"Small is beautiful," claimed Professor E F Schmacher. But it's even better when combined with rapid scrolling and a nifty two-player mode.
Great Extremely Small Things in History: 1. The microchip, 2. McCain Micro Chips, 3. Keyhole microsurgery, 4. Microgrooves ('the fine groove of long-playing gramophone records', according to our dictionary). 5. Spotted the link yet? Yes, that's right, they're all words I picked randomly from the page of the aforementioned dictionary with 'micro-' printed at the top of it. What do you want, a medal or something?
Er, anyway. Here's Micro Machines. As anyone with any sense was expecting, it's great. Not for any particularly revolutionary or exciting reason, but simply because it's a wonderful game. Or, perhaps, because it's a simply wonderful game. Or even because it's a wonderful game, simply. Yes, I think that's it. I was talking to a few of my glamorous international game-playing chums the other way (well, a couple of part-time freelance writers for console magazines, anyway) and while we argued bitterly about the merits of Kick Off, Asteroids, Epic, Rainbow Islands and International Rugby Challenge, there was one thing we all agreed on, and that was that, without exception, the best games in the world are the ones where something's done simply.
Micro Machines is a Super Sprint-type overhead-view circuit racing game, dressed up a bit with some unusual backgrounds, but with no shocking gameplay innovations beyond a fairly novel two-player mode. It's technically nothing clever, either - the game originated on the 8-bit NES and it's only been updated in the graphics department since then, and even there not as much as you might expect. And annoyingly, the Amiga lags behind the Mega Drive version in a couple of technical aspects, like the lack of a parallax-scrolling floor beneath the table-top levels, and some missing graphical details on a couple of the stages.
But who cares, eh? On with the old tosh. Micro Machines features 24 courses across eight different types of scenery (plus a set of bonus levels which you get to play every time you win three races, where you can get some extra lives), through which you race against a variable selection from the game's eleven variably skilled drivers. You can race in four amusingly different ways - one-player challenge mode (you take on three computer players at a time, gradually eliminating them and choosing new opponents as you go on, until you're the only one left) one-player head-to-head mode (where you race against a single computer opponent in a manner I'll describe slightly later in the review), or two-player head-to-head or tournament modes, which are basically the same except that one takes place on a set sequence of courses and the other lets you do single races on the course of your choice.
These last three modes are where most of the appeal of Micro Machines lies - the straight one-player game is alright, but it suffers from an unfortunate difficulty curve (it's pretty damn easy right the way through to the 15th or so course, which is one set on a number of schooldesks joined together by ruler bridges, and is so teeth-grindingly difficult that, having spent the best part of an hour doing the previous fourteen courses only to lose all your lives on this one and get sent right back to the start, you'll probably melt down your game disk into an ashtray and never want to play it again. Not that you'd be able to by then anyway, of course) and without any kind of password or save system there's just no way back in. Head-to-head mode, though, is a laugh riot and no mistake.
In all of Micro Machines' head-to-head games, the basic principle is that you and one other player (computer or human, or even your dog if it's unusually dextrous and well co-ordinated and heavily into racing games, I suppose) race around a track as normal, except that instead of just trying to get round quicker than the other guy (or dog), you're simply trying to put enough space between you over a short distance that the scrolling of the course overtakes your opponent and he (or it) disappears off screen. When this happens, the player in front wins a point and the one who was forced off the screen loses a point (you start with four each), and when the score gets 8-0 either way, the game's up.
It's a brilliant way of circumventing many of the problems usually found in two-player games of this ilk (like, say, Supercars 2, where the screen gets split to show both cars, but then inevitably gives each one such a tiny field of vision as to make spotting corners and so on practically impossible), but it's not without mishaps either. In one-player head-to-head, the scrolling actually follows the car behind, so that to win a point you actually have to race off the edge of the screen yourself. What this means, naturally enough, is that as you get ahead of the computer player, you end up with about two pixels' warning of upcoming corners, which kind of knackers all the good of the idea in the first place!
But hey, what kind of a saddo plays head-to-head games against the computer? This was always meant to be a game played by two real people (talented dogs notwithstanding), and as such it works like a dream. The extra-specially great thing about the two-player game, though, is that there's so much variation in it - you can race the fast and relatively hazard-free sandpit tracks where it's just a simple all-out speed trial, the obstacle-strewn pool tables where negotiating the pool balls, playing-card ramps and secret tunnels concealed in pockets adds an element of maze navigation to the proceedings, the precarious desktop levels where your lightning-quick but near-uncontrollable sports car goes plunging off the table to its doom on every other corner, or the slow-moving but brilliant toyroom tank levels, where every time your opponent gets in front of you, you can blow him to smithereens with a well-placed shell up the turret. Not enough for you? Well, you've still got the bathroom stages (watch out for that lethal plughole whirlpool), the breakfast table (sticky baked beans everywhere and more vertigo-inducing edge-of-the-table drops), the helicopter races (out in the greenhouse for some sunshine, but careful of those high-powered fans and sprinklers), or the workbench (littered with sticky glue blobs, carelessly-discarded nails and screwdrivers, and unhelpful CLI prompts), so stop complaining, alright?
And what do you know? I haven't even touched on the super fantasticness of the graphic locations yet, have I? Well, they're just - oh, out of room again. Damn.
The Bottom Line
Uppers: Great locations, great control, great selection of game variations... well, it's just great. Alright?
Downers: Not having the parallax scrolling for the floors leaves things looking a bit shoddy. And the scrolling on the one-player head-to-head mode is a bit overly demanding. The one-player modes in general are a bit limited, in fact.
Superb racer, pretty fair fun on your own but amazing with two players. Oddly enough, it's absolutely brilliant.