Feels like a “rare” few know about what an incredible game Diddy Kong Racing is. I mean, if you’re looking for a light, social party game, one where groups of players of vastly different skill levels can play together, then, as much as I hate to admit it, Mario Kart is better (that is, all of the Mario Karts except for Super and Super Circuit—more on that later). DKR is a legit racing game, as in, your skill at racing will be mercilessly judged by the game. You can lap the other players. There is no blue shell**, no bullet bill, not even a lightning bolt to help you come back when you’re behind. If you are behind in DKR, your only option is just race your way back into the lead.
If you’re coming from a Mario Kart background, the first thing I need to do to tell you about DKR, is to tell you about the items. Primarily*, there are 3 item classes in the game, each with three “levels”:
- Rockets. These are basically the “shells” from Mario Kart.
- Level 1 is a ballistic rocket (same as a green shell)
- Level 2 is a homing rocket (red shell)
- Level 3 is ten ballistic rockets
- Drops. These are similar to the bananas in Mario Kart
- Level 1 is an oil slick. This makes whoever hits it spin out of control and lose speed a bit.
- Level 2 is a mine. This has an effect more similar to a MK banana when you run over it.
- Level 3 is a bubble. Hitting a bubble holds you in place for even longer.
- Boosts. These are similar to the mushrooms in Mario Kart, giving you a speed boost.
- Level 1 is a weak mushroom.
- Level 2 is a strong mushroom.
- Level 3 is a super strong mushroom.
To get one of these items, you collect a balloon of that color. You can then use that item just as you would in MK. However, you can also hold onto that item, and then collect a second balloon of the same color to level it up, and get the next power level for that item type.
That’s right: DKR has entirely deterministic items! Even the items that you get are entirely dictated by racing. If you want a red shell, okay then, you need to move your car into a position to pick up a red balloon, twice. If you miss it, or if you accidentally pick up a green balloon, you won’t get the item you’re after.
* There are actually two other kinds of items as well: the magnet that pulls you up to another nearby player (it’s no bullet bill, believe me), and the shield, which just blocks projectiles pretty much. Both of these are way less common and way less useful than the main three, which is why I didn’t list them above, but they are technically in the game.
** Another minor note: Apparently, the level 3 magnet is kind of like a blue shell. However, I’ve played the hell out of this game and I never got a level 3 magnet even once I don’t think; I only learned about this fact by reading an online wiki. I think the purple balloons are too rare for this to be a real thing players can pursue.
Maybe it should have been Donkey Kong Racing?
Items are, I would say, a really big part of what makes a “kart racer” a “kart racer”, as opposed to just a “racing game”, and the items in DKR are extremely competitive. Mario Kart Wii has a mode (which I wish was in the other Mario Kart games) called “Competitive items”, which basically puts the game in DKR mode.
And yet… when you initially boot up the game, this is what you’re greeted with:
I don’t think it’s just me for whom this presentation suggests that this is a kart racer for tiny infants. The kids laughing up front, the voice that announces the game, the fact that it’s Diddy Kong, and all these weird cheapo one-shot characters like Bumper and Tip Tup and, strangely enough Conker (who, before his Bad Fur Day, was planned to be a much more child-friendly character in the ultimately canceled Conker’s Adventure). The elephant that gives you balloons, the fact that it’s balloons you collect, the colors, even the ridiculously happy (and ridiculously GOOD) music, all kind of signals that this is a game for young children.
When in fact, it’s way more hardcore than any other kart racer. So what you have is an incredible mismatch: most of my “Hardcore gamer!” friends wouldn’t play it because of the theme, and most people who would be drawn in by the theme would likely be turned off by how they’re getting utterly crushed in races with no way to come back. I think this is the reason that everyone you know LOVES Mario Kart 64, and no one you know LOVES Diddy Kong Racing. I mean, there are other reasons too, for sure: Mario Kart has a bunch of recognizable and beloved characters where Diddy Kong has a bunch of weirdos that no one ever saw before or since. But one of the reasons is certainly this mismatch.
So, I don’t know, I’m not a huge Donkey Kong fan or anything, but making it Donkey Kong Racing is probably the quickest route to avoiding this fate. You already had a big cast of Donkey Kong related characters that you could use, and it’s a little bit less “kiddie” of a presentation.
Or the other route to go would be to actually make the game be an even more accessible Mario Kart. Make the items even more random, the steering be more automatic, plenty of rubber banding, and so on.
In any case, I mostly just wanted to write about Diddy Kong Racing because it’s a fantastic game and I think that its biggest fans have yet to discover how great it is, because of the theme mismatch. Also, it’s got a great soundtrack: one of Rare’s finest, which is saying a lot, and also it’s the happiest music I’ve ever heard in my life. Finally, Diddy Kong Racing has the best single player campaign of any racing game I’ve ever played. Go play!
(PS: make sure to play the N64 version and not the Nintendo DS re-release, which improved nothing but added some really stupid rushed minigame that involves the stylus.)
(PSPS: I didn’t even mention that the game has 3 different vehicles – which is pretty cool. I’m a huge fan of the hovercraft which really got the waverace style bouncing on waves feel really done well. There’s not a lot to say about the 3 different vehicles, but honestly even if you deleted the hovercraft and the plane I think this game would be just as good.)
(PSPSPS: Oh, I forgot to also talk about how Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart Super Circuit are exceptional in the Mario Kart series. They’re pretty “racing” focused compared with the rest of the series – less rubberbanding and all of that, and they were both before the advent of the blue shell. Cool games, check them out!)