Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing was a counterpoint to Nintendo’s Mario Kart 64. Both were released on the N64 in 1997, and to this day debate rages over which racing game is the best. To outsiders this is no doubt inane – the games likely appear as cutesy things which have no place in a grown adult’s life. You’re wrong, they’re awesome, we love them, and you can stop making fun of us or we’re going to bloody cry!
Back in 1997, British company Rare were the leading games developers in the world. They were even above Nintendo, whose masterpiece Ocarina of Time hadn’t yet been released. Rare had already landed Goldeneye 007 in ’97 and were one of the first games developers to receive widespread acclaim outside of the gaming media, and Diddy Kong Racing cemented their reputation as creative geniuses.
Now then, what’s Diddy Kong Racing all about?
For outsiders, video games must appear bizarre: “How can a grown-up debase themselves with this drivel?” you might grunt. Mr. Wapojif is about to turn 31, and despite his love for classical music, intellectually challenging (often bleak) literature, and films with stimulating scripts, he drifts merrily between Solzhenitsyn’s postulations on the putative failure of atheism in Russia, to considering the dynamics of using a giant squirrel over a diminutive turtle in a cutesy racing game which, after an opening appraisal, one would deem suitable only for five year olds.
Inevitably we have to discuss the difficulty of Diddy Kong Racing, but first we’ll consider its premise. In any Mario Kart game, the player simply races to win. You use power-ups to help you along, but 1st place is only ever your realistic goal. In Diddy Kong Racing, things take a different turn. Initially you race to win, but Rare ingeniously implemented a series of challenges to complement the gameplay. They strap a (bizarre) storyline around the racing, add in bosses, and alongside the go-kart introduce a hovercraft and aeroplane into the mix.
And then there’s Timber the Tiger.
When this game was released, around this time in 1997, the hugely popular N64 Magazine (which shifted going on for 100,000 copies per publication back then – the tangible nature of magazines, we hope, remains somewhat popular in the internet era) regularly pointed out that Timber looked positively crazed. Why? Have you seen his eyes?
Anyway, Nintendo’s games, and indeed several of Rare’s from this era, are deceptive. They are accessible for children, but they are designed for all ages, particularly older generations. The companies are aware their games are played by adults and, indeed, if anything the cartoony graphics simply act to further enhance the escapist fun.
It’s damn tough! After you complete the opening stages, things are ramped up a great deal, and they keep heaping on new demands. One of which involves taking races on in the highest difficulty setting, collecting 8 cunningly hidden coins around each track, and winning the race. No doing all that and finishing 2nd – you have to be 1st or it doesn’t count.
This can be astonishingly frustrating (yet rewarding, upon completion), and the game is unquestionably better than Mario Kart 64. The latter is a great but heavily flawed game, although this appears to have been forgotten as gamers look back fondly and reminisce about the Nintendo’s battle mode features. Whilst Rare didn’t really add to the series (Diddy Kong starred in the Donkey Kong Country series), and Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U is now the sweeping masterpiece of racing games, it stands as a classic coda in gaming history.
We’re glad we’re able to discuss this sort of stuff as High Art, you know. 20 years back this wasn’t possible (due to misconceptions about the industry), but now video games are a mainstream phenomenon we can sit back… and wonder why the bloody hell the industry has been inundated with violent first-person-shooters. Bah!