Racing Game History: A Brief History of Dakar Rally Games

Earlier this month, we announced the final round of DLC for Dakar Desert Rally, an open-world racing game interpretation of the legendary off-road endurance race organized by the Amaury Sports Organization. You can practically count the grains of sand as your tires dig into the terrain–and why shouldn’t you? This is a version of Dakar with all the particle effects, photo-realism, and shiny graphics you expect from modern video games. 

With a history stretching back to 1978, you bet your buggy there’s more takes on Dakar than the new-fangled one from Saber Interactive. Let’s hit the highlights: 

Take Paris-Dakar Rally Special (1988) for the Nintendo Famicom (the console that would become the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West). When you can’t do photo-realistic graphics, you’ve got to make due any way you can. Maybe that’s why in addition to thematically appropriate levels that have you avoiding boulders while racing through a ravine, Rally Special’s other levels have you avoiding eggs laid mid-flight by oversized birds, or submerging your rally car for an aquatic run while dodging crustaceans. Paris-Dakar (1988), a PC game released on computers ranging from the Amiga to the ZX Spectrum, was slightly more realistic with a top-down interpretation of the race. 

Dakar ‘97 brought the Dakar into the third-dimension with all the low-polygon graphics the PlayStation 1  could muster. The game is particularly crude with tons of pop-in, such as canyon walls completing themselves, as you zoom through the level. We thoroughly enjoy the cardboard cut-out bystanders who offer at least the suggestion of waving you on as you leave them behind like so many pixelated jpegs.  

When it comes to spending our retro racing game budget, we prefer Acclaim’s Paris-Dakar Rally for the PlayStation 2 and Windows. Based on the Dakar run in the year 2000, this interpretation of “the most grueling race on the planet” achieved graphics approaching photo realism. Players choose their preferred vehicle with 4x4s, motorbikes, buggies, and quad classes available to make the trek. Each vehicle can receive damage that, just like the real thing, can hamper your progress. The game features a campaign mode that takes you through the full Dakar from the safety of your living room, and also an arcade mode for an action-packed race against the clock. 

Paris-Dakar Rally would get a follow up for the PlayStation 2 as well as Game Cube and the original Xbox in Dakar 2: The World’s Ultimate Rally in 2003. This sequel followed the 2002 running of the event and focused the available vehicles to bikes, cars, and trucks. Once again players raced from Paris, France to Dakar Senegal, this time across twelve distinct tracks. 

As much as we’d like to motor our way through one thousand-plus miles of some of the most difficult terrain on the planet in an endurance race that most don’t finish, let alone win, we’re going to stick to video games. Good thing there are plenty of Dakar games to choose from.