For fans of Nintendo kart racers, 1997 has to go down as one of the greatest years in the history of the genre. Not only did it witness the European and North American release of the iconic Mario Kart 64, but Rare also introduced their own challenger to the karting crown with Diddy Kong Racing on the same console.
Far from being an inferior clone of Nintendo’s timeless racer, DKR manages to differentiate itself from its eternal rival in a number of ways. Most notably, the game offers an innovative mix of adventuring and racing. Featuring a hub world, collectable items, tantalising secrets, boss levels and a storyline - albeit a rudimentary one - it’s clear from the outset that DKR isn’t your typical kart racer.
Much like Power Stars granted Mario the ability to explore further into Peach’s Castle in Mario 64, the currency of DKR, golden balloons, allow you to venture further into the island’s different areas. This in turn allows you to enter into an increasingly more difficult and varied series of races, along with the odd boss encounter along the way.
While simply winning races isn’t too difficult, especially to begin with, before long the infamous Silver Coin Challenge rears its head and scatters eight special coins around every track. You now have to take part in each race again and not only win, but also collect each coin along the way. In addition, each of the worlds’ bosses must also be raced for a second time, with a more taxing challenge level, and when combined with the coin challenge it is clear that DKR hides a surprisingly stubborn level of difficulty under its outwardly cutesy appearance.
Finally, if all of that isn’t enough, anyone skilled enough to completely finish the adventure mode will unlock Adventure Two, which reverses the tracks and places the silver coins in even more fiendish positions. As a result of these challenges, it won’t take long for more impatient gamers to start turning the air a lovely shade of blue. Some may also find it hard to shake the sense that collecting comes first and racing second. Computer racers never seem to deviate from their set route around the track, and the only thing that makes racing against them difficult is going out your way to collect silver coins.
Beyond the challenging single-player quest a range of multiplayer options are also available. These include straight forward racing and hilariously hectic battle-modes, which are sure to keep you and up to three friends entertained. It’s also possible to play through the Adventure mode in two-player co-op, a thoughtful inclusion from the nice folks at Rare.
Adventuring aside, DKR is also unique in that it allows you to take control of three different vehicles: the standard car, a versatile hovercraft and a nifty aeroplane. Handling is spot on, as each of the vehicles has its own individual feel and distinctive traits. The decision to include three different types of craft lends a nice level of variety to the game, as it means that the diverse terrains of land, water and air are all available for some racing action. Rare took advantage of these opportunities, as the courses on offer are well designed, featuring colourful backdrops and scenery as well as plenty of hazards and other quirks.
Every world that you work through has its own particular theme, such as prehistoric, snowy and medieval, with each including four tracks. These themes, and by association the tracks themselves, are perhaps slightly generic on the whole, especially with consideration that DKR is supposed to take place in the Donkey Kong universe. It’s easy to get the feeling that these could be the courses for any kart racer, not specifically within this franchise.
A similar criticism can also be aimed at the game’s ten playable characters. Despite being called Diddy Kong Racing, Diddy is the only member of the Kong clan present in the game. The rest of the cast is made up of a combination of other familiar Rare studio faces such as a Kazooie-less Banjo, Conker (seemingly before he discovered the wonders of alcohol), and unknown characters such as Pipsy the mouse, Timber the tiger and Bumper the badger. Rare were clearly trying to introduce players to new characters in DKR; it would have been better, however, to see a few recognisable old favourites in the game. Interestingly, the DS port, released in 2007 and worth checking out for those without access to an N64, went some way to fixing this issue by featuring Dixie and Tiny Kong as playable characters. However, their inclusion came at the expense of Banjo and Conker, with their copyright status now sadly complicated by Microsoft's ownership of Rare.
Visually, DKR is an incredibly vibrant and captivating game, typical of the early Nintendo 64 era. The textures are such that this title looks a little basic these days, but it’s so brilliantly bright and colourful that it’s doubtful you’ll even notice. The soundtrack, composed by Dave Wise of Donkey Kong Country fame, is catchy, upbeat and everything you would expect from a Rare title, fitting the spirit and atmosphere of the game perfectly. Some musical themes are used multiple times for different courses, however, and it would have been preferable if every individual track had its own unique tune to suit the distinct environment. The only real criticism in terms of presentation is that DKR is perhaps a bit too cutesy, especially in terms of the characters’ voices. The fact that the Rare logo appears with the sound of young children’s laughter sets the tone for the audio experience as a whole.
Diddy Kong Racing for the Nintendo 64 is a prime example of why gamers should never judge a title by its cover. What initially appears to be yet another cutesy Mario Kart clone aimed at kids not only manages to successfully differentiate itself from its main source of inspiration, but also provides a surprisingly engrossing and stubborn challenge. Make no mistake about it, this game requires genuine skill. There are a few forgettable characters and the environments are perhaps somewhat generic, but Diddy Kong Racing still comes highly recommended.