Diddy Kong Racing

Diddy Kong Racing is able to, with a great deal of charm and creativity, lift itself above the generic building blocks it uses

dkr3According to the norms established by Mario Kart, the franchise that invented the kart-racing genre and showed the world how successful and fun it could be, games of the sort should follow a specific recipe. Companies should get a group of recognizable characters that inhabit one or more universes in which racing is not a highlight, put them aboard simple karts with metal frames, place them in a bunch of courses of outlandish design and that are inspired by the games of origin of the racers, and allow competitors to break all fair-play rules by arming them with items that – in the real world – would cause brutal injuries, uncontrollable brawls, and arguments packed with inappropriate vocabulary.

With the discovery of such goldmine, many were the companies that jumped at the opportunity to put out a title of the kind; results, naturally, were of varied degrees of quality, with most heavily leaning towards the end of the spectrum reserved for poorly produced efforts that were nothing but quick cash-ins. Among the few that were indeed successful, Diddy Kong Racing – coming out just one year after the release of Mario Kart’s second installment – is one of the best and, unquestionably, the most original one.

Diddy Kong Racing does respect a bunch of the genre’s rules: a horde of colorful characters does race in wacky tracks while using items to gain an extra competitive edge. At the same time, though, either because it cannot follow them or because it chooses not do so, it overlooks many of those regulations. Mostly, such a fact comes as a blessing; on one occasion, however, it slightly hinders the game’s greatness.

dkr6That one problem that arises is related to the word “recognizable”. In the building of Diddy Kong Racing, Rare only had access to a single character of worldwide fame: the starring monkey present in the game’s title. Truthfully, Banjo and Conker, of classic Nintendo 64 platformers that only arrived in the years following Diddy Kong Racing, are part of the group of ten racers (two of which are unlockable). And so is Krunch, a Kremling of King K. Rool’s pirate crew. Elsewhere, though, Rare was forced to fill up the game’s roster with critters – like Tiptup, the turtle; Timber, the tiger; Pipsy, the mouse; and Bumper, the badger – that while lovable and charming, are certainly not remarkable.

Perhaps realizing that their project did not have the benefit of dressing up its visuals and building its tracks with powerful references, Rare went out of its way to make Diddy Kong Racing unique. And they absolutely succeed in doing so. Not content with presenting kart-racing by the book, Rare pushes the title beyond that genre: Diddy Kong Racing actually offers a mixture of racing and adventure that cannot be found in any game that preceded it.

Timber’s parents, rulers of the island where Diddy Kong Racing happens, go on vacation and leave their son in charge, letting him race with his friends on the many courses of the region. In the meantime, a wizard pig from outer space shows up, locks all racing tracks behind sealed doors, corrupts the four animal guardians of the place, and promises to leave only if he is defeated in a race. It does not make any sense – no premise that leads to kart-racing really could – but the game does not spend more than a few seconds with it either. What matters is that the story sets the table for a blend of racing sprinkled with overworld exploration.

dkr2In total, the island has four worlds in the shape of lobbies surrounded by doors (with a fifth one becoming accessible later on). Players, then, have to locate the entrance to those lobbies, open them by acquiring a certain quantity of balloons (which are the rewards for winning races and that can also be punctually found around the overworld), and partake in the many varied challenges inside them. It is a simple setup, and it works wonderfully: there is a genuine sense of discovery in finding the entrance to the lobbies, even if the overworld is not that big, and the racing is simply a blast.

Smartly, the worlds pack more than standard races, otherwise Diddy Kong Racing’s single-player campaign would be miserably short. Gamers need to achieve victory in normal races in all four tracks; defeat the area’s boss in a frantic race; go through each course once more, this time collecting eight silver coins and trying to win in the process; and, finally, face a tougher version of the boss. Additionally, there is also a point-based four-race championship and a battle stage, which is unlocked by finding a golden key that is hidden in one of the lobby’s four tracks.

All of those challenges are genuinely fun. The initial standard races shine because Diddy Kong Racing’s tracks, despite not being located in famous settings, are excellent, centering around somewhat commonplace themes like dinosaurs, a volcano, a lagoon, a medieval village, and space. With the track design learned and victory attained, the coin-collecting races up the stakes considerably, featuring coins that have been placed in devilish locations that, unfortunately, sometimes come off as cheap. At last, racing against big-sized animals in especially designed stages is a thrill; and the battle levels, including combat via items and variations of capture-the-flag, are entertaining breaks from the norm.

dkr7Another rule that is broken by Diddy Kong Racing is how it explores a couple of vehicles other than the simple kart: the airplane and the hovercraft. It is a feature that, besides the adventure mode, happens to be the game’s signature component, as tracks are set up with one of the three vehicles in mind, even if – during multiplayer sessions – players can individually choose, if the track allows, which vehicle they will use. Although the plane and the kart are relatively easy to control, with the former even being able to perform loops, the hovercraft offers a steeper learning curve, as it can be easy to lose control of it during sharp turns until gamers get its quirky physics down.

As a final, and simple, new twist, Diddy Kong Racing’s implementation of items is quite different from the one that is seen in Mario Kart. Firstly, the color of the balloons indicates the item they carry (the blue one, for example, hands out a boost), allowing players to pretty much choose what they will pick up. Moreover, items can be powered-up by running over equally colored balloons while not using the items. A single missile, for instance, becomes a set of ten if racers go through three red balloons. Not only do such measures remove luck from the equation, as the entire field of eight racers can get whatever items they choose to, it adds a good layer of strategy to the competition.

The game also excels in its technical department. Graphically, it replaces the dull sprites of Mario Kart 64 with very good 3-D models that are bursting with personality, and features scenarios that are exploding with bright beautiful colors – reaching an almost psychedelic extravaganza in the space world. In terms of sound, although the repetitive sound effects emitted by characters do get a little annoying, the music is masterful, as David Wise penned one specific tune for each of the twenty tracks, and their quality is generally high.

dkr5Diddy Kong Racing is able to, then, lift itself above the generic building blocks it uses. Differently from most kart-racing games, it may not be stacked with recognizable brands, characters, and assets, a reality that is slightly harmful to the overall experience. However, Rare – in the midst of a breathtaking streak of creativity – was able to infuse the title with enough content, genuine challenge, and refreshing ideas to transform it into the Nintendo 64’s most fun racing effort and one of the few games of its genre that rightfully deserves to be placed alongside the best entries of the Mario Kart franchise. That, in itself, is a feat that reveals a lot about the degrees of creativity and dedication that were employed in the game’s making.

Final Score: 8 – Excellent

11 thoughts on “Diddy Kong Racing

  1. Reblogged this on Miketendo64! The News, Reviews & Personal Views Website On All Things Nintendo and commented:

    Diddy Kong Racing is able to lift itself above the generic building blocks it uses. Differently from most kart-racing games, it may not be stacked with recognizable brands, characters, and assets, a reality that is slightly harmful to the overall experience. However, Rare – in the midst of a breathtaking streak of creativity – was able to infuse the title with enough content, genuine challenge, and refreshing ideas to transform it into the Nintendo 64’s most fun racing effort and one of the few games of its genre that rightfully deserves to be placed alongside the best entries of the Mario Kart franchise.

  2. An excellent review for an excellent game! I garnered so much enjoyment from this little racing game for all the reasons you presented above. The different vehicles and terrain gave it a boost above most racing games, and while the story was a childish at best and cheesy at worst, I actually think it worked for what they were trying to accomplish. Heck, I wish I could find a copy to play now. It would so much fun to relive that experience 😉

    1. I am glad I was able to do it justice! It is a special game with lots of great things about it. I am happy you enjoyed the review!

      Thanks for reading and for the comment!

  3. Love this review! Diddy Kong Racing is probably the only contender besides Mario Kart for favorite kart-racing game. I’d even say that between MK64 and DKR, I actually prefer the latter. You nailed it in explaining why this game was special in its own different ways. My favorite difference is the hub world, which 3D platformers had popularized at the time. I love the adventure mode and wish Mario Kart would just copy that formula already. But yes, between the 3 different vehicles, the item upgrades, and the colorful cast of (somewhat memorable?) characters, I’ve always had fond memories of this game. Great job!

    1. Thanks a lot for reading it and I am glad you enjoyed it!

      I agree with you that DKR is better than MK64. In fact, I would say it is far better and it had that Mario Kart installment easily beat. The hub world is fantastic! DKR was my first N64 game, so I was really in awe when I entered that overworld. I did not get Super Mario 64 until a few months later, so entering the hub was my first contact with 3-D gaming. It was quite special!

  4. Fantastic review! 🙂 This game was a major highlight of my childhood. I never even thought about how silly the story was until you mentioned it, haha. But yeah, I loved the colourful characters, the big mean bosses, and the music was beautiful. The island hub was a truly fun place to explore.

    It took me a long time to complete those evil silver coin challenges… The ones on the hovercraft courses were the hardest for me.

    1. Those silver coin challenges were brutal, there is no doubt about it! I was quite young when I got the game, around six-years old, so I had to ask an older cousin for help in order to clear those challenges and some of the bosses. I was only able to beat those by myself a few years later.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s