Need For Speed: Underground Changed Racing Games 20 Years Ago

No racing game captured street racing’s massive cultural moment of the aughts quite like 2003’s NFS: Underground.

byAdam Ismail|
Video Games photo
Electronic Arts

Twenty years ago this month, I was a very angry 10-year-old. You see, Need for Speed: Underground had just released, and I wasn't having any of it. I wanted to outrun the cops in a Lamborghini Murciélago, not build a Civic Coupe to grace the cover of Super Street. But it didn't really matter what kid me thought, because Underground was a smash hit. It seized the newfound mainstream fervor around tuner culture and street racing following The Fast and the Furious' release two years earlier, and shifted the trajectory of the genre for the rest of the decade. Now two decades on, it stands as one of the most important racing games of all time.

Depending on your age, this game is the reason you and your friends knew the words to "Get Low" by Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz—the clean version, anyway. Or of brands like HKS and DC Sports, or Import Tuner Magazine. NFSU was the right game at the right time, and that was reflected in the title's market performance. Estimates for stuff like this can get a little murky, but rebooting NFS in full street-racing fashion increased the franchise's sales at least by double or as much as ten-fold, depending on where you source your numbers. It also cemented developer EA BlackBox's stewardship of the series for many more years, following the Canadian studio's impressive debut with the PlayStation 2 port of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. You know, the best NFS ever made. I'm not still bitter, I promise.

Name another game where you can drive a normal, not-Evo Mitsubishi Lancer? I'll wait. Adam Ismail/Electronic Arts

In all seriousness, you have to respect Underground's success. There were games vaguely like it before it, of course, from Rockstar's Midnight Club to Genki's Tokyo Xtreme Racer series, which more spoke to Japan's street racing scene before Hollywood caught wind. But none of those seized the moment in quite the way NFSU managed to. As a result, the years that followed saw a flood of also-ran efforts from various publishers hoping to cash in. Street Racing Syndicate and Juiced joined the fray, while contemporary arcade racing mainstays like Test Drive and Rush rebranded themselves in the tuner image, albeit not nearly with the same critical or commercial triumph.

EA of course continued on the street racing beat for many years. Underground produced an open-world sequel, then the beloved Most Wanted followed by Carbon, ProStreet, and Undercover, before the series embarked on some soul-searching again with the sim-like NFS Shift and 2010's Hot Pursuit reboot, the franchise's first entry developed by Burnout makers Criterion Games. It's fair to say the brand never quite recaptured that lightning in a bottle since the mid-2000s. Most recently, EA effectively placed NFS on hiatus following last December's NFS Unbound, a game that mixed Underground's streetwise theme with cel-shaded flair.

All these years later, Underground is still fun enough. Your enjoyment of it will likely hinge on how invested you were in the car culture of the time, as the occasionally janky physics and repetitive circuit racing tend to wear thin pretty quick. NFSU2, with its open world, surely gives you more to do. But both have phenomenal soundtracks, and the second one especially offers masterpieces like the Fredwreck remix of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" featuring Snoop Dogg. Where else will you hear lyrical gold like "coast-to-coastin', testaroastin'?" (Fun fact: I was listening to Helmet's "Crashing Foreign Cars" while writing this, just to get in the proper headspace.) Those old EA Trax soundtracks were special, weren't they? Whether you revisit Underground in honor of its 20th anniversary or not, all its music is out there for streaming on your holiday road trips. I suggest you spin it.

Highly recommend YouTuber and NFS expert Kacey's look back at the Underground era.

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