports cars. A ninth was added in subsequent versions of the game for other platforms.
Even back then, staples of the NFS formula had already been established. Cop cars, traffic, checkpoint racing, etc. are all present in The Need For Speed.
The graphics and car models were extremely realistic for the time. Each vehicle came with an audio description plus real-life photos.
Some DOS racing games feature F1 cars or rally cars. While others are automotive combat simulators in which you use armored vehicles outfitted with machine guns and rocket launchers. However, Street Rod occupies a niche of its own.
It’s one of the earliest racing games to put vehicle customization at the forefront. Think of games like Underground 2 and the level of customization you were offered. Street Rod is that, but with a focus on American hotrods.
Ever wondered what Ridge Racer would look like if it had been released on PC? Wonder no more, because Screamer contains some of the best elements from that game. And, it’s also a very good-looking game for something released in the mid-1990s.
The sequels used 3D hardware rendering, but Screamer 1 uses software rendering. Back in the day, you needed a pretty beefy PC with a Pentium processor to play this game. The cars are modeled after real-life vehicles like Porsche’s 911 and Lamborghini’s Diablo, but they carry fictional names due to a lack of licensing.
A top-down battle racer, Death Rally is a story-based game in which your character starts with a weak car and $495. You upgrade your little VW Beetle with new armor, guns, and a range of gadgets. Then, you take on racers in the Death Rally series.
Each win grants you money which can be used to purchase better cars and new parts. After going through the entire ladder, you face off against the final boss who is called Adversary. This is a 1-vs-1 race, and the winner is crowned King of Death Rally.
Lamborghini American Challenge
An upgrade of Crazy Cars III, Lamborghini American Challenge adds a two-player mode and a new soundtrack based on the jazz fusion genre. Some subtle UI changes are also present. In Lamborghini American Challenge, your goal is to become America’s top street racer.
Of course, driving through freeway traffic in modified Lamborghini supercars at 200mph is highly illegal (and quite dangerous). But you won’t care, because the thrill of flying past traffic to overtake your opponents never gets old.
This game was published in Europe as Fatal Racing and is a type of stunt racer similar to Carmageddon. However, it isn’t as violent or graphic as Carmageddon and has some advanced racing mechanics. The tracks are designed to test your driving skills, alongside your ability to ram into others at high speed.
There are U-turns, 90° turns, corkscrews, hairpins, and loops. You have to make your way through these at the highest speed possible, while also trying to ram into your enemies and disable their cars. In essence, it’s a primitive version of Burnout Paradise.
One of the Sega arcade classics, OutRun was the hottest arcade racer back in the 1980s. Eventually, it got a PC port that carried over all the features from the arcade release. Even though it’s not meant to be a realistic driving game, OutRun has an excellent driving model for its era.
Things like grip, drifting, torque, horsepower, etc. are simulated very well to give driving enthusiasts an enjoyable experience behind their virtual wheel. In OutRun, you drive a Ferrari Testarossa across wide, scenic roads. The game’s levels take inspiration from real-life locations in Monaco, Florence, Milan, Frankfurt, and the Swiss Alps.
Ford Simulator II
You may not know this, but the Ford Motor Company partnered with a software development company in the 1980s to create a video game. Released in 1990, Ford Simulator II contains a selection of vehicles that Ford actually made back then. You can drive these around a wide range of tracks, and the driving model is very simulation-like.
Car models and interior views are realistic, with accurate proportions and attention to detail. You can do touring events, Grand Prix races, drag races, and slalom courses. The game even has a buyer’s guide that lets you customize your car and calculate the price based on features that you opt for.
Grand Theft Auto
The one that started it all, this is the very first Grand Theft Auto game. Today, GTA is a franchise that’s worth more than several Hollywood blockbusters and best-selling music records, combined. GTA V alone has generated $6 billion in revenue.
But the game series had humble beginnings and didn’t go 3D until GTA 3. In GTA 1 you drive around a large city doing jobs for criminals, and stealing cars. In addition to jacking cars, you also do assassination missions and bank heists.
NASCAR is the most popular form of motorsport in the United States, and the 2nd most popular racing series in the world. It has spawned many official video game adaptations over the past three decades. This is one of them and is based on the 1994 Winston Cup season.
It features 25 out of 40 drivers from that season, and you race alongside 38 other cars on the oval track. Interestingly, this is one of the few early racing games to include LAN multiplayer. The CD-ROM edition included an SVGA mode for improved graphics.
Stunt Car Racer
A weird amalgamation of sim racing and stunt racing, this game features Indy Car-style vehicles. But instead of racing on a proper road course, you are put on an elevated path with crests and falls. If you drop into one of the many pits scattered around the track, your vehicle takes damage and has to be hoisted back up with a crane.
Of course, getting lifted back up by a crane costs precious time and worsens your lap. You enter one of four divisions for the season, and each race consists of two laps. There is a turbo boost function that acts like nitrous and lasts for a limited amount of time.
You’ve played as a street racer in plenty of games, but Cisco heat puts you in the shoes of a cop. You drive a patrol car in San Francisco, competing in the National Championship Police Car Steeplechase. The game is one big world divided into sections, and making it to the finish line of each section rewards you with points.
It is similar to OutRun but features narrower roads and two different vehicles (OutRun only has the Ferrari Testarossa). The game has many scenic locations, featuring recreations of real-life monuments and buildings. You can even see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in this game.
A vehicular combat game, but you drive futuristic jet-powered hovercraft instead of regular cars. Each vehicle can be upgraded with new weapons. Most vehicles can be equipped with chain guns and rocket launchers, but some can mount more firepower than others.
Six different upgradable vehicle designs are separated based on their mobility, armor, and firepower. Tracks also have some variety to them, ranging from desolate post-apocalyptic wastelands to futuristic cityscapes. While driving through the track, you can pick up ammo and fuel from recharge stations.
Lotus III: The Ultimate Challenge
It’s like Lamborghini American Challenge but features vehicles from Lotus. In single-player mode, you can do time trials or regular Grand Prix races against AI opponents. In the MS-DOS version of this game, you drive an Esprit S4.
Lotus III is one of the few early racing games that allow you to design your course by defining certain parameters. These parameters include the number of turns, hills, difficulty, scenery, etc. There is also a concept car in the game- the Lotus M200.
MegaRace is one of the earliest racing games to feature full-motion cinematics and a story. Most racing games back then just put you in a car of your choosing, and had you race around a track to score the most points. The game itself is a parody of many combat racing tropes and features a villain who is the host of a reality game show.
In this show, participants fight for survival in a life-or-death contest against gangs who use high-speed vehicles armed with powerful weapons. The villainous host also guides you through the game and its mechanics, occasionally taunting or discouraging you to set the mood for the final showdown.
NASCAR Racing 2
While the first NASCAR racing was an impressive leap forward in the sim racing genre for American motorsport fans, NASCAR Racing 2 upped the ante. It introduced a new engine and multiplayer game modes. Thanks to this new engine, 3D hardware acceleration was supported.
This improved the visuals and allowed for more detailed car models. The driving physics and sound engine were also improved.
Because of how the camera works in this game, driving can be a very frustrating experience. But once you get the hang of it, it is a nice way to test your reflexes and hand-eye coordination. In PC Rally, you don’t get a cockpit view or a 3rd-person view from the rear of the vehicle.
Instead, you have this weird isometric camera angle that is typically seen in indie RTS and RPG games. Then, you use on-screen direction indicators to get an idea of the upcoming turns in the track. There is no map built into the HUD, and each track has offroad sections plus hills that make your job even harder.
Power Drive is very similar to PC Rally in terms of gameplay. Both are rally racers in which you get an isometric camera, with no HUD-mounted map. You rely on turn indicators to navigate around the track and its various obstacles.
The game has a variety of divisions and race modes. You can select from a roster of rally cars that are based on real-life models. And there is a vehicle damage system, so you have to fix components using the money you earn after each race.
An F1 sim in which you can race around various popular Grand Prix tracks such as Spa, Silverstone, Monaco, and Imola. The game lets you choose your team and driver. It also has a weather forecast system for racing seasons, along with car tuning options.
Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a toy company based out of San Francisco made little toy sets containing motorsport cars and race tracks. They were called Micro Machines. This game is based on that toy line and features a top-down camera view.
You race little toy cars around a variety of environments- sand, mud, grass, asphalt, etc. You even race inside households, driving your toy car through bathrooms and on top of dining tables.
A sci-fi racing game in which you drive motorcycles that can levitate above the ground and reach speeds above 300mph. The world is set in a dystopian future, with a dark and mature theme that envelopes everything from the UI to the level design. Back in the day, critics praised its excellent graphics and sci-fi setting but found the gameplay to be very generic.
Days of Thunder
If you’ve ever watched the old Days of Thunder movie, you’ll instantly recognize some of its plot points and characters that have been copied into this game. It is in fact, a licensed NASCAR racing sim based on the movie. The soundtrack is also taken from Days of Thunder.
It’s a weird combination of Death Race and Grand Theft Auto. Quarantine is a battle racer in which you drive specialized battle taxis inside a quarantined post-apocalyptic city. There are criminals, drug lords, and fixers who get you to do their dirty jobs by smuggling sensitive “packages” around the city.
Another rally racer in which you have an isometric camera angle. But, it has a two-player split-screen mode and the graphics are much better than anything else from this era. Plus, the camera gives you a wide enough view so you don’t need any turn indicators.
African Trail Simulator
A motocross game in which you drive a dirt bike through an African trail while trying not to run out of fuel. Think of this game as an early version of those 2D stunt bike browser games you played some 15 years ago. It is a side-scroller, and the bike handling can be quite unpredictable.
When Atari released the arcade version of this game in 1989, it was one of the earliest racers to make use of 3D polygons. The PC version is mostly the same game, with a few tweaks here and there. Vehicle handling is quite advanced for a game designed in the 1980s because it was developed by taking feedback from an actual racing driver.
Racing games these days fall into one of two extremes. Either they are hyper-realistic racing sims or Fast & Furious wannabes with hip-hop music and annoying characters spouting one-liners who try way too hard to be cool. But back in the 1980s, you had this thing called variety with car games coming in all forms.
There were sci-fi racers, realistic sims, death race-style battle games featuring outlandish vehicles with machine guns attached to every surface, and more. There were also clones of Mario Kart (that’s how the kart racing genre took off). Tuner culture wasn’t as big, and you had exotics like Lamborghinis and Ferraris instead of Mitsubishis and Toyotas.