Micro Machines was a gaming phenomenon in the UK – it is an old school racer in the same stable as classics such as Atari’s Super Sprint in that the view is top down, but there are many differences and improvements made to the genre in this series of games. The first main difference is that you do not see all of the track on-screen at one time; indeed the view is severely zoomed in and the only way to be successful at this game is to learn the tracks – an aspect of the game that can put the casual gamer off. The nature of the tracks themselves is also different – these are no normal racing tracks.
These are miniature cars (“Micro Machines” is well known brand of small toy cars) and they race on circuits laid out on everyday objects such as the breakfast table or bathroom. This gives these games a unique look and also gives the track designers a massive amount of freedom to create humorous (around a toilet seat) and wacky (around a pool table or inside a pinball machine) racing environments. The cars themselves are hooked into the branding of the toys and many different vehicles are available from traditional F1 racing cars , through dumper trucks and ATVs , to tanks (complete with working cannons), helicopters, speedboats and hovercraft.
This is the 4th member of the series and while all of the games in the series are excellent, this Megadrive game is considered to be the best of the lot. Even the attempts at improving these games on the PS1 and N64 have mercifully left the winning formula alone – just bolting on some fake 3D effects to give the game some (unnecessary) visual depth. A point worth noting because it highlights how loved and regarded this series of games is in its homeland.
These are simple, yet clean and very distinctive. Tracks are imaginatively drawn – you can be racing across the hot surface of a barbecue grill one second, skidding around discarded beer cans in the grass the next. They are almost without exception drawn extremely well, include humorously parodied well known brands, and scroll past very smoothly and quickly. The vehicles fit in with this overall theme and look like toy cars. There are nice little effects on the wheels when skidding and the game gives and excellent feeling of fast movement.
The between level screens are slick and very colourful too. Before racing, players select a character from a bunch of humorously drawn cartoon characters; one of which called Violet is a caricature of UK games journalist, Violet Berlin.
Sounds are adequate – the cute little engine sounds are different for each vehicle type. There are also good crunching sounds when you bash other vehicles and obstacles, and there is music played on mode select , pre/post race screens and its pretty good, again fitting in with the whole feel of this title.
This is where this title shines. It is a hugely addicting experience and while the 1 player game is very good, it is really all about the multi-player modes, of which there are many. The game cartridge itself is called a “J-Cart” and has 2 controller sockets built into it – furnishing 4 player (actually 8 player – I’ll explain later) capability without the requirement for a multi-tap!
Many tracks have jumps to negotiate and some have moving sections – for example a race across a workbench features a narrow steel measuring rule along which electric drill bits move back and forth , nudging an unwary racer off onto the floor below.
Many tracks are on tables – falling off the table results in a crash and you are placed back onto the track at one of many restart points.
While tracks are clearly marked out, you can move outside these markers and cut corners – take liberties with this feature and cut too much off the track and you will be replaced back on the track. Getting to know the tracks and their idiosyncracies is one of the many joys of this game.
There are plenty of modes for solo players. First up is “CHALLENGE” mode, where you race against 3 other CPU controlled racers in 3 lap races. You must finish either 1st or 2nd to progress to the next track – there are 10 tracks in this mode, with a further 15 in the “PRO CHALLENGE” mode.
There are nice little bonuses for very fast 1st laps; which give you an automatic win on some tracks, and you get to play a monster truck bonus game for extra lives if you win 3 races in a row.
There are other modes such as the traditional time trial (1 lap or 3 laps, complete with ghost support) and an involving league mode where you race in different leagues, trying to gain promotion and avoid demotion; the aim being to win a season in the highest league.
This is the main part of this title and offers games for 2,3 and 4 players either as individuals or in teams. The main way multi-player games are played is called “HEAD-TO-HEAD” mode which has been designed around the limitation that comes about from the fact that you play with a zoomed in view of the track. The aim of this game is to force your opponent(s) out of the field of vision by getting so far ahead of them that all cars can’t fit onto the screen. When this happens, play stops, you get a point and the cars are replaced onto the track together and the race is then restarted, continuing on around the track.
You race for 3 laps and the person with most points at the end of the race wins. However, most races finish before the 3 lap limit is reached – each player starts with a set number of points and when you are forced off the screen you lose a point – you are eliminated if your points go to zero. The last player standing wins the race.
If after 3 laps, the remaining players have equal points, it is a sudden death playoff – the 1st player to force his opponent(s) off-screen wins.
This style of gameplay is very much of a start/stop nature unless all players are very equally matched and in either case provides an extremely competitive game which has resulted in loss of temper in some situations, such is the strength of the hook this game has.
(This “HEAD TO HEAD” mode is available to the solo player – racing against very able computer controlled racers)
There is a time trail mode for multi-players (players take turns to post a time,best time wins, 1st to 3 wins), special tournament modes that arrange tracks into different themes, and traditional knockout tournaments too.
Then there are the party or “share” modes. With these modes, 4, 6 or 8 players can race at the same time. Each controller is shared by 2 players forming a team of 2 cars – vehicles auto-accelerate and steering/breaking is done via the Dpad for one player and the buttons for the other player. This mode is as you would guess chaotic and collision detection between cars is switched off while more than 4 cars are in play to keep the game flowing. There are other party play modes that can incorporate up to 16 players in tournament style competitions.
When playing a series of games , points are allocated to players and teams after races, so keeping track of who’s ahead over a lengthy gaming session (which will be common once you are bitten by the bug).
What makes this game even more special is that best times and performances are stored in the cartridge back up memory which does not rely on battery power. Players choose a character at the start of play and can change the character’s name if they wish – this and the player stats are held on cartridge for 100 years according to the manual!
Another feature of this game which tops it off nicely as a package is a track editor. You can create you own tracks, save them to the backup memory , or export them for giving to your friends to try! Exporting a track involves copying codes displayed on-screen onto paper (a template card is given in the manual to ease this process). This was quite a thing back in day when downloading ghosts and tracks from the web was unheard of.
This is an epic game and simply the best of its genre. This is due to the quality and number (60) of tracks, slick control, variety and quantity of its gameplay modes and the sheer competitivness and addictiveness involved. This is backed up by a solid technical engine which looks and performs well and serves 4 player (and more) modes without any extra boxes (save controllers of course), and an excellent track editor.
Some find the “start/stop” nature of play frustrating – initially, the cars are a handful and flying off the track at practically every turn can annoy. But this game demands your attention; and it has been so well done that you will find your efforts rewarded.
Some extra slickness in the game’s menus would be welcome (there is no “back” option in places, meaning having to reach for the console’s reset button) but that is a minor niggle in the face of this excellent and massive game.
It is quite simply the complete overhead racing game – great for parties and the solo experience. It is one of the greatest local multiplayer games ever. Highly recommended.
A retro gamer and occassional writer..