Mario Kart 64 was one of the biggest releases of 1997. As the long awaited sequel to the original SNES game the move to 3d did wonders for its track design. As great as it was it more fondly remembered for its multiplayer mode, of which I still sometimes indulge. But as good as the game was it had its flaws. Most notably it had some of the most aggressive rubberband AI I’ve ever seen which mode the single player mode a chore. But Rare and Nintendo had a surprise for the holidays in Diddy Kong Racing, a game that betters its direct inspiration in a number of ways and is excellent.
Diddy Kong Racing was a surprise 1997 release. When Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Quest were both delayed there was a gaping hole in the Nintendo 64’s lineup that Christmas. Luckily Rare had this prepared to fill in the gap. Diddy Kong Racing could easily have been cheap filler; usually titles that are announced and released within a few months are. But in this case Rare have created one of the better kart racing games of that generation.
The roster of characters numbers eight and come in all shapes and sizes. While it isn’t shown each has different attributes in terms of top speed, acceleration, and handling. It doesn’t take a genius to suss out that larger characters like Banjo are slow to accelerate but have a higher top speed. It’s the smaller characters that are ambiguous. Tip Tup and Tipsy are both similar with minor differences. Those differences do matter as certain characters perform better in varied terrain and vehicles. Luckily you aren’t locked into one character during the adventure mode.
The game is split between its multiplayer and adventure mode and lives up to that title. The single player campaign is more than just a series of races. Each of the four worlds (Dino Domain, Snowflake Mountain, Sherbet Island, Dragon Forest) house four tracks. After completing each you challenge that world’s boss. If you can manage to win you get the silver coin challenge, which challenges you to revisit each course, collect eight silver coins and still come in first. If you can beat the boss again (a tall order) you earn a piece of Wiz Pig’s amulet, which is needed to challenge the man himself. While the courses themselves are a little short there are plenty of hidden items to find. You’ll also ride more than just a go-kart; the hovercraft and aeroplane switch things up and handle differently as well.
Beyond just its structure what really makes Diddy Kong Racing so fun are the wealth of secrets and nuance that add depth. There is one key hidden in each world that unlock multiplayer activities. These are cleverly concealed and will require thorough exploration to find. Time trials are fun on their own but getting trophies contribute to unlocking the fifth and final world that has some of the best tracks. There are even numerous little skills that help eke out a little extra speed. Hell, I almost forgot about the extra characters, to say nothing of the cool cheat codes that add more life to the game. Most of all you don’t have to deal with the rubberband bullshit that almost ruined Mario Kart 64.
Most kart racers are typically aimed at children. In this case however the game packs a decent amount of challenge in its adventure. The initial run through each world is easy enough. The “boss” battle that follows is not; you will win by a slim margin I most cases. The Silver Coin challenge is grueling with some of the later courses being downright vicious. Needless to say it will take quite a while to complete, especially in Dragon Forest. The coins are carefully placed, forcing you to go off the beaten track to collect all of them. Completing these challenges still remains incredibly intense to this day and rewarding. I haven’t even mentioned the race against Wiz Pig yet….
The only thing keeping Diddy Kong Racing from being the total package is its weak multiplayer. Like Mario Kart 64 it has four battle stages. But each has to be unlocked by finding keys in the adventure mode first. While this is great for those who want to plumb the depths of the single player game it is an impediment for those that want to hop into a quick battle against their friends. It also doesn’t help that the courses are weak and that two of them are essentially badly done capture the flag games. There is some fun to be had but it pales in comparison next to Mario Kart.
The presentation in Diddy Kong Racing deserves praise as it is stellar. The game has an insanely clean look and avoids the excessive blur present in most N64 games. Each of the five worlds are incredibly varied and sport amazing texture work. The real time lighting and transparency effects are show off in a number of courses and similarly look great. The frame rate for the most part is smooth although it isn’t a locked thirty. Really the only bad thing I can say is that the game is excessively cute.
The soundtrack is fantastic which was rare on the system. Each character has their own theme and as much as I hate their cute voices they fit. The music is dynamic, speeding up and becoming tense as the laps progress. It’s a great touch, and one that I wish more games would use.
For a game that came out of nowhere Diddy Kong Racing was an excellent surprise. It houses a lengthy single player quest, fantastic graphics, and great music. While the multiplayer isn’t as good as it could have been the overall package can’t be beat. This is an excellent way to kill a few days.