Although Micro Machines is our chosen jumping-off point this month, the origins of the top-down racing genre are much, much older than Codemasters' classic, even pre-dating microprocessor arcade games.
As far back as 1974, Atari worked on arcade cabinets such as Gran Trak 10, which pitted gamers against each other as they wrestled primitive glowing cars around 2D tracks, the edges of which were simply dozens of white dots. Back then, this was like having the most exciting race ever beamed directly into your eyes; today, it looks about as advanced as a teasmade.
A decade later, Atari decided to dust off and remake some of its old properties, giving rise to the masterful Super Sprint, which was a top-down racer that eschewed realism and gave gamers head-to-head thrills.
When Micro Machines arrived a few years later, Codemasters infused an extra dollop of fun into the top-down racing genre. The game featured tiny toy vehicles in fierce rivalries, competing on makeshift tracks comprising in part baths, tables and bits of garden; and it proved that a link with real-life racing wasn't really necessary to make a great racing videogame.
As long as you could drive fast and get an adrenaline rush by shaving past an opponent only fractions of a second from the finishing line, it didn't really matter if you were supposed to be a Formula 1 driver speeding to glory at the Monaco Grand Prix or a tiny piece of plastic zooming along on a breakfast table. The environments didn't detract from the racing; in fact, they even made it more enjoyable, ensuring the game stood out among its gravel-circuit-obsessed contemporaries.
Neither Super Sprint nor Micro Machines has made it to iOS, but there are a number of topdown racing games for your devices that provide similar arcade-oriented thrills – and usually for a fraction of the cost that the aforementioned titles cost on home consoles two decades ago.
Nano and Doodle
If you're looking for something pretty close to Micro Machines, with its tiny cars and oddball environments, Nano Rally (69p, iPhone; 69p, iPad) is the closest option from a visual standpoint. It has little vehicles racing in gardens, on tables and in a shed, although we think the game's a bit clunky and the cars feel too sticky – a far cry from Micro Machines and its rather looser handling.
Doodle Kart (69p, iPhone) is quite a bit better, offering a very similar top-down view to Nano Rally, but in 'doodle' style (the graphics look like someone sketched them with a pen) and with some basic weapons that you can collect and fire at your rivals.
PAPER RACER: Mum's going to be annoyed you've driven through that paint in Paper Racer. This is why you can't have nice things
The driving's still a bit sluggish and awkward, though, and so the first game we truly recommend in this area is Paper Racer (69p, iPhone). Superficially, Paper Racer resembles a mix of Nano Rally and Doodle Kart, in that you race little paper vehicles on tables, and you can even photograph your own sketch and load it into the game.
But where Paper Rally speeds past its rivals is in the way the cars handle: the controls and physics in the game are both just about perfect, and the races are fast. It's also flexible; not only can you drift, but the environments are interactive – in Nano Rally and Doodle Kart, you stop dead when you collide with something, but in Paper Racer, you can hit a bolt and send it flying, or drive through paint splats to make tiny tyre trails across the screen.
No other iOS games come quite so close to matching Paper Racer for Micro Machines-style thrills, but two further games are worth a look.
PLAY ROOM RACING: This is one of the closest games to the Micro Machines of old
Playroom Racer HD (£1.49, Universal) has you racing inside children's bedrooms, in a 3D world that could be right out of the PlayStation version of Micro Machines. The handling is a bit floaty, and it's all too easy for your car to get overturned, after which it takes some time to right itself.
But the tracks look good (at least on the iPad – on smaller iOS devices, the visuals aren't quite so appealing) and the various difficulty levels add plenty of lasting challenge, even if the unlock mechanism requires a bit too much grinding.
Touch or Danger?
Touch Racing (£2.49, Universal) is another game that works much better on the iPad. It has you racing remote-control cars around increasingly tough tracks that appear to have been designed by sadists; some of them even include the kind of half-pipes that would make a skateboarder from the '80s yell 'Gnarly, dude!', before blinding you with his fluorescent socks.
The controls are a bit strange – you just use one finger to define speed and direction – but they work well on the iPad. On the iPhone and iPod, everything's far more fiddly and it's too easy to obscure the track with your finger, making collisions far more probable.
DANGER SPOTS: We're not sure Danger Derby's skulls on the track put racers in the right frame of mind
For more racing thrills, you must leave behind the world of toys and head back towards full-size vehicles. However, games like VS Racing (69p, iPhone) and Danger Derby (£2.99, iPad) retain the old-school arcade-racing feel of Micro Machines.
VS Racing is the simplest of the pair, with dinky cars racing around six varied tracks. Its rubber-banding – which is designed to make sure races are always competitive – is annoying, and makes winning a bit of a lottery.
Danger Derby has similarly tiny cars, but its tracks are purely single-screen and they often include giant crushers and deadly drops. Even in its desire to make motorsport more exciting, we suspect Formula 1's FIA would heed the warnings of health and safety on these tracks. On the iPad, Danger Derby's a blast, even if the virtual controls appear to be designed for aesthetics over comfort.
Finally, a pair of Tap!-reviewed, somewhat-3D titles. Death Rally (£1.99, Universal) didn't entirely set our world on fire first-time round, but it has plenty of fans; and while the game's visuals are grimy and post-apocalyptic, the arcade handling, weapons and regular race-leader changes place it spiritually in the same space as Micro Machines.
STILL THE BEST: Reckless Racing is still the best racing game on iOS, with varied environments and pretty graphics
Mind you, for larger-than-life, top-down arcade racing of the finest calibre, we argued that Reckless Racing (69p, iPhone; £2.99, iPad) was a must-buy six months ago, and that hasn't changed. The game's mix of beautiful graphics, varied environments (dirt tracks, cliff-tops, frozen lakes) and superb handling makes it the finest topdown racer on iOS, and also a worthy successor to the classics of the genre. 2D sprites it ain't, but the spirit's the same.
First published in Tap! Issue 08
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