I have not been much of a racing gamer for a while. I certainly respect how much the genre has evolved from its early days; both the Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport series are an ever-improving apotheosis of racing at home, giving a simulation that is, in some cases, literally good enough to train us for driving on the real-life tracks the games represent
I learned a lot more about driving from these games than it is probably safe to publicly admit. Because of simulation racers, I think about lines and acceleration and vehicular physics in a way I maybe never would have grokked on my own. They were crucial to my skilled-but-not-necessarily-legal driving style.
The funny thing is, I suck at them.
I don’t have the patience or skill to win against a computer opponent who is going to race a perfect line unless I wreck their shit. The racers I play these days have an overwhelming tendency to either be 1. developed by Criterion or 2. Mario Kart 64. Mario Kart 64 is, well… it’s Mario Kart 64. Criterion’s late-period Burnout games and their shift (no pun intended) into the Need for Speed series are a perfect middle ground for me, with the pretty cars and special attention to the tracks that reads to me as puzzles to be solved, but without the minutiae of fine tuning that I can never get the handle on (and without the manual transmissions that always finds me getting smoked on a straightaway for reasons of I’m a fucking idiot).
It was not always this way. There was a time when racing games were my jam. As one can easily surmise from my descriptors above, this time was back when racers were much more arcade-y. From R.C. Pro-Am, which gave me much more juice as fuel for the nickname I gave a friend in college, to Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road, which found five people rotating four controllers on an NES Satellite over a long pizza-laden evening, there was a special golden era for the genre on the NES that spoke to me.
None of those game mattered at much as Micro Machines. Choosing a completely useless character (it was all about either Spider or Cherry, although for some reason I did occasionally end up with Joel) to race the many and varies Moschitta-mobiles around a household was awesome. Powerboats in the bathtub, taking wide, uncontrolled turns around a rubber ducky? Off-road vehicles on the Cheerios-bordered breakfast table track (remember, the orange juice is sticky and the milk is slippery)? Taking tiny sports cars across a desk, with open three-ring binders serving as ramps? How could this game not be a winner?
None of that held a candle to the Formula 1 cars, though. They turned like magic, taking the tightest curves perfectly in a way that Gran Turismo would replicate nearly a decade later. If I had my choice of car, I never would have picked anything else. (Except in the boat races, because I have a feeling the F1 car would not have been able to compete.)
As with most games when I was a kid, my best memories come from playing with my brother. He was (and is, in fact) better at video games than me, and in the most practical sense he is better than anyone else I know. Sure, there may be someone, even many someones, better than him at a given game, but over the breadth and depth of the games he has mastered, only a socially inept shut-in would take him down.
That made for many frustrating nights of competitive gaming. Our house-rules match of GoldenEye, where the two of us and our buddy Ryan from across the street sniped at each other in the Temple with Golden Guns, always ended with me in fucking last place. Long nights of first-to-100 battle matches on the afore-mentioned Mario Kart 64 left me lucky to reach 30 before it was over. This is a pattern that has repeated throughout our entire lives, even bleeding into the more benign times when we would serve as guides or cheerleaders in watching the other play single-player. (The most notable recent example is from Portal 2, when I had difficulty with a puzzle. I fucked it up and he laughed, because unlike me, he has “basic reasoning skills.” Ouch. Where’s the aloe?)
With that history, it is obvious that I would cherish any moment of victory, any slight glimmer that I might be better. Perhaps that is part of why I cherish those Micro Machines F1 cars so much.
The best race in the game was in those cars on a pool table. Taking that smooth-turning (micro) machine up onto the table’s edge, doing a half-circuit, right-angling one of the corner pockets at speed. It was exhilarating, especially when you were playing two-player and you had to stay within a screen’s distance of each other or lose a point.
As is often the case with in-person competitive games, there was no small amount of gamesmanship, ranging from the relatively benign (insofar as it rarely led to fisticuffs) trash-talking to, well, to outright cheating in the form of knocking controllers out of each other’s hands. One of my brother’s favorites was particular to that particular pool table race, attempting to trick me into turning at a side pocket and dropping off the edge of the table. It never worked on me.
Once, I held a slight lead on that straightaway. “Turn here!” he said, knowing I wouldn’t. But… he did, curling around that side pocket and off, crashing his car into the felt and giving me a point.
I looked at him sort of like he had just turned into a spider. And to this day, saying “Turn here!” at the right moment in just that way can push us both into peals of laughter.