"There are levels built with each of the three vehicles in mind, and they work marvelously. The hovercraft is my personal favorite. It's fun to whip across a pool of water as a shortcut while your opponents must drive around it. Also, the levels designed specifically with that ride in mind often allow you to go rushing down rivers, avoiding logs and in general having a good, wet time. Many of the levels feel quite different from one another in part because of such deviations from the norm."
Diddy Kong Racing is not a good game. It's got lame characters, a frustrating control scheme, redundant 'level' objectives and an unbalanced system, all crammed into a kart racer that feels like it was made up of the scraps of Mario Kart 64. The bad ones. So like I said, it's not a good game. It's a great game.
After reading my wretched introduction, you might be excused for thinking I'm daft. With all those flaws, how could the game even be worth popping into your system? Well, there are reasons. I'll get to that in a moment. But first, I'd like to harp on those problems I referenced.
First, we have the characters. It seems Diddy has received a message in a bottle, stating that an evil pig named Whizpig took over an island and is making its inhabitants his slaves. Diddy decides to remedy this problem. He does so not by strapping a banana cannon on his back like any normal chimp would, but by calling together a band of merry mascot racers. There are turtles, mice, squirrels, a bear, chimps, a tiger cub and even an alarm clock and cock (things must have slowed down enough on the farm that he was able to leave for a vacation). Apparently, some scenario writer enjoying life’s finer (perhaps illegal) pleasures got the idea that a series of cuddly animals racing really well would chase Whizpig off the property and restore the peace.
Unfortunately, someone else on the same crew didn't stop to think that responsive controls would also help Diddy’s cause. Aside from two or three racers that handle quite tightly (but drive more slowly than your grandma on the basketball court), the majority of the cast seems to be missing power steering. You can crank the analog stick in the desired direction all you like, and it's still not going to do a bit of good unless you slow down so that everyone else can zip past you (computer-controlled opponents, it would seem, can steer just fine). Now, I'm used to different controls for different individuals in any number of racing games. It's a sound principle. I just wish a larger number of the racers in this game knew how to follow directions.
As you can imagine, the fact that controls are sometimes sloppy spills over into other areas of the game. Since this is a racing title, that's rather unavoidable. But as you grapple with the play mechanics, you really won't want another fly in your ointment. Unfortunately, that's just what Diddy Kong Racing presents in the form of the coin challenges and boss races. You see, Rare's programmers got together and decided the last thing the world needed was a Mario Kart 64 clone. Instead, they created a Mario Kart 64 clone with level objectives (you'll appreciate the distinction, I'm sure). Though there are normal races (available for one or two players), they are scattered throughout what one can only describe as an 'overworld.' You must find the tournaments, race in them really well, and also race through those same races again while collecting out-of-the-way coins meant to force a last-place finish. There's not a single track in the game you won't see at least several times in one form or another, and often the objects you must gather in some variations are placed so deviously that the play control makes them nearly impossible to grab. Imagine this scenario: you come speeding around a corner, notice a side branch, but can't get over to it in time because your driver won't steer properly. Well, maybe on the next lap around. Oh, crap! You're already on the last lap. Better luck next time.
Boss battles are even more frustrating. Somehow a big dinosaur manages to run circles around your tiny cart. You'll likely find some of the later races nearly impossible, as you must rely increasingly on your ability to memorize the location of zipper pads, else watch a Triceratops wiggle his butt over the finish line well before you do. To put it mildly, such moments are exasperating. Late in the game, you'll be flying your rooster through the air in an airplane, trying to stay ahead of Whizpig, swooping erratically to avoid fireballs that burst upward from the lava lake that fills the lake's bottom. Even the tiniest of errors can cost you the race at such a time, and it's moments like the above where the game's worst all comes crashing together into one monumental mess.
But wait a minute! Didn't I say at the start of the review that Diddy Kong Racing is a great game? Why, yes, I did. And I wasn’t just yanking your chain. That being the case, it's high time we took our sorry butts out of Negativity Land and focused on the cartridge's numerous bright spots.
The first of these bright spots is the ability to drive more than just simple karts. In many races, you will also have the option of a hovercraft or an airplane. The latter can be difficult to control precisely, as you have to maintain proper elevation while also steering. Your cuddly animal of choice will initially look like he broke into the wine cellar and stayed there a week with only the beverages for sustenance. Still, swooping through holes beneath windmills, or around stalactites in a cave can be quite rewarding. There are levels built with each of the three vehicles in mind, and they work marvelously. The hovercraft is my personal favorite. It's fun to whip across a pool of water as a shortcut while your opponents must drive around it. Also, the levels designed specifically with that ride in mind often allow you to go rushing down rivers, avoiding logs and in general having a good, wet time. All that’s missing is some pin-up girls. Many of the levels feel quite different from one another in part because of such deviations from the norm. You'll race through forests, a town square, the inside of a space ship of sorts, caves, a snowy ravine, and more. There's really no end to the game's inventiveness.
Then there are the graphics to consider. Put plainly, Diddy Kong Racing remains one of the most beautiful kart racers in existence. It easily trounces Mario Kart 64, with beautiful cottages in the distance, trees, a pirate ship, cliffs rising toward the skyline and so much more. Textures never have a lot of detail, yet they're always just a little bit nicer than you might expect. The effect is a cartoon-tinged world that fits perfectly with each of the characters driving to save the island. It's utterly charming, safe for kids and good fun for adults.
There also are the multi-player modes. One is just your typical match race. These play about like they would in Mario Kart 64, with both players trying to come in first against the opponents. Because many of the stages are so graphically-intensive in the one-player game, you'll notice a few corners cut if you decide to bring a friend. For example, a dinosaur stomps across the field in the one-player game, and you must dart through its legs to survive. There's no sign of this beast if the screen is split two or four ways, though, unless you count footprints. It's easy to forgive such sacrifices, though, both because the Nintendo 64 likely couldn't handle anything more and because you'll be having so much fun you might not even notice.
Multi-player action isn't limited to standard races, either. You will also find objectives like being the first to take a number of eggs to your nest, or to shoot your opponent with your cute weapons the most times, or whatever. Action is frantic and mostly fun. Certainly, it's nothing to topple Goldeneye or even Mario Kart 64, but you can expect some of the best party action the system ever saw, right in Diddy Kong Racing.
For all those reasons, the game somehow rises above its flaws to become one of the best kart racers ever crafted. Sure, it's too cute for its own good. Yes, play control can really get irritating (but you can just stick to a few racers and you'll hardly notice). And yes, level objectives sometimes will get under your skin. Yet in the heat of the moment, it's possible to forget each of those flaws and just grin from ear to ear as you drive your chimp past the bear and rooster. It's then you realize that you don't care what others think; you're too busy having a blast. Fun. It's what any good game is about, and it's what Diddy Kong Racing delivers by the barrel full. Give it a shot.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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