Odds are, when someone mentions the brand Lionel, you probably think “trains,” right? Yeah, me too. We’ve never been much of a train family, so I’ve never really had much use for Lionel. My youngest is the only one of my three kids who has ever had a vehicle interest, and that’s been directed toward cars. Hot Wheels, mostly.
All that changed when Lionel revealed Mega Tracks, their entry into rail racing. Having grown up a fan of slot car racing in the ’80s, I was immediately intrigued, as was my daughter. When Lionel reached out to GeekDad about an advance review of one of the initial wave of Mega Tracks products, we jumped at the chance to take a look at what the product has to offer.
The first thing we noticed is the lack of girls in the promotional materials. Every printed piece of literature, every video, every online photo shows one or more boys configuring the tracks for maximum playtime fun. Sadly, all the girls must have been off minding their dolls, ponies, and Easy-Bake Ovens. Not. One. Girl. #NotOneGirl.
The product I was sent to review is the premier product in the Mega Tracks line, Corkscrew Chaos. We were sent the pack with the red racer, which races with the B frequency controller, which is handy in the event that multiple cars are used in proximity to one another. The green racer uses the A frequency. It should be noted that it is not the car shell that is set to a specific frequency, rather, it is the motor that drives the car shell around the track, allowing owners to swap out shells. Lionel has already released a pair of new shell packs at the launch of the product line, which will further allow owners to customize their sets.
The Corkscrew Chaos set comes with 65 pieces, which once you account for the two sections of the racer, the controller, the page of stickers to customize your racer, the instruction manual, the two pieces that allow you to “connect” your mobile phone to the controller (more on that later), and the AC cord for keeping the car’s motor charged, you’ve got 58 various pieces for track construction.
The pieces are a high-quality plastic. The blue track pieces are pliable and lend to all sorts of crazy contortions. The remaining pieces are rigid and act as support for your track as you bend it into whatever rail course you can imagine (and you have the pieces to build). Construction is easy, mostly sliding posts into holes. I was concerned with how the rail sections would be held together, but the post-and-hole system with snap covers makes for a smooth seam at the connection points. Trust the company with decades of train-making experience to get the rail sets right.
The manual comes with the instructions for building the Corkscrew Chaos track. My daughter had little interest in the build process (“You build it while I play with the car”… a slight variation on the “You build it while I play with the minifigure” line she uses with every LEGO set she owns). Working alone, it took me no more than 15 minutes to put the track together. Once the track was built, we snapped the car onto the track and took it for a spin. Our unit came with plenty of charge and was still going strong after those first ten minutes or so of play time.
Those first ten minutes are all she really has played with the set over the past few days. Why? It’s certainly not because she’s a girl. First, she’s still a little young for the set (she just turned seven years old last month, and the track is rated for ages eight and up). Second, it’s just a single car going around a rail track. Adding a second car and controller–perhaps packaging the A frequency and B frequency cars together into a single Corkscrew Chaos set for one comparable price instead of selling a Corkscrew Chaos set with the green car and a Corkscrew Chaos set with the red car–would allow for social play. The promotional materials, like the video below, that Lionel has released for the Mega Tracks line all show a pair of kids enjoying the set, but once the track is built, playtime is a strictly solo affair.
Notice how one kid is having a good time racing while the other is there to cheer him on, provide high-fives, and wish the track had come with two cars so they could play together?
I was hoping that the mobile phone integration would help with some of the social play shortcomings of the set. I was wrong. You lay your phone on its side in the plastic cradle that attaches to the top of the controller and strap it in with what amounts to a black elastic ponytail holder. There is no app to download. You point your phone’s web browser to the provided URL and hunt for the page that corresponds to the Mega Tracks set. There, you have four options. The first is a digital timer, which is something I’m guessing your phone already comes with. The second option allows the website access to your phone’s camera, so you can take pictures of your friend standing to the side and waiting for his turn. Again, this is something you can accomplish using your phone’s native features, not something you need to go to the Mega Tracks website to access.
The final two options in the website’s Game Center are photos of other track layouts. That’s it, just photos, not actual instructions. Oh, and many of the suggested track configurations require multiple track sets beyond a single Corkscrew Chaos set. The final option is “Tips & Tricks,” which does provide you with the basic principles for how to best construct your own custom track, with tips on creating a stable base and using the clamps provided in the set to transition your track from floor to furniture to even an upside-down track.
Verdict: If you have a (singular) pre-teen, regardless of gender, who likes construction sets and has shown an interest in engineering their own works from the pieces provided in those sets, then Mega Tracks might make a good gift. The set pieces are high-quality. Construction is easy but yields a sturdy product. If you have multiple children or kids younger than the recommended age of eight years old–and really, I’d say more like younger than ten years old–who are going to bicker about having to wait their turn or get frustrated that they don’t have enough parts to build the track they imagined (or saw in the Game Center), then the Mega Tracks set may not be the best idea. Or, perhaps, I should say that a single Mega Tracks set might not be the best idea. The Corkscrew Chaos set, with your choice of red or green car, retails online for $99.99. Getting a second set so that a pair of kids can race together and have a ton of pieces to build some truly awesome tracks might be the way to go, but dropping about $200 on a rail racer might be too costly for many. Right now, Lionel does not offer a second car as a standalone product, only changeable shells and track expansions.
Disclaimer: As stated above, a Corkscrew Chaos set with the red racer was provided for the purpose of this review. All opinions are my own.