In the mid 1980s, a toy company called Galoob latched onto the world’s burgeoning obsession with miniaturization, and had the good sense to combine this drive to make things ever smaller with America’s indefatigable love of cars.
The aptly named Micro Machines were huge sellers by the late 80s and early 90s, their popularity culminating in a genius product placement in Home Alone whereby these seemingly innocuous toys were used to thwart pesky burglars. Mums worldwide were no doubt mortified as children learned a new trick to make them even more annoying.
Before long a video game was lined-up as another vehicle to feature the toys, which had quickly expanded to include planes, boats, helicopters and even X-Wings. Such cross-branding was at that time becoming increasingly common; what was uncommon with Micro Machines was that they actually took a licence and made an excellent game out of it.
Codemasters began the series on the NES, devising the idea of making racing courses from different household environments, obviously mirroring where you would play with the toys in real life. My favourite course was the boats in the bathtub, watching out for the bubbles that slow you down, and the whirlpool that could suck you in.
Equally enjoyable were romps over workstations with the hair-raising ring-binder jumps, or the breakfast table epics with the track marked out in Cheerios. The most fiendish were the pool table races where you were in F1 cars, speeding across the baize and dropping into one pocket only to emerge from another elsewhere on the track, always careful not to fall to your doom on the outside edge.
The computer players were pretty evil – often your nearest rival would go nearly twice as fast as you were on a straight – luckily, the computer cars were terribly prone to foolish errors; falling in water, knocking each other off edges, or getting mired in maple syrup.
The game was also harsh on shortcuts – if you strayed too far off course (which it was easy to do) then you would blow up and be re-spawned way back where you left the track. It was fairly kind on extra lives though – bonus games earned for winning three races in a row let you try to beat the clock in a monster truck to earn extra credits.
Turbo Tournament, released in 1994, took the simple mechanics of the first game and expanded the tracks, characters, and the amount of players. You began with a race in the garden on ATV bikes, graduating to beach levels in sportscars, new improved workshop levels with moving drills, and the all-new Lost In Space pinball machine course, driven in dragsters.
The breakfast table was switched for the dinner table, the lines of the course now marked out in peas, and the hazards including wine bottles, pepper pots and the awesome rotating corn-on-the-cob bridge. The bonus levels retained the monster trucks, but set them in a treehouse and had you collecting mini-Micro Machines while trying not to plummet to a premature demise.
The Megadrive cartridge came fitted with two controller ports, effectively allowing you to bypass the need for a separate adaptor. What was more, you could double up on pads and accommodate up to eight players simultaneously, taking multi-player gaming to a new level. This was made possible by the fact Micro Machines had an exceptionally simple control system. Left, right, accelerate and brake/reverse. They added a horn button for added amusement, which also doubled as the ‘fire’ button on the tank races.
The 1996 edition improved the graphics yet further, and added lots of excellent new races – the camping level with the races over tents and between fearsome flames of the gas stove still fill me with dread, as do the solar cars on the Bunsen-burner-and-electric-conductor-equipped science lab level. Planes featured in a race through a nursery, and the treehouse level from the previous game was granted a three courses of its own, with your 4x4s struggling to survive over branch bridges, tiled roofs and a vicious jump across drainpipes.
By this point, 16-bit consoles were clearly creaking and ready to pass the baton to the next generation. With Micro Machines V3, the leap was made to the original PlayStation console. Although enjoyable, V3 failed to quite match its predecessors as issues with the inevitable transition to the third dimension introduced unnecessary layers of complexity.
With early racing games there were two choices of perspective – the top down view of games like Micro Machines, or the Outrun-style ‘behind the car’ view. With the plethora of vehicles on display, Codemasters had taken the smart choice in choosing the top down view. However, with the advancement to 3D it was necessary to alter the camera angles on occasion, if for no better reason than to show off the graphical powers of the 32-bit machines.
This detracted from the simplicity that made the original games so compelling. You could easily find yourself distracted by the fancy new textures and three-dimensional obstacles, which could cause crucial delays in tight races. This incarnation was ported to the N64 with few alterations as Micro Machines 64 Turbo, where the same problems held true.
Soon after, the series began a decline in commercial fortunes that matched that of the toys. But somewhere in a corner of gaming history, when all the fancy graphics and official manufacturer’s licenses are stripped away, when all the exhaustive attempts at realism are woefully outdated, there will be a game that offers racing fun like no other, and the name of that game is Micro Machines.