Biggest advancement in 50 years combines physical and virtual play
I can’t remember how I got it, but I can vividly recall my very first Hot Wheels. It was a red double-headed dragon on four chrome wheels. I remember how the contrast of smooth plastic and cold metal felt in my hands, and being certain it could roll forever if only my kitchen floor were bigger. That was over 30 years ago, and since then Hot Wheels has expanded to include many more designs and features, but the way you play with them hasn’t changed much. Not until today.
Hot Wheels ID is Mattel’s vision for the future of the die-cast toy line, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. A project three years in the making, the Hot Wheels ID series takes the classic 1:64-scale cars we all know and grants the ability to download digital versions of them into a mobile game (launching first on iOS). It’s a concept that’s been done before in the toy industry by the likes of Skylanders and Lego Dimensions, but because you play with Hot Wheels differently from either of those the experience is unique.
Like others in the toys-to-life genre, Hot Wheels ID cars use Near-Field Communication (NFC) to scan the toy and retrieve the information needed to create an avatar for it in the game. Each Hot Wheels ID car has a chip on the bottom, visible through a layer of clear plastic, that stores information specific to that toy. Like a virtual VIN, the data tells you what number your car is in the series. As with real cars, you can expect Hot Wheels with low sequence numbers to be prized. The chip also stores performance data and racing history (more on those later), which stay with the car its entire life. If you trade a car, its new owner can see everything it’s ever done once they scan it, at which point it will disappear from your virtual garage.
The scanning can happen one of two ways: by tapping the car to your iPhone (7 and up) or by passing it through a Hot Wheels Race Portal, which is sold separately. The portal runs on a rechargeable battery, and uses Bluetooth to relay info to your device. What’s cool about it is there’s a pair of infrared sensors that record speed and count laps. The game shows you scale speed, so you can achieve some ridiculous numbers (we saw up to 800 mph (1,287 km/h) in a demo). You can attach the portal to any Hot Wheels track, but if you connect it to the Hot Wheels ID Smart Track, whatever you build in real life is mirrored in the game.
Your virtual track can be raced using cars you’ve scanned or digital-only cars you earn or buy in-game. In campaign mode, there are challenges that get harder as you progress, and each offers a chance to earn ID Coins to upgrade your car or purchase blueprints for digital cars. Mattel will hold live events where you can scan NFC tags for exclusive digital cars, and there will be global events in the game bringing new challenges periodically.
You can of course still play with the physical track and cars when you’re not on the app–and if you’re like us, you’ll have plenty of fun without the digital aspect. The Smart Track Kit includes Hot Wheels’ most powerful launcher ever, which is what enables the above mentioned ridiculous scale speeds and will send a car flying off the track if you overcharge it. Adding multiple cars increases the challenge and the fun. The data recorded by the portal will appear the next time you connect to the game.
At launch, the Hot Wheels ID line will have eight cars, the portal, and Smart Track available exclusively at select Apple Stores, with the game available for download on the App Store. The Android version will be released a month later on Amazon Prime Day, along with another eight cars. In total, 51 cars are planned for 2019, with 100 more on the way in 2020, including designs licensed by more than a dozen OEM brands. Hot Wheels ID lands at Target stores this October, just in time for the holidays.
The cars retail for $6.99 USD each—more than the $0.99 USD we’re used to paying for a regular Hot Wheels, but not outrageous considering production will be limited. The cars also get fancier packaging better suited for collectibles. But the other two products in the ID line are significantly pricier. The portal goes for $39.99 USD and the Smart Track Kit asks a whopping $179.99 USD. Kids better be extra-good this holiday season if they put that on their list.
Mattel says today’s kids expect more from their toys, and Hot Wheels ID certainly delivers more. But crucially, the added features also don’t take much, if anything, away from the original toys. Kids can still create lasting memories like the ones I have, plus a few more. But if you get nostalgic for good, old-fashioned die-cast metal and plastic wheels, don’t worry. Traditional Hot Wheels cars aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.