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Diddy Kong Racing (Nintendo 64) artwork

Diddy Kong Racing (Nintendo 64) review


"Diddy Kong Racing smartly mimics SMK’s well-founded principles while expanding in different directions. To call it just a go-cart racer gives too little credit. As if it were no big thing, DKR boldly introduces the physics of plane and hovercraft travel to the genre while replicating the slide-turn techniques that separated the wheat from the chaff in SNES carting, casually switching between all three vehicles throughout. You’ll be tearing around the rocky orange cliffs of prehistoric Fossil Canyon, skidding past waterfalls and between the stomping feet of a ponderous Brontosaurus, and in the very next race take to the skies, navigating around snow-capped firs and splitting icy gorges at the Snowfrost Peak circuit."



When we were younger the Mario Kart 64 comparisons made sense. Only Nintendo could foresee the gimmicky direction they would steer the mascot kart racer -- first with dual drivers in Double Dash, then a Wii wheel peripheral -- and even then they must have hoped for more creative ideas originating in the genre’s defining series. It was with honest-to-goodness optimism that RareWare’s Diddy Kong Racing was miscast as a copycat. The second sterling title in the span of a year, audiences put off by its fairy tale whimsy grew into thinking of it as a mere stepping stone; the belief that kart racers just like DKR would come along every eight months was common. What could this title -- with a sidekick mascot, an unheard of bunch of drivers and screenshots that looked nowhere near as glamorous as the esteemed MK -- have that would distinguish itself for years to come?

Over a decade later, Diddy Kong Racing still reigns.

The first thing you need to know about Diddy Kong Racing is it was terribly under-appreciated for its time. I suspect there were many people like me, who gleefully purchased the long-awaited Mario Kart 64, only to be disappointed a few hours later when they had beaten it the very same day. It was fun while it lasted, but Super Mario Kart certainly didn’t etch its legacy with long drawn-out racetracks and rubber banding artificial intelligence. It was dangerous final turns on rail-less rainbow raceways and relentless computer-controlled drivers skillfully held at bay that defined the Super Nintendo classic, in the same instance mesmerizing, challenging and crushing its dedicated players. But SMK was also cheerful and encouraging, knowingly keeping the prize so close to its players’ grasp -- that perfect run ever so elusive -- they would have to come back for more. While MK64 had its successes, it was silly to abandon its forebear’s recipe and pander for all-audience appeal.

Diddy Kong Racing smartly mimics SMK’s well-founded principles while expanding in different directions. To call it just a go-cart racer gives too little credit. As if it were no big thing, DKR boldly introduces the physics of plane and hovercraft travel to the genre while replicating the slide-turn techniques that separated the wheat from the chaff in SNES carting, casually switching between all three vehicles throughout. You’ll be tearing around the rocky orange cliffs of prehistoric Fossil Canyon, skidding past waterfalls and between the stomping feet of a ponderous Brontosaurus, and in the very next race take to the skies, navigating around snow-capped firs and splitting icy gorges at the Snowfrost Peak circuit. It seems almost too effortless how smoothly all three vehicles are integrated, how easily the game switches from roaring over fallen logs in the rapids of Boulder Canyon to barnstorming under overpasses on Windmill Plains. It is an epitome of refinement and craftsmanship and it comes in an area where DKR had to write its own blueprint.

While it’d be simple to end its modernization there, Diddy Kong Racing expands in clever and considered directions; it's an adventure in every sense, not just a series of races (but it's also that too!). A small explorable overworld connecting together lobbies of similarly themed tracks is a start, but demanding and varied boss races are yet another genre breakthrough. After taking the checkered flag at Hot Top Volcano, you’ll have a showdown with the game’s first adversary, a stampeding red triceratops. His challenge is a race to the top of a spiraling mountainside trail, dodging palm trees and employing rockets and booster items necessary to earn an edge. In another climax you’ll sprint down a treacherous slalom path against a walrus eager to pancake your hovercraft on the slippery icy stretch. Good luck winning on the first try; only practice and patience will perfect the routes and techniques that regularly see victory against these ferocious competitors.

After beating each lobby’s four races and its boss, you might envision little left to do. But the heart of Diddy Kong Racing’s adventure mode is that there is always something more to do, that it is always willing to dial up the difficulty and push against the player harder. Following a victory, the defeated boss will challenge you to again take the checkered flag on all four racetracks he oversees while collecting eight silver coins amongst amped up rivals on each. Complete that and the boss will challenge you again, more aggressive and likely with a trick up his sleeve. Complete that and you unlock the endurance-themed trophy race, where all four tracks are run in sequence with placement relative point totals assigned a la Mario Kart. And if you do all that for all four areas -- plus find the four golden keys! -- you’ll unlock a fifth area commanded by the baddest boss of them all, Wizpig, the villain who locked up the racetracks you’ve been unlocking, stole the golden balloons you’ve been collecting and carved his face in the mountainside that overlooks the peaceful field Taj, a purple genie elephant on a magic carpet, wanders (talk to him to switch vehicles).

And just when you thought it was over -- hah! -- vanquish Wizpig and you’ll unlock Adventure Mode 2, the same gauntlet again on mirrored courses.

There is an almost gratuitous amount of racing to do here, perfectly paced and highly varied. “Getting stuck” isn’t an option when the game opens up so much at once, staggering tracks so you’re always unlocking new ones, offering silver coin challenges and trophy races to backtrack to and supplying an island paradise overworld to race and explore. Most impressively, each individual course stays grounded in the SMK formula that short tracks, heated competition and even a bit of preconceived unfairness are what lead to sustained success. Fantastic presentation helps too.

Greenwich Village sprints through the heart of a small town -- fall down the well for a shortcut! -- before twisting and tunneling through a wooded hollow, the colorful scenic route beneath a crisp blue sky. Pirate Pavilion skips across islands and down streams, brick sandstone fortress walls and a wrecked pirate ship subtle set pieces baking beneath the stunning yellow sunset. Soaring over the steaming lava in Hot Top Volcano you'll hear accompaniment by a fantastic, fast-paced Arabian beat while Snowball Valley’s frigid turns fit perfectly with treble synthesizer chimes and a whistling refrain. There are bends where you can skid for days and sharp ninety-degree corners you’ll need to brake to cut, chicanes down foggy Christmas ways and perilous haunted halls, straightaways where you’ll dodge flying saucer fire followed by vicious vertical loops.

Diddy Kong Racing looks fantastic to this day. It plays fabulous to this day. And unlike almost every other Nintendo 64 game, it has still not been superseded; most of its terrific ideas were recklessly abandoned. Cheerful, creatively colored and especially well animated, the same artistic style that cast it off as too kiddie -- a hilariously narrow-minded complaint circa 1997 -- has only made it look better against its contemporaries. Its stellar soundtrack of jaunty, well-composed themes characteristically match their setting. But more important than any of that, it innovates and refines. It guarantees to last. It constantly challenges.

There is no comparison.

Rating: 9/10

Leroux's avatar
Staff review by Winston Wolf (July 08, 2010)

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jerec posted July 09, 2010:

Wow, this is excellent! Makes me want to go back and play DKR, but I sold it along with most of my N64 collection. !@#$! that Triceratops gave me trouble when I first played the game. Runin made fun of me for ages until I was able to beat it.

I pity the guy who has to compete against this...

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Leroux posted July 09, 2010:

"Baha!"

Thanks for the kind words Dutch.

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