Diddy Kong Racing
It must be a real problem being Nintendo at times.
What do you do when the quality of the games you release is so high that they're effectively competing with each other?
I only bring this up because Diddy Kong Racing all but makes two of Nintendo's own games obsolete. Goodbye, Wave Race. Sayonara, Mario Kart. The latest game from British coders Rare, producers of the awesome Goldeneye, not only offers road and water-based racing, but throws in aerial antics and Mario-style adventure aspects just for additional kicks.
Chimps And Chumps
There are eight different racers to choose from in Diddy Kong Racing - would you feel safe being driven around by this lot?
So, what's the crack? What makes Diddy Kong Racing (or DKR to its friends) so much better than the aforementioned not-bad-at-all duo? It certainly looks at first glance like a typical Nintendo game - lots of bright colours, cutesy touches and sugar-sweet characters that diabetics ought to be wary of approaching too closely. Even when you start playing it, it doesn't at first seem to offer anything much over Mario Kart 64 - apart from the adventure side of things, which we'll come to in a moment, if you're familiar with Mario Kart you'll be able to get straight into DKR. A couple of tries and you'll take the chequered flag with no problems. It's even got the extreme easiness of Mario Kart, right?
Ha! Wrong, sucker! Beneath the day-glo grass and cuddly-wuddly wittle characters beats the brutal, steroid-pumped heart of a sadistic beast who eats raw liver and stamps on puppies for laughs. It'll drop your preconceptions into a blender, run a chainsaw through your complacency and leave you a sweating, twitching wreck muttering darkly about coins while its jingles rattle around without remorse in your brain. I liked it. A lot.
But back to the side of things that Nintendo want to present. The vividly-coloured world of Diddy Kong and friends has been invaded by the evil extraterrestrial Wizpig (can just one person invade somewhere?), who has made his mark by kicking the locals out of their homes and generally causing trouble. Diddy and the rest of the gang decide to send Crackling Boy back whence he came by, erm, driving around in little cars. If only the problems of the real world could be solved by putting Clinton, Yeltsin, Saddam Hussein and the rest in go-karts, eh?
At the start of the game, you appear in a large central area patrolled by friendly elephant genie Taj. As well as waterfalls, butterflies and squashable frogs that make an amusing noise when you run them over (they pop back up after a few seconds, animal lovers), there are entrances to four 'worlds' - Dino Domain, Snowflake Mountain, Sherbert Valley and Dragon Forest. To start with, only the first of these is accessible-you need to collect a certain number of golden balloons to enter, the first of which is conveniently located by the door. Each world has four tracks, plus a battle game and a boss challenge which are both initially locked.
Victory in each race gains you another balloon, and once you've beaten all the tracks in a world, you are taken to the boss's arena and challenged to a race. Beat the boss and you've beaten that world, right?
Ha! Wrong again! Beating a boss for the first time - not an easy task in itself - merely opens up a new challenge. The tracks that you've previously beaten now become the battlegrounds for the 'silver coin challenge', where as well as racing against and beating seven skilled and callous opponents, you also have to collect eight silver coins that have been scattered around the track. Some of them are easy to reach. Most, you probably won't be surprised to learn, are not.
It's at this point when any snide comparisons with the overly-easy Mario Kart start to look positively embarrassing, never mind unjustified.
Grabbing all eight coins and winning the race is the kind of task that leaves you with chest pains and tormented tendons ripping through your knuckles like steel springs. Each of the three vehicles in the game - kart, hovercraft and plane - has very different handling characteristics, but you'll need to master all of them to have any hope of getting through the game.
Once you've finally managed to complete all four silver coin challenges in a world, you face the boss again for another race. This time, cheating reaches new heights, not that the bosses are models of probity to begin with! Victory is finally rewarded with a quarter of a magical amulet that turns part of the huge Wizpig statue in the central arena to flesh (eeurgh), and at that point you start looking for the heart pills, because you've still got another three of the bloody things to get hold of...
Eventually, you will manage to collect all four amulet pieces, at which point you can fly your little plane down the gullet of the giant porker statue and challenge Wizpig himself to a duel. Beat him - and if you thought the other bosses were tricky sods, they look like Martin Lewis in comparison to Pork Boy - and the game is over. Or is it?
Of course it's not! Various parts of the central arena which previously seemed to serve no purpose now reveal themselves - there's more to that lighthouse than meets the eye, for a start. Second time around, you have an extra set of tracks to conquer on Wizpig's home turf, new bosses, new battle tracks, secret characters to uncover (like Foghorn Leghorn lookalike Drumstick)... and there's still more to find after that!
Making A TT Of Himself
As well as the 'straightforward' adventure game, there are other things to do in DKR. Wandering around the central area of each world is TT, an animated stopwatch (fine, uh-huh) who can be used to play the Time Trial part of the game, and also save ghost data out to a Controller Pak.TT also has his own quartered amulet and challenge to uncover...
The battle tracks - each world contains one - are opened by finding a key hidden somewhere in each world. Dino Domain's key is easy enough to locate, on a ramp near the start of the very first track, but the others are tucked away in more hard-to-reach places. Luckily, you only have to get the key to unlock the battle tracks - you don't have to go miles out of your way, uncover a tiny cubbyhole in the foot of a cliff out at sea and then win the race! Unlike Mario Kart, the battle games are not all just simple chase-'n'-shoot tomfoolery, one of them requiring you to hatch dinosaur eggs by bringing them to a nest (though with four players and only three eggs at a time, thievery and brutal assaults are a given), and another involving the collection of valuable bananas - hey, the hero is the game is a monkey, after all!
Although all of the battle tracks can be played by up to four people once they've been unlocked in the adventure, even as a solo game they're still as playable as the normal racetracks because the opposition have been granted a reasonable amount of intelligence. The computer-controlled players in DKR might not be up to Extreme G's levels of calculated nastiness, but they're not far behind, and they're definitely several orders of brainpower higher than Mario Kart's magically accelerating dullards!
When every task in a world has been completed, yet another option opens up - the Trophy Race. Each world has a room containing a trophy cabinet; drive into this and you get to take part in a Mario Kart-style championship game, playing for points. Winning the championships fills your trophy cabinets with more shiny things than Michael Schumacher's dining room!
Mario Kart, Schmario Kart
Everything about Diddy Kong Racing is perfect. The vehicle controls are easy to get to grips with, but also allow more experienced players to pull off trick moves for maximum effect. The graphics may be cartoony, but they're incredibly detailed and without a hint of slowdown. Even the music fits, with chirpy tunes that are almost but not quite recognisable as familiar songs, which change tempo as the race progresses and alter subtly depending which character you're playing!
The weird thing about Diddy Kong Racing is that many people will be in danger of seeing nothing more than another cute, easy, kiddie Nintendo title, and won't realise that beneath the saccharine exterior is a superbly playable and genuinely challenging game. A case in point comes from various 64 Magazine contributors, who on hearing that DKR had arrived all piled round the TV, watched for a few minutes, then wandered off muttering things like "It's just Mario Kart again", "Very easy, isn't it?" and "Crap!". Funnily enough, these same people were trying to elbow each other aside and grab controllers once more of the game had been opened up and the battle tracks had been made available...
Diddy Kong Racing marks three stormers on the trot from Rare; Blast Corps, Goldeneye and now this. Any cynicism I had about Banjo-Kazooie and Conker's Quest just being Mario clones is rapidly evaporating... While DKR is superficially similar to Mario Kart 64, just as Goldeneye could be said to be similar to Turok, it's just so far ahead in terms of gameplay, design and challenge that it becomes increasingly hard to compare the two.
Nintendo's N64 titles are getting harder and harder to find fault with, and Diddy Kong Racing confirms the company's position as the producer of the best videogames in the world. Sony might have sold more machines, but as their rival's games increase in quality and quantity, it looks certain that 1998 will be the year Nintendo take control again - and a lot of that is down to a company out in the boonies of Warwickshire. After Britpop, Britprog!
The only question now is which of Nintendo's games will be number one at Christmas? Lylat Wars? Goldeneye? Diddy Kong Racing? They're going to be competing with each other again!
Diddy Kong Racing DownloadsDiddy Kong Racing download
Putting Nintendo's own Super Mario Kart to shame, Rare's huge racing-slash-exploration game provides some genuinely stunning visuals, great multi-player action and challenging tracks. Even when you've completed it there are still more secret levels to discover! If you can live with the over-cutesy characters, this is the one racing game you really need to have.
Combination of racing game and adventure with Rare's usual flair. Excellent multiplayer game with lots of hidden secrets.
This game is huge (40 tracks), a massive Adventure mode and three different vehicles to choose from. Not quite as good as MK though.