Racing games on the Game Boy Advance — it’s a pairing that sounds like a bad time. The GBA, beloved though it was with many fantastic titles in its library, was at its core a system designed to play 2D games. And driving a car is an experience that benefits greatly from a third dimension. It’s surprising so many publishers even bothered with the genre on the handheld at all and yet, my rough don’t-quote-me estimation is that there were about six times as many racing games released on the GBA than the Nintendo Switch has now. Why even talk about them?
See, last week I got my hands on the Analogue Pocket I’d ordered back in December. (Two-word review: It’s great.) The Pocket is a Game Boy clone to put it simply, except it has an infinitely better screen, a rechargeable battery and can play cartridges from many different retro handheld systems, not just the Game Boy. And in the past several days since I received mine, I’ve been reacquainting myself with a handful of racing games I owned for my GBA during my youth, like GT Advance 3: Pro Concept Racing, Mario Kart Super Circuit, F-Zero Maximum Velocity and Top Gear Rally.
I didn’t think much of these games when I initially played them, other than that they were watered-down takes on the sort of racers I had enjoyed on home consoles. I was too young to know that Super Circuit and Maximum Velocity — GBA launch window releases — were really just warmed-up versions of the original Mario Kart and F-Zero for Super Nintendo. I don’t recall playing either for very long. Their rotating, pseudo-3D “Mode 7” effect was disappointing to me even on a handheld, at a time when Gran Turismo 3, the visual tour-de-force that it was on PS2, was the present obsession.
Later I discovered GT Advance, which was a thinly-veiled attempt to capitalize on the desire for a Gran Turismo-like experience on the go. As ridiculous as that sounds on paper, the result was surprisingly competent. Sure, the driving was physically lacking, but the game’s roster of ’90s and 2000s Japanese performance mainstays like the Toyota AE86 (in full Initial D trim, mind you), the then-new Nissan 350Z and even oddities like the Mitsuoka Orochi and ASL RS01/Tommykaira ZZII endeared me to it. And, in true Gran Turismo fashion, you could even upgrade your rides.
But then things got really interesting for GBA racing games, and here we’re getting to the inspiration for this stroll down memory lane. Top Gear Rally was the last game I recall getting for my GBA, and the one I played the most. Now that I have the Analogue Pocket, it’s the one I’m revisiting the most, too. Developed by Tantalus, Top Gear Rally was impressive enough to earn Nintendo’s attention, so the Game Boy-maker took it upon itself to publish the title everywhere but in Japan.
By the time Top Gear Rally hit the GBA in 2003, many developers were experimenting with 3D polygonal graphics — particularly for shooters and racing games. Not all were executed well, but Top Gear Rally was a shining star of the era, delivering a reasonably smooth, 32-bit-console-esque experience that was arguably on par with something you might’ve played on the Sega Saturn six to seven years earlier.
In Mario Kart, F-Zero and GT Advance, you drove a pre-rendered vehicle on a rotating plane of flat sprites. There was no topography to the track and no scenery, and the vehicles occupied a comically small portion of the screen space. Top Gear Rally, by contrast, was fully polygonal with consistent 30 frame-per-second gameplay and 3D car models that dynamically rolled in corners, handled believably and could leave the ground. Of course this is all quaint by modern standards, but the fact Tantalus was achieving these things on hardware made predominantly for side-scrollers and puzzle games was stunning 19 years ago. I certainly never expected I’d be playing a racing title that looked like it on my GBA when I got it in 2001.
And Top Gear Rally wasn’t the only GBA racer that pulled off such feats. The handheld’s port of V-Rally 3, developed by Velez & Dubail, is usually the example retro fans turn to first when asked to highlight the GBA punching leagues above its graphical weight. While the player’s car in V-Rally 3 is pre-rendered unlike the polygonal model in Top Gear Rally, the detail is nonetheless higher and the 3D environment is far more intricate, leading to more varied scenery. Velez & Dubail even included an interior camera view, in the form of a bitmap dashboard layer over the 3D field. V-Rally 3 looked so good on the GBA that it put some early PlayStation racers to shame; hell, it was arguably the best version of that game released for any platform.
There were yet more examples of the GBA being pushed beyond its limits, specifically for racing games. Stuntman, Sega Rally Championship, Colin McRae Rally 2.0, Need For Speed Underground, and Toca World Touring Cars all got ports for the platform. Some of those were admittedly rough; Sega Rally is a poster child for ambition over technical prowess, but at least it has bit-crushed versions of my favorite Sega Rally tunes.
The Analogue Pocket has motivated me to revisit many of these forgotten racers, and I’m so glad I have. Much like what was happening in arcades in the early-’90s, this was an era of gaming where it felt like developers were regularly shattering boundaries. Sure — there’s a degree of nostalgia talking there, but the gains were routinely huge, all in a matter of just a few years.
If you’d like to know more, YouTuber minimme did an extensive dive into the history of 3D graphics on the GBA linked above where you’ll see a number of the games mentioned in this article explored in a more chronological context, so you can better observe the progress unfold. I highly recommend checking it out, and dusting off your old Game Boy to revisit a pocket-sized racer of your choosing when you have the time. They were little marvels.