Most of us only barely recognized it at the time, but we now look at the PlayStation 2 as one of the best gaming consoles of all time.
This fondness has little to do with the power of the system, as it was on the weaker side when compared to the original Xbox and even the Nintendo GameCube. Instead, it’s about the games.
And while the PlayStation 2 is best known for its awesome RPGs, there are plenty of other PS2 games worth noting—such as its racing games. Remember those?
Here are some of the best PS2 racing games that graced the system. The competition was fierce given that there were so many of them, but we narrowed it down to the very best.
Need for Speed: Underground took the series from sunny blue skies to neon-lit streets and car tuning culture.
Need for Speed: Underground 2 is more of the same, though because developer EA Black Box was iterating on the formula, it was free to make some improvements.
While Lap Knockout was dropped from the first game outside of the campaign, Need for Speed: Underground 2 adds variations on existing gameplay to up the variety.
Most people probably would have chosen Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec to represent the franchise here, and that is absolutely a great game. Gran Turismo 4 just has more variety, not to mention a more forgiving single-player campaign, which is nice for those of us who aren’t series veterans.
Gran Turismo has always lingered toward the sim-style racing game, but not so far that you need a racing wheel. This entry features more cars and better graphics than A-Spec, though it still lacked the online multiplayer that would come to define the series.
With this was the first Wipeout game with a developer not named Psygnosis, that was largely ceremonial. Psygnosis was now known as Sony’s Studio Liverpool. Still, Wipeout Fusion feels very different than the PS1 games that preceded it.
Among other things, Wipeout Fusion implemented an almost RPG-style upgrade system. This meant that even if you lost a race, you were still working toward upgrades that could help you win races in the future.
This, combined with the solid multiplayer, made for one of the best games on the PS2.
While the biggest name from the Burnout series is undoubtedly Burnout Paradise, that is the only game from the series to feature that brand of open world driving fun.
Before that, the series was mainly straight-up arcade racing with an unhealthy obsession with crashes.
Of those games, Burnout 3: Takedown is the best, and we’re not just talking about in the series. Burnout 3: Takedown remains even now one of the best racing games of all time.
The first Midnight Club was very much a PlayStation 2 tech demo, as was Rockstar’s other pre-Grand Theft Auto 3 open-world game, Smuggler’s Run. That said, there was fun to be had in the first Midnight Club that Rockstar San Diego built on for Midnight Club II.
Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition is a major step up, as the first game in the series to feature licensed vehicles and also the first to allow for customizing those cars.
Critics weren’t especially fond of MX vs. ATV Unleashed, but this game was the first to mash up the MX and ATV Offroad Fury series, bringing the best of both into a single game.
Judging based on the name, you’d assume you drive dirt bikes and ATVs. That’s not the case, as you can also drive monster trucks, dune buggies, and even golf carts, among other vehicles.
Yes, Crash Nitro Kart is a fairly middle of the road kart racer. And yes, an apples-to-apples comparison of the generation’s equivalent Mario Kart will always show the weaknesses of the Crash kart racers. That said, Crash Nitro Kart is still a blast.
A large part of this comes down to the power slide mechanic. This is similar to the hop-slide found in many Mario Kart games, though it throws another button and some timing into the mix, making effectively boosting your way through corners more satisfying than it has any right to be.
The original Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit introduced the racers-vs-cops gameplay, but Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 turned all the knobs up to 11.
While at its roots, this is still a race around the circle racing game, the addition of the police and the various obstructions they’ll throw in your way make it feel like no other game on the PS2.
Then there are the other game modes. The mode where you play as the police taking out speeders is fun, letting you execute PIT maneuevers as well as deploy items like spike strips and barricades.
MotorStorm was born on the PlayStation 3, so what exactly is a MotorStorm game doing on the older generation of the console?
Basically, no one—including Sony—expected how well the PS2 would continue to sell, which is why this game was released for the PS2 as well as the PlayStation Portable in 2009.
Even more surprisingly, it plays well. The icy environments actually factor into the gameplay, letting you cool your overheating boost by driving into snow or water. Even if you’ve never played the PS3 originals, it’s worth picking this one up for your PS2 collection.
More Modern Racing Games
Looking over this list, you might notice that few of these games resemble what we see in modern racing games.
The Wipeout series has remained largely unchanged, but the Need for Speed series is quite a bit different now compared to how it was when the Underground games were released.
If you have a PlayStation 4 and want to expand your racing game collection even further with modern titles, there are plenty of excellent PS4 racing games worth checking out.