At Pocket Gamer, we have an entirely healthy and non-Freudian love of small things. We buy miniature clocks, clip Bonsai into the shape of DS Lites and, back when we were pocket-sized ourselves, we had a love affair with those little lumps of wheeled fun, Micro Machines.
When the famous tiny toys were first converted into a game, they were a hit for the same reason as the originals – simplicity and scale. The little cars zipped around huge kitchens and living room tracks, turning mundane settings into exciting obstacle courses. Plus, there was the addiction of the multiplayer modes, where you could zap and crash your friends over the table edge thanks to some imaginative pick-ups.
Frankly it was just like being eight again.
Now on its fourth outing, Micro Machines hasn't lost that initial sweet charm. But while it's by no means a game you'd want to lose down the back of the sofa, camera issues and a lack of consistency in the opposition mean this DS version is in no danger of towering over its illustrious forebears, either.
The premise remains commendably simple. Take control of one of the mini motors and pit yourself against two, three or four others – or the clock – in a variety of colourful challenges – around the snooker table or the edge of an overflowing bath, say – while picking up zappy or explosive power-ups along the way.
Succeed, typically by winning a certain number of laps and reducing your opponents' counters to zero, and you'll start to unlock the 750 cars that are hidden away. The games throws the unlocks at you at a healthy rate, and this really encourages you to keep playing. Every challenge is part of a larger set that unlocks rarer and rarer cars, all of which can be viewed on your profile or used in the multiplayer modes.
Your opponents' artificial intelligence can prove frustrating though as they have a tendency to fluctuate wildly between the neatness of Michael Schumacher and wildness of Michael Gambon in his Top Gear cornering best. Find yourself stuck between these two extremes and some races become an endless exchange of lap points, which can extend beyond the odd couple of minutes.
Visually, the game's got ups and downs as well. The levels are generally well designed, from train sets to the kitchen worktops – there's even a museum – but they do have their failings, mainly brought out by the unwieldy camera. Micro Machines V4's default camera is dynamic and so rotates as you corner, which can get confusing the first time you play a track. (You can go into the options and switch to a fixed setting though.)
Related to this, if you're playing multiplayer the camera tries to zoom to keep all players on screen. Get too far behind, and you're dropped out of the race. But if you're in pole position, you're nudging the top of the screen, and your chance to react to oncoming hazards is reduced to zero. These include everything from badly-placed obstacles to confusing corners and jumps that look like dead ends.
Also, while the level design tries to make everything as fun as possible, road surfaces such as glass – which sees you driving on an essentially invisible track – sometimes make you think the game would have been better off sticking to bedroom carpets and your Dad's old armchair. Who takes their Micro Machines to the sewers, anyway?
Even leaving aside the camera issues the multiplayer turns out to be something of a disappointment. Every player needs a copy of the game to get in on the action, which detracts somewhat from the up-and-at-'em approach, especially given how easy wireless connectivity is nowadays. This wouldn't be such a problem if the game's single-player challenges didn't tend to feel like a preparation for playing with friends.
Still, friends with copies of the game or not, you probably will keep playing, especially since the cars aren't the only things unlocked by your high-speed antics. You'll also gradually work your way up through the game's leagues and challenge levels, and while there's no depth to Micro Machines V4 – it's quick and fun, even by racing game standards – that's also its best quality. There are hundreds of items to unlock, yet each individual race or challenge usually only takes a few minutes to complete, which is ideal for bursts of handheld racing.
A mixed bag then, and in the end a racer designed to be nothing more than a distraction isn't quite slick enough for pole position. There is the chassis of honest-to-goodness entertainment here, but unless you're still eight-years old, you'll probably find yourself wishing for something a bit more grown-up. Like Micro Machines V5 – hopefully with these niggles addressed.