I’ll get back to the Growing Up Gran Turismo series soon, but first I want to take a break and discuss an entirely different kind of racing game – Micro Machines.
It’s a game I never actually owned but very close family friends had a copy for their original NES. Every time we visited their house, I would immediately head to the basement where the system was set-up.
Their son and I would sit down in front of one of those big old floor mounted picture tube TVs, blow on the game cartridge a few times, stick it in the Nintendo, and fire up the game.
Innovative and creative, Micro Machines may have looked like just another kids game on the surface, but there was a lot going with it. It was a top-down racer like RC Pro-Am, but featured unique environments for each of its tracks. Since Micro Machines were tiny plastic toys, all of the game’s tracks took place around the house.
Four By Fours drove around the breakfast table, dodging Cheerios, split milk and stick pools of syrup. Formula 1 racecars battled on a pool table trying to avoid playing cards, cues and of course the 8-ball. Sportscars raced on possibly my favourite track, desks. They would jump off binders, negotiate narrow bridges made of rulers and avoid pencils and erasers. Other environments included the garage, garden and a sandbox.
But it wasn’t just four-wheeled vehicles that could be raced. Powerboats were also included, splashing around a bubbly bathtub while helicopters flew through a greenhouse. And don’t forget the sluggish tanks that could actually shoot your opponents.
Those Wacky Characters
Before any racing could begin though, a character had to be chosen. The characters represented various cultural stereotypes. But to be sure players understood what the creators were going for, the original version of the game even had an adjective above their character to reinforce the message. FAB! BONNIE, DIRE WALTER, and POOR DWAYNE to name a few. Of course, ABLE CHEN was our favourite because able is such a ridiculous way to describe someone. On my headstone I hope it reads “Mike was able at life”
Pick Your Poison
Two-modes of game play were included in the original release of Micro Machines, Challenge mode and Head to Head. In Challenge mode, the idea was to beat each racing discipline three times and fill a trophy case with the winning vehicle after each race. There was also a bonus time trial featuring a Monster Truck that would fill the large slot in the case. As well, while progressing through Challenge mode, every time a computer-controlled character lost a total of three times, they were kicked out of the game and replaced by a new character.
The other mode, head-to-head, was unique for a multiplayer racing game. Instead of split screen, the two players shared a screen. The goal was to get far enough ahead of your opponent that they would essentially drop off the end of the screen, scoring you a point.
Points were tracked by a series of blue and red dots on the left of the screen. To start, each player had four dots (four for the blue player and four for the red player). With each win, the winning player’s dot colour would overwrite one of their opponents’ dots. Either the first to get all eight dots, or whoever had the most dots at the end of the race, won the match.
The multiplayer mode was surprisingly addictive, and we would have epic knock-out tournaments. We’d invite our less talented friends and siblings to join, and ungraciously pulverize them.
Despite the simple controls and appearance, the top-down racing style meant having to memorizing every course so it was possible to anticipate each corner and/or obstacle before it appeared on screen. This was the first racing game I recall mastering. Despite a lack of depth to the play modes, the uniqueness of each environment had us keep coming back for more.
The success of this game spawned many sequels, but none could capture the original’s magic of simplicity, fun and engagement.
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