Say ‘Micro Machines’ to practically anyone and they’ll come back with one of two responses: Matchbox-like miniature cars – which famously ‘come in collections of five’ – or the head-to-head driving game, which was a huge hit on both Mega Drive and the original PlayStation.
Now, Codemasters is returning to one of the most important franchises in its history, with Micro Machines: World Series coming to PS4, Xbox One and PC, some 11 years after its last console outing and many more since its heydey.
So why did the company decide to return to table-top racing now?
“Mainly because people keep asking for it,” is the straightforward answer from chief game designer Gavin Cooper (pictured below, left), who agrees it’s still synonymous with the company as a whole. “When we get people coming to interview at Codemasters, one of the first questions is ‘what do you know about the company?’ and 90 per cent of the time the first thing they mention is Micro Machines.”
And it’s not just the games industry that remembers the franchise fondly, Cooper says: “We’ve
done research in the past on racing games generally. We got a bunch of people in and asked them questions, and one of the exercises we did was to put a bunch of boxes for driving games down on a table and asked them ‘how does this make you feel?’ and ‘does this feel like something you’d like to play?’ The last time we did this particular research, we used a really early mock-up of Micro Machines: World Series and pretty much every group we got in would latch onto it and go off on a complete tangent, saying ‘I remember this.’”
This certainly chimes with our own fond memories of the franchise, with the second Mega Drive title in particular being a platform highlight. The game was great, but its innovative J-Cart design allowed for four-player head-to-head play without a multitap accessory – which made it the most memorable local multiplayer game of its day.
That kind of gameplay is still front and centre, but there’s now online multiplayer races as well, plus a range of new battle modes, such as Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. For battles, you need weapons, of course, and here Codemasters has been clever in raiding licensor Hasbro’s toy cupboard to, quite literally, break out the Nerf guns.
“We’ve got Nerf for the weapons, plus they let us invent a few weapons that don’t exist – such as the hammer and bomb. We just had to be sympathetic to the look. Obviously, GI Joe being vehicle-based is great, we have a tank and the Cobra HISS, too,” art director Stuart Campbell (pictured above, right) explains.
“We also have an arena based around the Hungry Hungry Hippos game, which is awesome,” says Cooper. “Hasbro has been really good. They didn’t tell us what we had to use, they gave us a big list of things and said ‘what do you want to use?’”
Some purists from the Mega Drive days may balk at the idea of weapons coming into play, even though they have long been part of the franchise.
“Weapons were introduced in [1997’s] V3,” says Cooper. “But there are a load of mutators in the new game, which let you tweak the gameplay in different ways. So in local multiplayer you can turn off of all those and have a pure racing experience.”
Cooper tells us the mutators will also form the basis of the game’s post-release content: “The mutators you get, along with other ones that we don’t make available [to players], are what we use to create the scheduled special events, so every weekend there’s going to be a new special event, which mixes up the game rules.
“Vehicles, tracks and arenas give us avenues to introduce extra content. We haven’t got anything to announce, but the game’s been built in a way that’s sympathetic to that,” Cooper continues.
This can be seen in the overall design, with all the vehicles now being usable on all the tracks, rather than the old model of having vehicle-specific tracks for specialist vehicle types. In this regard, Campbell adds: “The hovercraft is the winning vehicle, once you’ve mastered it, as it’s
not affected by sticky patches on the track.” Mastering it wasn’t easy, though, in our limited time with the game, thanks to the vehicle’s slippery handling model.
With a tempting £24.99 price point, and discounting likely to take that down to £20, Micro Machines: World Series is an impulse buy title with strong retro appeal.
Campbell sums it up: “It’s one of those games that is genre-defining. You see a game like this and you’ll say ‘it’s a Micro Machines-like game’, and now it’s coming home, to console, where it was born.”