When the developer that made the venerable Micro Machines games for 8- and 16-bit consoles announces a new toy-car racer, it’s worth paying attention. Toybox Turbos is probably as close to a new game in that much-loved and missed series as we could ever hope to receive, despite the absence of the official licence. But is it strong enough to stand the test of time? Will it wither before the rose-tinted comparisons of those of us old enough to have spent hours racing tiny cars around breakfast tables on the Mega Drive?
Arguably, Toybox Turbos starts on the back foot. Plenty of other developers on many and varied platforms have attempted to recapture the magic that Codemasters managed with their early top-down racers and nobody has quite succeeded. Many of us might expect Toybox Turbos to do better, simply because of the studio that’s making it but let’s not forget that Codemasters themselves never quite managed to recreate the winning formula that made the first couple of Micro Machines games so special.
This release knows what notes to hit, featuring many similar settings to its 20-year-old predecessors and a similar handling style. There’s even an option in the settings to use a retro top down camera that makes it feel very much like a remake of the Micro Machines games of my hazy recollection. The new default camera is a little more dynamic and although it’s slightly disorientating for a few minutes, it almost immediately becomes natural as it generally does a great job of covering the bits of the action that you need to see.
That action is undoubtedly the most important element of the game. The vivid, chunky art style perfectly compliments the fairly loose handling style that allows for plenty of sliding around corners, sharp turns to recover and wild crashing between racers. Often, this type of game falls into the trap of handling a little too sharply, presumably because you need that responsive turning to get your little vehicle out of trouble should you find it pointing towards danger. Toybox Turbos balances that sharpness with just the right amount of traction that you will make the turn but you’ll still need a bit of skill to keep your back end in check. The handling varies nicely for each vehicle too, so that it’s always similar but different enough that the distinction between vehicles is real.
The opponents start off presenting almost no challenge at all. I won every race in the first of the seven championships at the first time of asking and got my maximum three stars without needing to retry any of the five events. That difficulty does ramp up as you progress though, with a little bit of frustration creeping in as it spikes in places. Usually that’s simply an indication that you need to spend some of the coins you earn in events and buy a different vehicle to tackle the current event you’re having difficulty with. Each vehicle has a rating for speed, handling and weight which dictates how you get around the track and how difficult it is for your opponents to push you off it.
Each championship concludes with a boss event that works in a similar way to the point scoring system in the game’s excellent local multiplayer. Each competitor starts with four of eight lights lit and every time you get a full screen ahead of your opponent, you light one more and put one of their lights out. First to eight wins, unless the match goes on too long, in which case the game drops mines around the track and goes into a play off mode that sees you win lights but no longer extinguish those of your opponent.
During these play off spells, the gameplay often felt like it had taken a turn – the on track hazards seemed to always harm me more than the boss and any luck to be found was entirely of the bad variety. It felt unfair and like the game was cheating, which can be common during high-pressure, frustrating periods but having suffered it a couple of dozen times, it really did feel like the boss always got the advantage when a match went long.
Each championship comes with a new set of vehicles to spend your in-game currency on and there’s incentive to purchase them all as you’ll often find each one is better for specific events. Beating the boss event awards you with their vehicle too, helping you complete your collection.
There’s a nice, if predictable, mix of events to take part in. It’s mostly all the usual suspects – a traditional race, a time trial, an overtaking challenge and the boss events described above. There’s also an escape event type that challenges you to get a certain distance before the encroaching wave consumes you.
You’ll have gift boxes to collect as you race, awarding items that allow you either a bit of a boost or some kind of weaponry to thwart your opponents. Sometimes the AI seems strangely reluctant to use their weapons, especially in the case of the mine dropper which leaves a little explosive gift for whoever might be coming along behind.
As with its predecessors though, Toybox Turbos is probably mostly about its local multiplayer. Up to four players can engage, with the spare slots taken up variable-difficulty AI. There’s plenty of options too, you can turn off weapons, choose vehicle sets and tracks and switch off the “Airstrike” option for players who have been eliminated early and want to rain down some destruction on the remaining racers.
You can play Toybox Turbos online too, with public and private options, and all the same choices you’d have for the offline mode. It loses something when played online but it’s a nice option to have for those that can’t always fill their sofa with friends.
Nostalgia for those early games makes any new entry in the genre a difficult proposition and while Toybox Turbos could improve in some areas, it’s as good as we’ve had in many years. If there’s still an audience for four player local multiplayer – and I suspect there really is – then this is a great game for those loud and excitable afternoon or post-pub play sessions.
The single player side of things doesn’t have a great deal of lasting appeal and it would be nice to see a couple more ideas to bring some freshness to the multiplayer modes but as a starting point for a resurgence of this kind of racer, and as long as the pricing is right on console (it’s £11.99/$14.99 on Steam), Toybox Turbos is likely to find and entertain an enthusiastic core of fans.
Version tested: PS3