Few games could have ever been more suited to handheld gaming than MicroMachines. Guiding all manner of tiny racing vehicles around increasingly improbable locales may look a bit old school in this more demanding era, but releasing a spangly version on the GBA makes perfect sense.
Given that it's been released on just about every platform over the past 10 years since its Mega Drive debut, the chances are you'll already be very familiar with how the game works; a selection of modes (Race, MicroMachines, Time Trial, and Bomb Tag), a bunch of characters, and five classes of vehicle (Car, Bike, 4x4, Boat, Sports Car). Quick Race allows you to jump into any mode and any of the tracks you've unlocked (only the one to start with, which is a tad tight) and drive with one of the five initially available characters.
Race Mode, as the name suggests, is a swift five lap race around the miniature courses, with four cars battling it out for the finish line, which can be against a mixture of human or CPU opponents, depending on whether you have the required kit. MicroMachines mode is the traditional version of the game whereby you have to score the most points (up to a maximum of eight) within the five lap limit - either knocking your opponent off the track to their doom, or getting a whole screen ahead of them. Meanwhile, the one player Time Trial mode is a great way of hotting up on individual tracks, giving you a tough time limit to adhere to, while the rather superfluous Bomb Tag mode is another one-to-four player battle, which starts with one player 'tagged' Hot Potato style, with the goal to get rid of the bomb by crashing into other players before the time elapses.
Sorry, only champs may apply
With only one track available in any of the various Quick Race modes, you're forced to indulge in the Championship Mode in order to unlock the other 15 available. The same four flavours of racing are available, but this time with various punishments and rewards depending on how you fare. Failure in MicroMachines is almost a given to begin with, and to unlock more than a couple of tracks requires a serious amount of patience and no small amount of skill. With just four lives to last you the entire 16 race, four cup championship, there's very little chance to practise the next tracks before you're swiftly booted out. Whatever you do unlock will become available in the Quick Race mode, so you can (and will) go back to this mode in order to practise. After the fourth race, you're then deemed to have moved out of the Bronze Cup category and onto the Silver, before eventually working your way through Gold and - if you're lucky - Platinum.
To begin with, you can't help but be tremendously impressed with MicroMachines, especially with the benefit of the really rather wonderful GBA SP [where's my GBA SP, Kristan? -Tom]. Everything just suits the handheld so well; the controls are slick and responsive, and the graphics are crisp, clear, colourful - and other words beginning with C. It's no lazy port, either, with 3D backgrounds that put to shame most other titles we've seen on the system. Developer Infinite Dreams has clearly put a lot of effort into the project and your early impressions are that this could be one of the machine's essential games.
Veterans of the series will also recall that destructive power-ups litter the track; such as the Fireball, Electric Shock or the Boxing Glove, which predictably allow you to fry your opponent or knock them off the track, thus giving you a few crucial seconds advantage. Letters lay on the track, which if picked up give you access to some temporary power-ups, such as improved steering, speed or grip. The cocksure driver can even bet the letters they have accumulated before the race in order to gain even more letters - failure, however, will not only lose you a life, but the currency too, so it's a risky business.
Hard, as in you'll play the same track 79 times in a row
It's around about this point that you find out that the game has been made prohibitively difficult to allow for any frivolous activities. Not only is it outrageously hard but, crime of crimes, it has a ridiculously restrictive password save system to rub sulphuric acid into the gaping wounds. Obviously the expense of a battery back-up system was deemed too costly, and your chances of enjoying the game disappear with this baffling decision. As a result, if you do make the fatal mistake of losing/forgetting the code given to you after the fourth race you will be forced to unlock everything all over again. Although the races are very short, often taking just over a minute, the CPU skill level is stupendously tough beyond the first few stages.
Through iron will and determination you might just get luck enough, but the margin for error is Rizla paper thin; make one tiny mistake (most likely a forced error caused by the cheating, Schumacher-esque CPU drivers) and you lose a life for daring not to finish first, and with just four lives at your disposal, it won't be long before you're desperately practising the problem tracks to get some kind of competitive advantage, but it's mostly in vain thanks to the inability of the developer to recognise that the CPU AI is way too hard. Believe it or not, there is no skill level modifier. Bizarre. If you can find cheats and have three other mates willing to buy this, then you've got yourself one of the GBA's finest multiplayer games, but as a single player game you're in for one hell of a rough ride.
How something as fundamental as a decent save game mechanic and a skill level modifier can be overlooked is beyond us, but they help ruin a superb game that would've otherwise been one of the machine's finest, most compulsive games. In the words of Richard Wilson, I don't believe it.