Talk about the Nintendo 64 and it won’t take long for gamers to reach the point of talking about Mario. Nintendo’s star performer was a tour-de-force on the Nintendo 64, starring in numerous titles that became instant classics. One of these was the still much-loved Mario Kart 64. Yet to some people’s minds, this wasn’t the best karting game on the console. Instead that honor falls to Rare’s instant classic; 1997’s Diddy Kong Racing.
The game itself had an interesting route to creation. Originally it wasn’t even a Diddy Kong game at all – instead was a follow-up the forgotten RC. Pro AM title from the 1980’s. Rare even got all the way to creating characters and themes for the game – yet Nintendo didn’t feel the franchise had the potential to breakout. They instead offered the use of their Donkey Kong IP – something Rare took up. Instead of using the iconic Donkey Kong however, they made the decision to use Diddy Kong – whom Rare had created previously for the Donkey Kong franchise. Somehow the team managed to turn this change around in quick time – hitting their planned 1997 release date without delay.
Diddy Kong Racing itself is an interesting title – not least because it doesn’t conform to the accepted model of karting games. Previously these focused on cups – which the player progressed through in order to unlock progress. It was a tried and tested system; yet Rare opted for something a bit more unique. The Adventure Mode allowed Rare to open up a more organic world for the gamer to explore. Much like how Super Mario 64 invited gamers to work towards goals – Diddy Kong Racing swapped out the stars for balloons and offered up a more interesting experience. It’s an interesting mix of game styles and leaves Rare’s classic with a unique footprint that seems almost revolutionary looking back (How many modern racers use open worlds now?).
This also helps to differentiate the game from Mario Kart 64 – which was a pure karting experience. Here instead gamers were allowed to explore, experiment and repeat races for greater gain. The inclusion of silver coins and boss races added variety to proceedings; pushing the gamer to challenge themselves. Between all these were mini-games that helped to spice to flesh out the games multiplayer component. Challenges such as capturing eggs were fun little asides that changed the pace of play and added a more competitive edge to proceedings.
Where Diddy Kong Racing really excels is in the execution of these ideas. The game allows you to choose your vehicle when traversing the overworld. The choice between a plane, kart or hovercraft helps to give a natural learning arena to gamers. They’re invited to experiment, play and even learn new techniques as they’re simply navigating. It could have all been done through menu’s, but instead the organic approach helps lend the game a sense of charm and fun. The charming cast of characters guide you throughout, letting you know where the next challenge is coming from. Sometimes characters will challenge you randomly; and it’s up to you to face these challenges as they arise.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the game though is its soundtrack. Rare were known for the prowess in creating worlds and characters, but it’s the soundtrack of Diddy Kong Racing that really helps meld together the experience. Each of the many tracks comes packing a catchy tunes while individual characters come with their own assigned theme. It’s hard to choose which is my personal favorite, yet I find most of the soundtrack on offer irresistible.
For all this praise though, the game has niggles. The selection of weapons is pretty poor; paling in comparison to the Mario Kart offerings. Oil slicks and rockets are fine but there’s very few weapons that can really change the direction of a race. Instead the focus is more on driving ability and the gamers desire to learn courses. I personally prefer the chaos of Mario games; but it’s a personal taste. Likewise I can’t say I ever found the multiplayer anywhere near as fun as Mario Kart. As much as I enjoy Diddy Kong Racing – the fact is that the game leans very heavily on its single-player. The multiplayer by comparison feels barebones and lacks the kind of depth you’d hope to find in a game like this. A lot of the mini-games offered up have fun appeal in the short-term, but lack the variables to truly make them standout.
I also have to say that, much like Mario Kart 64, a fair amount of the underlying gameplay against AI opponents is fairly tedious. Let’s make no mistake about this – this is a rubber band racer and it makes no apology for being that way. AI racers have a habit of catching up quickly and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get pushed to the middle of the pack as the game tries to reign you in. Perhaps most frustratingly, the boss battles tend to run on a pre-defined path; so racing them becomes a chore of repetition. You’ll be needing the patience of a saint in some of the later boss battles as the game becomes unforgiving in its attempts to knock you out of the race.
Yet for these shortcomings; there’s a huge amount of charm to this game. Some of the characters within would go on to become stars in their own right (Conkers and Banjo are delectable racers) and it’s nice to see them being formed here. The game is hugely fun to this day and presents a real challenge to those looking for an N64 game that can kick their ass. Is it as good as Mario Kart 64? Not to me sadly, but it’s a worthy alternative and certainly worth checking out if Nintendo’s plumber begins to wear on you. Diddy Kong Racing is a fine gme and its a real shame the franchise never got the momentum behind it to spawn more sequels. I for one feel Rare had a good thing going for them here.