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Retro Review: Diddy Kong Racing
This is my first review, so cut me some slack people!
High: Playing the co-operative Adventure mode with a friend
Low: Restarting for the fiftieth time on a boss battle
WTF: Seeing Conker in a cute, juvenile form after having played Conker's Bad Fur Day
Diddy Kong Racing wouldn't even exist if Mario Kart 64 hadn't been made. So this is just a rip-off of it, right? Not entirely. It's clear that Diddy Kong Racing was greatly influenced and borrowed many elements from it, but Rare evolved many of it's gaming concepts, introducing multiple vehicles, boss battles, item upgrades and, most of all, a hub world to access races from.
Diddy Kong Racing offers you a choice of three different vehicles to race in: a kart, a hover boat, and a plane. Each vehicle has its own unique feel and distinctive traits, and they all control well too--for the most part, that is. The kart, with it's smooth and responsive controls, is a pleasure to drive. The hover boat controls well, but feels very loose and slippery when turning, especially when using lighter characters. The plane is, naturally, tricky to control precisely, as you have to maintain the correct elevation whilst also steering. But the plane steers cumbersomely too--exacerbated by poor acceleration--so until you adjust to its shoddy play mechanics you'll frequently smack into walls when taking turns and consequently find the game handing out a mandatory reset. On the plus side, new routes and shortcuts only accessible by air are opened up when using the plane, giving the game added depth and replay value. All in all, the multiple vehicles add a lot of variety to the gameplay and, at the time, helped advance Mario Kart's formula, too.
What really separates Diddy Kong Racing from Mario Kart is the Adventure Mode. This features a hub world structured much like Mario 64: all of the worlds and races are accessed from here, but you're confined to which ones you can access according to your progress, and this is due to the golden balloons. You'll need to earn these in order to progress through the game, as every world and level has a balloon requirement in order to open them. They're generally acquired from winning races, but there are also some hidden around the hub world--though, I use the term 'hidden' loosely, as, in actuality, they're in plain-sight. To make matters worse, the world is completely empty. Adding a little bit of variety and providing a break from the normal tedium of race after race makes it one of the better ideas for a racing game, but with an empty world that lacks the tantalizing secrets of Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, and the liveliness and side-missions of the Need For Speed and Burnout series, it feels like a massive chore to go through after every race.
The tracks are overly simplistic in their design and fall short when compared to the much more action-packed and complex Mario Kart tracks. When playing with multiple players certain details from the tracks are removed in order to maintain a smooth frame-rate and top-notch graphics. Consequently the dull track design becomes further accentuated, as the game's 'distractions'--monumental views in the backgrounds, dinosaurs strolling about, butterflies hovering around etc--no longer exist. There are four races in each world, and all of these worlds are based on a specific theme, such as ice, fire, water etc. As you would suspect, the tracks are very generic due to this. This narrow scope of variety results in the game feeling very monotonous at times, which is a shame, especially when there was the opportunity here to create tracks based on the classic Donkey Kong Country trilogy--with the title 'Diddy Kong Racing' that's naturally what you would be expecting. Though, for whatever reason--ostensibly due to the game being rushed in time for Christmas--Rare instead created 16 generic, lifeless tracks like 'Frosty Village' and 'Jungle Falls'.
Diddy Kong Racing, like, Mario Kart, features power-ups that can be used in a race--albeit they are much more underwhelming. There are balloons of different colours scattered throughout the tracks, with each colour representing a different power-up. Collecting two or more of the same balloon in succession upgrades your power-up into an improved form, with three balloons giving you the best form possible. Collecting a balloon of a different colour breaks the chain and gives you the basic form of whatever power-up it is you just picked up. At first glance, you would think this would add a level of strategy to the gameplay that Mario Kart lacks, but its design inadvertently acts as a constant reminder of how simplistic it really is. Diddy Kong Racing's strategy never goes beyond memorizing the location of the zipper pads and using the turbo-boost if you're in first and using the missile if you're not--just forget about the other power-ups. The balloons never change location either, so there's only one path to take through every track. Though, perhaps the biggest flaw in the power-up system, is that none of the power-ups favour the losing players like in Mario Kart. Later in the game you'll find that it's impossible to catch up to the competing racers if you miss just one-or-two zipper pads or power-ups. I take pleasure in the absence of cheap power-ups like in Mario Kart, but a balance between the two should have been what Rare was going for.
Let me tell you now--the boss battles are incredibly aggravating. They require flawless play and completely rely on your ability to memorize the locations of every zipper pad. For the later bosses, missing just one results in an instant loss. But if you do manage to show the boss who's the boss, you will proceed to the Silver Coin challenge. These consist of beating the four races of the world again, but only this time, the computer-controlled racers are much faster, and you also have to collect eight coins scattered throughout the tracks, too. In terms of difficulty, these challenges are brutal, making even the easiest races now insanely difficult; many of the coins are placed in the most ridiculously hard to reach places where no sane racer would ever dream of going--none of your opponents are likewise interested in collecting them either. Just the tiniest of errors cost you the race, and it's moments like this where the game is being far too frustrating to be fun. Maybe it's just me, but I had the idea that this was suppose to be a game aimed for kids?
For beating the Silver Coin challenge you're rewarded with the privilege of being able to face the boss for a second time, but only this time they're even faster. Beating them for a second time opens up the Trophy Race. These act like Mario Kart's Grand Prix mode, where you will earn points for placing 1st-5th in a race, and if you have the most points at the end of the four races you win. The computer-controlled racers are much faster in these races, but with no more coins involved it's back to winning the races through skill, making them much more enjoyable. Finding the hidden key in one of the four tracks opens up the world's Key challenge. In short, these are Diddy Kong Racing's adaptation of Mario Kart's Battle mode: two follow the 'last player alive wins' formula and the other two involve being the first to collect 'X' in 'X' amount of time. They are somewhat enjoyable with friends, but get old fast in single player mode.
The game is very short, so it's easy to see why Rare concocted all of these difficult challenges, but really, they did nothing but stretch out the single-player mode for as long as they could. Beating the same tracks over and over with tedious challenges mixed in isn't fun, and its only made worse by the games unfair difficulty and poor track design.
Kart-racers have always been at their best with friends, so being able play Adventure mode co-operatively with two players is probably the main appeal of the game for most people. You will have to input a password in the options menu to unlock this feature though--why isn't it just unlocked from the get-go? The passwords could have been put to great use; who would say no to ones that unlocked all of the tracks in multi-player mode and made the game's A.I easier? Instead, Rare went with their infinitely better ideas: no zipper pads, change horn sounds, make the A.I even more difficult, and make all of the balloons green/red/blue/yellow/multi-coloured.
Rare are known for including some really great soundtracks into their fantastic looking games. Diddy Kong Racing is no different. The vibrant colourful worlds are visually pleasing to the eye and everything is beautifully animated--helping bring life and charm to the game--but everything is heavily lacking in detail. The brilliantly catchy and upbeat music puts you right into the game and perfectly embodies it's perky spirit. Some of the music is used multiple times for different courses, however, and it would have been preferable for every track to have its own unique theme. All of the characters in the game have a voice, but thankfully their comments are generally limited to yelps and grunts. This was the first of Rare's games to cleverly alter the music according to what you are doing in the game. For example, the theme music will be played by a banjo when highlighting Banjo on the character select screen, or, when approaching Snowflake Mountain in the hub world, the music will change to a more Christmas based theme--I find it very charming.
In conclusion, Diddy Kong Racing continues many of Mario Kart 64's conventions, sometimes improving upon certain aspects, and sometimes not. It's fun to play with friends, but once you're done with the co-operative Adventure mode you're only left with the lackluster single player, which has potential, but is heavily brought down to a combination of aggravating problems with repetitiveness, structure and extremely cheap A.I.
Score: 6.5 / 10