Every gaming genre has a king. Some of those reigns last for quite a while and are boosted by incredible creative streaks that take a franchise miles away from its closest competition. Others are able to hold that crown in the public perception even when constantly surrounded by worthy competitors that give it a legitimate run for its money. Meanwhile, some monarchs lose their sovereignty as quickly as they get it, which is not only a natural happening on a market that moves quickly, but also a blessing to gamers who watch – and benefit from – how companies are consistently trying to top each other.
One genre, though, does not fall under any of those categories. Ever since it was inaugurated in 1992, it has been explored by an unimaginable number of franchises. They try to extract the very same simple gameplay of the genre’s progenitor and transfer it to new worlds with a few added twists, but after twenty two years of many attempts – some excellent, some mediocre – the very same franchise that gave birth to the original concept remains, generation after generation, the one against which all other games of its kind are measured.
The franchise is none other than Mario Kart. In 1992, Super Mario Kart broke new grounds by using the revolutionary Mode 7 chip to render seemingly tridimensional environments. And, more than that, it introduced a wacky blend of gameplay that mixed the challenge of traditional racing games, the simplicity and charm of the Mushroom Kingdom, and insane items that could turn a regular Grand Prix upside down. It was colorful, it was fast, it was wild, and its multiplayer mode established brand new bars for family entertainment.
Since then, seven installments have hit pretty much every single console Nintendo has released. Even if not all of them have received overwhelming critical acclaim, there is not a single version of Mario Kart that has not provided the ones that bought it with exciting, and sometimes frustrating, moments.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Mario Kart is the most complimented game of all time, for every game that ever came to inhabit its genre has copied not just a part, but pretty much all of its gameplay elements. Race-changing items, courses that are magnificent and outlandish fan service, battle modes on which karts become war tanks that expel vicious blasts, and beloved colorful characters racing against each other. Even if through most of those twenty two years its competition has been weak or nonexistent, the truth is Mario Kart has been challenged a few times.
Mickey took a decent shot at racing with Mickey’s Speedway USA. Naughty Dog, it could be argued, beat Nintendo at their own game when Playstation’s Crash Team Racing showed incredible racing prowess against Mario Kart 64. More recently, Sony crafted another worthy contender in ModNation Racers, a game that lacked the charm of being based around a famous franchise, but that made up for it in the form of highly customizable features. And, finally, Sonic, after a few irregular yet fun go-kart outings, achieved full maturity with the gorgeous Sonic Racing Transformed.
However, as the world prepares for the arrival of Mario Kart’s eighth Grand Prix of insanity, it is more than worthy to remember the game that came the closest to stealing that crown: Diddy Kong Racing. Coming close to the beginning of an era during which Rare would go on an astounding streak of game design (perhaps the best one in history), it announced something that would become clear during the Nintendo 64’s lifespan. Rare, as it turns out, did not want to just help Nintendo make their system attractive, they wanted to beat Nintendo in game development. And Diddy Kong Racing indicated that not only did they want to do it badly, they also had the talent and ability to do so.
Rare came to the realization that simply doing what Mario Kart did would never take their title over that gigantic hump. Their game had to do more than present neatly organized assortments of tracks constituting a Grand Prix. Consequently, Diddy Kong Racing was a game that tore down all the walls that limited the scope of what a racing game should be. Those barriers were not clear to the untrained eye, but once they were noticed by the Rare team and went down they – like a wall segregating people from a world whose existence they were totally unaware of – revealed something so natural that it made most gamers beg the ultimate question: “Why hadn’t anybody thought of this before?”.
The recipe was extremely bright, but very simple – the perfect combination for a game of its kind. Do away with the standard concept of a four-race grand prix on which racers are awarded points according to their finishing position, and separate the courses into five themed worlds connected by a nice overworld filled with secrets, challenges and that invited players to explore it in order to experience everything the game had to offer. A genre that was only go-karting morphed into a intriguing mixture of racing-adventure, and the result was beyond spectacular.
Instead of handing gamers the courses on a silver platter, the game made you earn the opportunity to race in each of its 20 courses, 5 battle stages and face its six bosses in frantic and very challenging races filled with traps and attacks to avoid. Each had to be unlocked by locating hidden items on the courses, winning the races, or exploring the overworld in search of golden balloons.
More than introducing brand new layers of challenge, the game’s manner to present its main attractions – the circuits – built up excitement. Instead of being just another stop along a grand prix, each course was anxiously hyped up by players as they tried to find a way to collect the right number of balloons to unlock it. Each numbered door hid something special behind it, and the sheer joy of clearing the previous challenge ended up combined with the happiness of finally being able to move on to the next treat. Each competition was much more than a race, it was a discovery; a fulfillment of finally being able to move on only to discover something utterly amazing.
Featuring groups of tracks that gravitated around specific themes could have had possibly bounding effects on their design, but the brains at Rare did not allow that to happen. The fact the game featured three distinct vehicles made the possibilities much more flexible, and unique venues were born out of that sandbox. Players flew through a volcano full of lava and a frozen tundra, used boats to explore a paradisiac bay and a medieval castle, drove through the mist near a frosty village and sped through the depths of a haunted one, and ended up on some weird space station where the future was colorful and vibrating instead of dully gray.
However, perhaps Diddy Kong Racing’s greatest magic trick was finding a way to make a game starring Diddy Kong and a bunch of an unknown characters into something fascinating and full of personality. In fact, being free from whatever conventions and expectations would have come tied to a famous franchise was maybe Rare’s greatest weapon in trying to create a racing game that was completely unique and transformed its obvious Mario Kart influences into something bigger and fresher.
More than serving as a way to connect worlds and tracks, its adventurous side leaked into many of the game’s core features. The battle stages featured varied objectives, some of which demanded a great level of exploration; major items were sometimes expertly hidden in tracks that had to be combed down by players over and over; and the boss races felt like creative boss battles you would find on a great adventure game, but with the added twist that your character was on a kart and you had to beat the bad guy to the finish line.
Diddy Kong Racing wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and it did so without many worries because it knew it was different. Out of thin air, and a few basics wonderfully laid down by Mario Kart, the geniuses at Rare built a game that – many years later – still stands on its own in terms of sewing two incredibly different genres into one experience so seamlessly and successfully. Rare did it by employing a lot of creativity on the gameplay and putting together glorious graphics and an unforgettable soundtrack.
Most importantly, they did it by understanding that in order to beat what had come before it, they had to do more than recycle. They had to grab the formula that had been established and take it to new places. Like the invisible walls that limited the racing genre before Diddy Kong Racing came around, that strategy is surprisingly easy to grasp, especially when it has been proven to be true over and over again. However, just like Diddy Kong Racing’s mixture of racing and adventuring has barely been repeated, the understanding that in order to push forward we need to do more than up a console’s processing power seems to have been lost in time.
If more games had the philosophy employed on Diddy Kong Racing, the gaming world would be a better place.