The last great game in the Micro Machines franchise took advantage of a quick PlayStation upgrade to combine old rules, new tech and great timing for the perfect multiplayer racer, according to Matt Gardner.

Reader beware: this was the first review I attempted to write for GameTripper back in March, and I’ve only just managed to draw a line under it. After two or three months of trying to capture the essence of why Micro Machines V3 was so amazing – writing, rewriting and starting afresh a dozen times or more – I realised it’s not about making a case for the game being all that great. Besides, its appeal is rooted in the Mega Drive’s Micro Machines franchise, which is a story for another time.

In fact, V3 wasn’t, and isn’t, a fantastic game by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, the last blockbuster title of a time gone by, just before a dramatic wholesale shift in gaming’s maturity which effectively put happy-go-lucky games out to pasture. It was one of the last titles before gamers started to develop near-impossibly-high standards that dominate reviews and forums today, when you don’t really hear the phrase “it isn’t great, but it’s good for a laugh”.

After V3’s much-feted released, blockbusters stepped up a gear – and dragged both developers and barely pubescent boys like me into a brave new world offered by the new, shiny PlayStation.

Back when I was cutting my teeth on consoles in the 90s, games usually had maturity levels that matched my own. The hardware restrictions – especially the jaggy-heavy graphics and limited colour scales – created bright, simple, fun and unforgettable experiences that are still as vivid now as they were in front of my eyes 20 years ago. Micro Machines was one such game – it dominated the 16-bit generation with its simple core mechanics.

The facts

Platform

PlayStation

Year

1997

Genre

Racing

Developer

Codemasters

Publisher

Codemasters

In 1997, Codemasters took a step up to the next generation, and its motto was simple: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And so the 32-bit big time was graced with Micro Machines V3, soon after the release of the hugely successful Micro Machines: Turbo Tournament ‘96 – the company’s last major hit with Sega.

TT ’96 was one of the greatest games of all time. Revisiting it back in 2009 not only demonstrated how advanced it was for its time, with its track-building capabilities – it also showcased more childish tendencies, like my mate Jon did with a track naming system fresh out of an 11-year-old’s sugar-powered brain. “SMURFSGOTABIGDIK” was just… inspired, even now. It’s a joke that’s aged like a fine wine.

The inimitable tiny toy cars introduced themselves to Sony’s new hardware without compromising the principles that made the game series so popular in the first place. While it wasn’t all that special, it gave fans what they wanted, at a time when the console was still finding its feet. You see, for every Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, there was The Lost World: Jurassic Park. With Resident Evil, you lucked out, and with OverBlood, you were fucked off. With so many new intellectual properties – all being priced between £30 and £40 – you didn’t know what to go for without a subscription to Official PlayStation Magazine (which was biased) or its rivals (which didn’t give you demo discs).

Given the very-limited selection of games to enjoy Platinum status back in 1998, it’s still testament to Micro Machines V3 that it gained such accreditation within 12 months of release – and gamers who hadn’t already bought it, myself included, got a fantastic game for a truly accessible £20 price tag. It was all because of its developer’s proud approach to its IP, which led it to become one of the strongest, tightest racers to ever grace the console.

But the ever-expanding capabilities of the new hardware – which, to be fair, weren’t even scratched by V3 – presented constantly evolving possibilities for rival game makers, and V3 was soon forgotten in the franchise development frenzy of 1998. The drive to push boundaries forced even Codemasters to temporarily abandon its biggest hit to create completely new games to compete.

Sadly, Codey never did properly return to the franchise, and three years later, the once-coveted Micro Machines was as good as dead. This month, surprise reboot Micro Machines: World Series is coming to Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It could revive the series, or bury it for good. Given GameTripper’s rules, you’ll find out my opinion on it in five years, if it’s any good. Until then, it’s important to understand V3’s unstoppable fall into relative obscurity.

Something old, something new

Micro Machines V3 was the fifth game I got on my PlayStation back in early 1998. I’d been wowed by all-new graphics, playing styles and worlds from the likes of Crash Bandicoot and Wipeout – and I’d quickly acclimatised to being absolutely shite at Destruction Derby 2 – so it was nice to settle into an old classic. Just watching the intro was enough to take my breath away, despite it being poor even by the FMV standards of the day. It was the promise of more of the same – but better – that really got me excited.

After booting it up for the first time, it was clear that V3 was working hard to make the most of the tech afforded by the PlayStation. The very first thing you interacted with was V3’s inspired menu system, which combined old and new: its set of junctioned roads made choosing your options an exciting task in itself. It firmly established the same quirky personality from the old games, from the eye-bleedingly bright colours and repetitive music loops to the playfully impatient beeps of your car if you didn’t interact for a while.

Admittedly, this all went a bit weird when you chose your race mode and then saw long-loved characters return in “glorious” 3D. While it was a delight to see that Chen wasn’t half as racist as he was back in ‘96, Jethro was given a stoner makeover, Walter became an uncomfortably upstanding – yet still corpulent – member of society (as opposed to “that shit fat bastard”), and Dwayne transitioned from resident thicko to Bill and/or Ted. They doubled down on Bonnie, who suddenly took on the mantle of a Yardie’s daughter as if she was related to any black guy in PS2 classic The Getaway, doling out stock phrases with an East London accent that suffered from more than a hint of MC Vapour’s Jungle is Massive.

If you didn’t like their catchphrases, you were shit out of luck: as so much disc space was clearly taken up by these 3D character interactions, they could only say around half a dozen things each.

So it wasn’t exactly awesome in the graphics department. Still, this softly-softly approach to combining old and new made the transition to the new Micro Machines so comfortable for fans and rookies alike. Its real key to success was in its controls: Codemasters maintained dependable turning accuracy through a basic, isometric, 16-point directional system. It meant you had both the veneer of early 32-bit graphics, but with precise manoeuvrability compatible with the tracks’ 45° and right-angled turns – something you really needed when so much else was going on in every race.

There were plenty of unlockables, enough in the way of tracks (although I’m still convinced there could’ve been more), and an all-new weapons system worth shouting about. Standard green boxes gave the collector anything from a massive mallet to mines, while the multi-coloured flashy crates gave the same weapon to everyone – and suddenly, everyone tried to level the playing field by speeding up and slowing down to get leverage and strike their foes, turning a race into a game of tactical bastardry.

The stage was, therefore, set for continuation, but a particular high standard still needed to be met to make it a true Micro Machines title.

Something borrowed, something grew

The absolute test of any Micro Machines game is in its multiplayer, and V3’s continued consistency in this department made it so great.

The real test of my V3 experience – and, coincidentally, its first outing with friends – came in 1998 when, in one of her more hilarious moments, my mum told my Scout troop that we could set up a decades-old eight-man tent in our home’s back garden one Friday night, in preparation for an upcoming Friendship Scout Camp six weeks later. It was, apparently, good practice for young Bear Gryllses (Bears Grylls? Bear Grylli?) like ourselves, even if my physique was more Ray Mears back then.

My mum, you see, didn’t have to lift a finger, as she was on a ladies’ weekend. My dad, realising he was the sole temporary guardian of seven extra kids, was not best pleased. We didn’t care (or realise, to be fair) – we were sufficiently distracted by the fact it was the biggest sleepover ever, and we made the most of it. My friend let me borrow something which, back then, was as incredible as it was rare: the fabled PlayStation Multitap, something that was more likely whispered on the wind than seen in a game shop, never mind your front room. V3 – a game that was once limited to four players with pad-sharing capabilities between my pair of controllers and the PlayStation’s two slots – now grew to accommodate eight people, as we threw someone else’s pair of pre-DualShock pads into the mix.

While I was boiling Asda’s finest hotdogs and coordinating cans of knock-off Coke, my dad had understandably headed to the local cricket club at around 8:00pm, then sipped halves of Castle Eden Trophy Special, punctuated them with the odd Hamlet miniature, and played bingo throughout the night to distract himself from the very real possibility that we’d torn the place apart before he returned home promptly at 11:30pm.

Yet while disagreements were rife, what followed was multiplayer perfection; I still think it’s the loudest living room I’ve ever been in, and a good few friendships were temporarily destroyed that night, alongside our relationship with the neighbours. Between the standard Every Man for Himself mentality and the altogether more tactical team play mode, no relationships were broken. We all sat transfixed around a 26”, 12-year-old TV, off our tits on Virgin Cola. I firmly recall a winner doing a lap of honour around the dining room table, but maybe I’m just romanticising it.

Thing is, I can’t remember really playing it after that night. Also put on that evening was the ten-minute demo of Resident Evil 2 – a game so delightfully scary to a bunch of 11-to-13-year-olds that we went through it a handful of times, until we managed to get to the Licker before the time ran out. V3 seemed dated in comparison to the “photo-realistic” backgrounds offered by RE2, and it was only going to get worse for the daft racer – its own genre would step it up a notch, too.

Racing games shift up a gear

The era of 32-bit, 3D gaming truly broke the mould when, only nine months after V3 was released, Gran Turismo hit Japanese shelves. It only had 11 circuits, but it also brought with it a massive 140 licensed cars. And they actually looked like said cars. It was five years in the making, and it showed, especially in its visuals. Promotion of GT hit fever pitch ahead of its European release in May 1998. The trailer was bundled with Official PlayStation Magazine #29, and a demo followed soon after: Clubman Stage Route 5, with a handful of cars. I was definitely hooked well before it was released.

It was a turning point for the PlayStation: racing, and to a wider extent gaming, really didn’t feel like it was for kids any more. Just a few weeks earlier, I was fannying around on a pool table and flattening my mates with comedy mallets. By the time I’d turned 13, I was racing for cash, selling countless Mazda Demios from Sunday Cup victories just to afford something better than a second-hand Mitsubishi FTO, and painfully scraping through licence tests just to have the privilege of driving something better than a car with a shagged engine that I couldn’t tune because, well, I was 13.

Gran Turismo’s PlayStation double-header in 1998 and 2000 wasn’t just bad for daft, multiplayer-oriented racing series like Micro Machines – more traditional arcade racers suffered, too. The ever-competing Need for Speed and Test Drive franchises, and even casual yet genuinely enjoyable start-ups like Total Drivin’, were obliterated by the simulation’s success. But it was still worse for lovable intellectual properties like Micro Machines; they’d always survived, even in the face of racing sims gone by (with admittedly poor, procedural graphics). Gran Turismo put an end to that.

Codemasters conformed

The team at Codemasters knew the tide was turning. It decided to target nascent racing genres – namely, those ostensibly popular with Brits in the late 90s – such as TOCA Touring Cars and Colin McRae Rally. They were great games, to their credit; the two new franchises retained a thin line between arcade and simulation, which at that point still meant just being a bit more serious with the brake (compared to V3, you actually used the brake button). You could also drive a tank around a volcano in TOCA, which showed the developers’ sense of humour was still under there somewhere. But Codemasters wasn’t done with Micro Machines; the developers were just firing up the JCB to make a nice, deep grave for the series.

– and ripped the heart out of Micro Machines

Instead of further expanding and improving the brilliant, if limited, V3, Codemasters tried to carve out a new niche. And so came Micro Maniacs. The storyline – no really, a Codey game had a storyline for once – was that a load of weird, “edgy” characters are shrunk and must race as part of a wider test for super soldiers. Not in cars, oh no: they just ran on their own two feet.

The lead character, for example, was the not-so-brilliantly named V4. At age 18, he got into a motorbike accident – and the evil Dr Minimizer, the ringmaster in this circus of jogging misanthropes, shoved motorbike parts into his body, Tetsuo: Iron Man-style, to rebuild him. Then he shrank him and making him run around his shitty courses. Mesme, on the other hand, was an orphan girl living in a foster home and had an alien head with no mouth, but compensated with telekinesis. And who can forget Maw Maw, a combination of ape, pig and Jack Russell? Everybody, it seems.

Before, choosing your character was a conduit to hurrying the game along to start a race. You usually chose who you picked the first time you played, and that was that. On Micro Machines, I was usually Emilio or Joel. One of my mates was always Jethro, while another was Cherry. We didn’t care past that point, it was just who we were. Adopted identities – nothing more.

I suppose you have to give Codemasters a begrudging respect for trying something different, but new approaches aside, Maniacs was hot garbage. Controls were buggy, special moves were unbalanced, and the frantic, quick-draw nature of the game evaporated.

To be fair, not everyone thought Micro Maniacs was terrible. The galling thing is that the Wikipedia page for Micro Maniacs is longer than that for the actual Micro Machines page, so it clearly has fans. Meanwhile, Micro Machines V3 doesn’t even have its own entry. No justice, but that’s a personal Wiki project for another day.

I didn’t even know that Micro Machines V4 existed until I wrote this review, such was the lack of publicity, plus my change in tastes. Mashed picked up the slack for a short time, but my love for daft multiplayer racing dropped anchor in 1998.

Micro Machines: Reborn?

While fond memories of V3 remain, the true final nail in the Micro Machines coffin may come with the release of World Series in June 2017. It’s a release that seems to be an expanded version of a Chillingo-produced mobile game port – ironic, really, considering V3 itself runs with ease on a mobile emulator and delivers five times the enjoyment of its current money-grabbing counterpart available “for free!” on app stores.

With an average starting price point of £20 – much like V3, after it went Platinum – World Series is certainly tempting to fans like me. It looks pretty good, too. I actually preordered it in the 17th draft of this review. But in a world of micro-transactions, it’s easy to assume that the low entry price for the game is because you’re expected to cough up more down the line to buy blind bags of “car parts” as you do on mobile.

Codemasters promises Micro Machines will return to its roots, retaining “the manic social game play of the classic series”. I’m at peace with the fact I’ll buy World Series as soon as it comes out, and I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and admit I’m wrong if it turns out to be an absolute banger, but while the heart says yes, the head says no.

Micro Machines can only be measured in the same way it was in 1991, 1996 and 1998. I know the game will deliver true multiplayer brilliance if – and only if – I can get eight people in a room, sharing controllers and laughing like morons without alcohol, just as I did on V3 when I was 12, or while I played it in Germany on a shitty old TV with my mate at 26 years old, or when I absolutely dominated my mate during a recent game on my laptop just a few weeks ago when doing research for this rambling piece. I absolutely smashed him too, didn’t I Seb? Yes I did.

For Micro Machines World Series to be successful, it can’t be grown up. It needs to have the same appeal that had me and my friends drawing racetracks on A3 paper, or building entire circuits out of Lego, and racing our own toy cars around them. To take you back to a simpler time, a game needs to be simple in itself, despite the bells and whistles that will inevitably be attached to it for the modern generation.

Maybe it will. I hope it will. But maybe my (limited) maturity has made me cynical, and I’ll never be satisfied by it. Perhaps growing up, as a gamer, is largely irreversible – in the way that GoldenEye is basically unplayable now, or how I can’t bring myself to enjoy Oblivion because of just how poor and simplistic it is in comparison to even the original Skyrim, never mind its remaster for the current generation. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m just saying it’s a fact of life for me.

And if it doesn’t, well, V3 will still be there, waiting for a day in four years’ time when I pick it up and remember exactly what I’ve talked about here. It was great, it wasn’t as good as its predecessors, but it’s better than anything else that’s come along since. That isn’t a bad claim for a 20-year-old game.

Pros

  • Hilariously unfair scoring in multiplayer
  • Hyper-competitive, but always good natured
  • A personality you don’t seem to get any more
  • Superb, balanced controls

Cons

  • Frustratingly unfair scoring in multiplayer
  • Jarringly repetitive music and catchphrases
  • Uncontrollable F1 cars
  • Restricted one-player mode

Matt’s take

Micro Machines V3 proved that game developers could make the transition from 16-bit to 32-bit consoles, but soon it was abandoned for an altogether more mature theme in gaming – a trend that hasn’t been reversed in the 20 years since its release.