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Anyone With an Apple TV or iPhone Can Play the Greatest Racing Games Ever, Right Now

Thanks to the release of RetroArch on the App Store, the finest driving games of the '90s can live in your pocket or on your TV.
Adam Ismail

Look, it’s very simple: If a device I own has the capability to run old racing games, I’m using it for that purpose. A few weeks ago, Apple opened the floodgates to emulating old video game consoles on iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV, and just this week, RetroArch—perhaps the most popular emulation software there is—landed on the company’s App Store. Last night, our editor-in-chief Kyle told us he’d gotten San Francisco Rush running on his Apple TV. I don’t own one of those, but I do have an iPhone 14 Pro; lo and behold, I’ve now got Rage Racer in my pocket.

So this is a very exciting development for retro gamers in the Apple ecosystem—especially those of us who love our classic racers in particular, because the ’90s and early 2000s had the finest of the lot. Through RetroArch, which is considered a “front end” as it compiles a multitude of different “cores” that actually handle the heavy lifting of running the games, you can sample everything from the days of Atari to the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation Portable. That seems to be about where the timeline stops; I’m not seeing a core for Sega Dreamcast in the app as downloaded, and once you get to the PS2 and GameCube (don’t even mention the original Xbox), emulation gets considerably more power-intensive and complex.

The original PlayStation is a snap, though. I recall playing Gran Turismo 2 on my first-get Motorola Droid in senior year study hall, and that was more than a decade ago, so it’s little sweat for today’s Apple Silicon. Really, the only barriers to enjoying a classic like Rage Racer on your iPhone right now are 1) your access to an actual controller, and 2) setting up the dang app. RetroArch can be a bit of a bear even on desktop, so you can imagine that on the screen of a mobile device, with the limited file system freedom that iOS allows, you run into some annoyances fairly quickly.

For example, if you’re AirDropping your game backups from your Mac to your iPhone or iPad, you’re going to want to make sure they’re unzipped before they land on your device, because the iOS Files app can’t do that on its own. (There are third-party apps that can, but I sampled three of them before finding one that actually worked.) Without getting too deep into the weeds here, certain RetroArch cores may run games while they are zipped, but if you’re playing a PS1 title in .bin/.cue format, like Rage Racer, with Red Book audio as many early PlayStation racing games had, you won’t have music during gameplay if you load the title without unzipping it first. And, frankly, a Ridge Racer game without the jams isn’t really Ridge Racer, nor anything I’m interested in playing.

Sega Rally may be the greatest handling racing game of all time, but believe me: it still needs a controller. Adam Ismail

Once you’ve settled that, though, it’s all pretty straightforward. To my surprise, even Sega Rally Championship on the Sega Saturn—a platform that’s comparatively rougher to emulate than the PS1—was faultless thanks to the Beetle Saturn core. Me running out of time before the second checkpoint on the Forest stage was totally down to the touchscreen controls, rather than the quality of the emulation itself.

As such, I can’t stress it enough to my fellow retro racers: if you haven’t tried emulation on Apple’s devices a shot yet, give it a whirl. Yes, I’ve got these games on my MacBook Air and gaming PC, and if I owned a Steam Deck, I’d certainly have them there, too. But there’s something really special about knowing whatever I’m doing, wherever I am, I could pull Sega Rally out my goddamn pocket. Who says there’s no such thing as a cure for boredom?

Wanna talk racing games? Hit me up at adam.ismail@thedrive.com