Nintendo was notorious for the control they exerted over their game developers in the cartridge days, and in the NES it was due to the inclusion of the 10NES lockout chip included in every NES-001 console. The chip functioned as a low-grade authenticator with complete control over the system’s reset line. An identical chip needed to be found in each game; communication between the two chips allowed the console to boot properly. If the chip in the console couldn’t communicate with an identical chip in the game cartridge (either because it was missing our your game/72-pin connector was dirty), it would force the console into a continual 1 Hz reset loop, resulting in the flashing red light so common on the original NES.
Unfortunately for game developers, the 10NES was patented and available only through Nintendo, allowing Nintendo to effectively have near total control over what games were made for their console. Eventually, a number of unlicensed developers devised systems to defeat the 10NES lockout protection (such as charge pumps or reverse engineered 10NES chips), allowing games to be made without Nintendo’s approval. Such unlicensed games come from developers like Tengen, Codemasters, and Color Dreams. While most unlicensed games as correctly regarded as low-quality, one that stands out near the top of the pack is Micro Machines.
Micro Machines is a top down racer that was released by Codemasters for the NES in 1991 on a gold cartridge. Based on the popular line of miniature model vehicles, Micro Machines has you racing pint-sized cars around full-sized tracks, which can take place in gardens, across the breakfast table, or on a billiards table. Unlike most racers found on the NES, Micro Machines features a fairly wide variety of vehicle types, unique tracks, and a rare sense of speed which all make this a game that really shouldn’t be missed.
Micro Machines has both one and two player modes. The single player mode consists of you racing against four computer controlled opponents, and as long as you come in 1st or 2nd in each race, you can continue on in the circuit. Coming in 3rd or 4th results in you losing a life and having to redo the previous race. The races alternate between the 6 different vehicle and track types with interspersed bonus stages to help you reclaim some lives.
The tracks are all unique and inject a large amount of charm into Micro Machines. One race might find you racing Jeeps across a breakfast table littered with cereal, waffles, and oranges, while the next has you in cigarette boats racings through a bathtub. This unique take on racing makes for a game that stand outs compared to other, more bland racers on the NES, which rarely offered different vehicles or visually distinctive tracks.
Like most top down racers for the NES, Micro Machines does suffer from the flaw of not really being able to see what is in front of you. This coupled with some of the faster vehicles available means you basically need to have memorized some of the later tracks to have any hope of coming in first. Object collisions can also be a unforgiving at times, as you can easily get hung up on an obstacle and not be able to extract yourself without backing straight out, when the graphics seem to indicate you could easily pull away. It is also clear at times that the other vehicles are just plain faster than yours, despite ostensibly all being the same. That doesn’t mean you can never win, as even the lead car tends to make some bad turns at times, but it can be disheartening to be in a straight away and watch the first place car simply pull away from you.
Gameplay: Solid controls, a wide variety of car types and dynamics, plus great tracks make for one of the best racers on the NES. Throw in a mini-map and there would have been little to complain about.
Graphics: The graphics are adequate, but not amazing for a 1991 NES game. Vehicle sprites are simple but convey the vehicle type well. The quirky environments give the game a lot of charm and make all the tracks feel very different.
Sound: The engine noises while racing get a little monotonous (as with most racers), but the music in between races is catchy and upbeat. Music during the races would go a long ways.
Nostalgia X-Factor: I never owned this one, but did play a bit of it through rentals primarily.
Worth Playing? Definitely check this one out. It is hard to find an emulator that will play this one successfully (Nintendulator is the only one I found), so you may have to revert to the actual cart. But hey, at least it’s gold!