Best of ND 2013: Retro Scope: Diddy Kong Racing

Go bananas in Rare’s innovative kart racer on N64!

By Anthony Vigna. Posted 01/02/2014 13:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

This story was selected as one of our best from 2013. It was originally published on November 14, during Issue 179.

I had to have been about five or six years old when I got my hands on Mario Kart 64, and I had so much fun experiencing a kart racer for the first time. I was horrible at it and only reached fourth place on my first cup, but I was still excited to keep playing. That is, until I watched the cup ceremony cut scene at the end, which haunted me for years. I sat and watched my character look at the other racers earn their trophies from a distance and drive away from the area, which was the equivalent of rubbing salt in a wound. But then, the music started to slow down in a seemingly demented, distorted way as a bomb caught up to my character and exploded. All of this sounds like internet creepypasta, but I’m not making this up.

I was so shocked with this experience that it left me in tears, and my mom decided to get rid of the game and replace it with Diddy Kong Racing instead. Maybe it was a good thing that I became traumatized, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience this incredible kart racing game otherwise!

Ever since Super Mario Kart was introduced in 1992, kart racing games have established their own sub-genre, with an overwhelming catalog of games that mostly mimicked Mario Kart’s style completely. This unchanged formula is part of the reason why I can’t play most kart racing games anymore, as they tend to fall into predictable gameplay tropes, which are still fun but remain less exciting to me after all of these years. Despite all of that, I can still wipe the dust off of my N64 and have a blast with Diddy Kong Racing. The game was bold and innovative for its time for multiple reasons, and the gameplay still feels fresh to this day.

The most notable feature in Diddy Kong Racing, without a doubt, is the inclusion of multiple types of vehicles. In the game, players have the option of choosing between a car, a hovercraft, and a plane, depending on the specific level. Some tracks restrict some vehicles, like the lava-infested Hop Top Volcano which only allows players to choose between hovercrafts and planes. There are also some levels that allow all three vehicles to be chosen, and each vehicle drastically changes the way the track is played. Multiplayer shines with this feature, as it is a ton of fun to race against others who are in vehicles that control completely different from the one you have chosen. The impact of these different vehicles is prominent within modern racers like Mario Kart 7, which gives karts hang gliding and water traversing abilities that are reminiscent of what Diddy Kong Racing established.

Another cool innovation in Diddy Kong Racing is upgradable items. There are five different kinds of balloons, each one having their own distinct color, which are scattered around each course. When you pop them by running into them, they award items similar to those found within Mario Kart games, such as a speed booster or a rocket that can be shot at drivers to impede their movement. However, if a driver holds onto their item, and runs into the same color balloon again, it upgrades into something better. For example, a rocket can be upgraded to a homing missile, and that homing missile can be upgraded into a set of ten rockets. Each item is able to upgrade three times, adding a whole new layer of strategy to the game.

Possibly my favorite thing about Diddy Kong Racing was the game’s single player adventure mode. Most kart racers do not focus on the single player experience, and just leave the player with various cups containing about four of the game’s tracks to race on. While it’s fun to play these cups, they leave something to be desired when played as a solo affair. Diddy Kong Racing vastly improved on this, offering an ambitious story mode with a big hub world, a storyline, various challenges, interesting minigames, and even difficult boss fights. Adventure mode displayed how much the developers cared to craft a good experience for those playing alone, and the end result is nothing less than spectacular.

It would also be a sin if I never talked about how good this game’s soundtrack is. Rare has some of the most memorable jingles of my childhood, and Diddy Kong Racing is no exception. The majority of these tunes, such as the brilliant Darkmoon Caverns, will be stuck in my mind forever.

There are so many good kart racing games out there, but none of them have the personality of Diddy Kong Racing, remaining as a testament to the brilliance of Rare as a developer back in its glory days.

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