Long before they published blockbuster racing games like Dirt and Colin McRae Rally, Codemasters made a fortune on their Micro Machines line. This top-down driving game wasn't about who had the fastest time around the lap, but rather who was able to stay in the on course without falling behind. Players earned points based on bumping the competition off the screen, creating one of the most ingenious takes on the competitive racing genre.
Keen Games, the developers behind TNT Racers, shares my nostalgic love for Micro Machines. Their new PlayStation 3 game (a port of a year old Xbox Live Arcade, Wii and PSP title) drips with the memories of classic 8-bit racers. TNT Racers offers an exciting top-down racing experience that is just different enough to keep Codemasters'' lawyers at bay.
This is a cartoony racing game where players zip around a variety of locales trying to earn the most points. Much like Micro Machines, TNT Racers requires players to knock the competing drivers off the screen. You can do this by speeding ahead and leaving everybody in the dust or by using one of the game's diverse weapons scattered along the course. The weapons include the ability to speed up time, lay down mines, squirt oil on to the field and plenty of other attacks that feel like they were taking straight from the newest Mario Kart sequel.
There are a few variations on the typical race. In one mode you will be asked to earn as many points as possible before time runs out. You do this by picking up coins, knocking the opponents off the screen and using the weapons pick-ups. Another event wants you to run over the objects scattered around the course. In yet another mode you'll be asked to make it all the way around the course in a certain amount of time. And if that's not enough, sometimes they'll throw in obstacles just to make the whole thing more difficult.
The challenges are presented in a linear path, which means that you'll have to beat one to unlock the next. Usually this wasn't a problem, but there were a few occasions where I ran into a brick wall thanks to an especially hard event. Instead of being able to try my luck at a different challenge, I was forced to keep retrying the same stage over and over until I got it right. This is a problem made worse by the fluctuating difficulty. I found more than a few tough races sandwiched between two easy events.
There are three different speeds to choose from, each with their own set of challenges to complete. This is how you unlock new cars (which includes everything from a truck to a space ship) and levels. There's more than enough incentive to speed through the single-player content, even if it's mostly to unlock multiplayer content. Sadly, the three challenge paths are over too quickly and don't offer much depth.
Beyond the challenge mode, players will find a traditional Time Trial mode. There is also a Custom Race mode that allows you to choose the stage and options you want. I was disappointed that the game doesn't give you more control over the custom races (such as turning power-ups on and off), although you are able to change the weather conditions and AI difficulty.
The multiplayer mode features some of the same options, with the addition of online play. This is great if you have a bunch of friends who own the game and want to some good old-fashioned top-down racing action. Unfortunately, the online component is a ghost town. I spent several days trying to find competition online, but no matter what time of the day I logged on, nobody was around. Perhaps this will change as more people pick up TNT Racers.
The graphics are nice and colorful, offering beautifully detailed courses that are extremely easy on the eyes. The courses are also well designed, full of fun jumps and tricky corners to negotiate. The weather effects may not drastically change the way the cars handle, but they do add a cool look to the game that still stands out ... even a year later.
The controls are appropriately loose, not unlike Micro Machines, RC Pro Am and other old school racing games. You drift wildly around corners, throwing any sense of realism out the window. There are a bunch of different vehicles to choose from, but they all essentially handle the same. Oddly enough, the game forces players to choose which control scheme they want (button, triggers or SIXAXIS motion control) before every single race. Why not throw this into the option menu and be done with it?
Keen Games had nearly a full year to port this PlayStation 3 release; it's disappointing that more wasn't done to improve on some of the problems. Even with some minor complaints, TNT Racers remains a full throwback to a simpler era of racing games. The ten dollar asking price isn't bad considering the amount of content in the game, though solo players will likely be disappointed in the lack of depth. This certainly scratches my Micro Machines itch, but I would love to see this idea taken even further next time around.