Crisis, team. Crisis. The misuse of "franchise" is starting to bother me. These days, I can't click for more than about two homepages before encountering something like "the Zelda franchise". It's not. When Capcom makes Zelda games for Nintendo, those have been franchised out. When Nintendo releases Twilight Princess, it's not "the latest addition to the popular Zelda franchise". In today's case, Codemasters' Micro Machines just about counts as a franchise, because the developer's been allowed to make games that trade under the name of Hasbro's collectible toys. In most cases though, the word we're looking for is "series", which implies, you know, a set of products or activities.
Interestingly though, "series" doesn't have to imply any kind of sequence, or progress between instalments. Which, in the case of Micro Machines V4, is just as bloody well.
It's been about eight hundred years since I last played Micro Machines. Back then, it was an entertaining little top-down racing game with quirky courses built around flowerpots, spades, sandcastles, feet and kittens. Winning was about maintaining speed by sticking to straight lines and trying not to bounce off the scenery. Others cars smash; Micro Machines just lose their momentum. Or fall off the table. The other thing I remember about Micro Machines is that it had Violet Berlin as a character.
Still, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here's some things that have changed in V4: Violet's dead, and instead you're up against an evil army of "COM" racers (I called myself "CAP" so I'd have something to giggle about when I defeated them); the game's all in PlayStation-era 3D, which doesn't seem to have made much of an improvement; there are weapons and power-ups, which don't seem to have made much of an improvement either; there's horrible music playing over the top of all the races; and somebody in the marketing department has decided that we want to collect hundreds and hundreds of similar-looking Micro Machine toys and then browse through them in a "Garage". Oh, and trade them wirelessly. They'd be upset if I didn't mention that. Anyway, here are some things that have stayed the same: the inherent frustration of failing because the game's designed not to let you win until you've memorised the layout.
Ah. In fairness to developer Supersonic, they've done everything in their power to prevent this happening. Or, as I should say, everything you can conceivably do without Codemasters ringing up and telling you off for messing with the formula. There are three cameras to choose from. There's the Micro Machines V3 "classic" camera, which shows you the action from above and behind but then doesn't turn as you go into corners, leading to sections where you're actually driving into the camera. There's the "retro" alternative, which is entirely top-down, and doesn't change perspective either. And there's the new "dynamic" camera, which not only follows you all the time, but turns slightly in the direction the track is about to take, helping you to anticipate corners in a way none of the old games did. Ooh.
In some obvious respects, this does amount to progress. In others though, it simply creates new problems. For some reason, the dynamic mode likes to adjust your steering for you, returning you to a particular line when you'd rather be going ever so slightly left, thanks very much. It's also achieved the rather awesome feat of making it harder to judge relative heights than it used to be in top-down 2D. Whoops. That's not much of a problem in gameplay terms, although they make up for that by allowing you to fall into an abyss if you leap at a slightly dodgy angle. In a game where one mistake is often the difference, that's very annoying. Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that whichever camera you choose, you've still got problems.
In fairness though, there's plenty to do here and a patient gamer will have no trouble enjoying the bulk of it. Yes, you'll probably have to circle each of the tracks once or twice to get a feel for the corners, but once you've done that there's a definite thrill to giving your commie opponents the slip on a tight hairpin, or watching them plough into a pitchfork while you zoom past the chickens. Also, it's hard not to like a game where you actually do have to count chickens, in order to correctly gauge when to turn left.
In terms of actual modes, the single-player effort features several distinctive race types. There's a straightforward sprint against three other cars, and the Micro Machines classic "battle" mode, where the idea is to try and build up a screen's worth of lead over the next racer, at which point you earn a point and they lose one. Also included here are checkpoint-by-checkpoint races where you're on your own with only an unforgiving countdown for company. Thankfully, the single-player game is structured in such a way that you alternate between tasks, with several available at once; there's lots to unlock, but you've usually got lots to hand as well. Multiplayer's a big draw here too, providing you can find somebody else with a copy of the game. Battle mode was always fun, what with both players hamstrung by the game's limitations; nervously trying to pull free at the top of the screen, terrified of running into a corner you couldn't anticipate, is one of racing's iciest precipices.
Even so, Micro Machines V4 is still a bit disappointing, and not helped by the weakness of the DS implementation. The frame rate is a bit crap, quite often, and the lower resolution of the graphics means it doesn't even look as good as those rosy images of Micro Machines 2 you probably still have in the back of your head. It's also slightly odd that nobody considered offering a top-down view of the overall track on the bottom screen. You wouldn't even need a dynamic camera with that to help you. Instead, the second screen is largely ornamental. And to come back to the very first point we made, that's a charge you can level at an awful lot of the game world. It's been 15 years, but the giant environments surrounding your cars are still despairingly lifeless. This is a problem with V4 itself rather than the DS version specifically, but surely there's a bit more they could do with this? At the moment it's rigidly sticking to what sold in the early '90s, and having spent my money then I'd rather hoped for a stronger argument for more now that so much time has passed.
Still, if you weren't around for the old days Micro Machines, and you're desperate for something to race around on the DS, this is a solid, straightforward game that should keep you going, providing you can put up with its inherent foibles. And the way it seems to endlessly shove Hasbro products down your eyeholes at every opportunity, like Monopoly. Which, by the way, frequently is a franchise.