Genre: Racing game
Original Release: November 21, 1997 (Europe), November 24, 1997 (North America)
Platform: Nintendo 64
Everybody has their preferences when it comes to the games they like. Personally, I tend to shy away from sports games, multiplayer-only titles, and a lot of racing games. There are some exceptions of course. Mario Kart is one, and another is Diddy Kong Racing. This came out when I was a kid and, having grown up with Donkey Kong Country, I always loved Diddy Kong just as much as I do Luigi. Maybe it’s the little brother or player 2 thing. Ah well.
So Diddy Kong Racing is a pretty simple game. Eight characters (apparently ten if you can unlock the other two), each with their own hidden speed, acceleration, and handling stats, and twenty race courses spread across five worlds. I grew up on this game, struggled a lot back then, and now I’m back to talk about it. I actually had a dream the other day where I was racing the first boss as Krunch the Kremling and as soon as I finished up Dreamfall the other day, I swapped out my Xbox and N64 and made it a point to play this first. And since I picked it up at PAX East before everything locked down, I decided to try out my new EON Super 64 adapter. This thing is amazing and I have never been so thrilled to be able to record N64 footage, be it video or stills.
*NOTE: I have not been paid to say the above statement regarding the EON Super 64. I’ve just really enjoyed it thus far.*
Now, I usually only stuck with one or two characters whenever I played. I think I swapped between Banjo (yes, that Banjo), Conker (again, yes, that Conker), and Krunch. So this time around, I thought it might be nice to try this through a sort of relay system and get a feel for five different characters instead of sticking with one all the way through. And so I began my strange little relay system, looking for the character who, logically, would be least fit in each of the environments. This doesn’t actually have any impact on their performance as far as I’m aware, I just thought it was funny.
LEG 1: DINO DOMAIN
Racer: Krunch the Kremling
Krunch might not have been the best character to start with. He’s heavy, so he doesn’t turn or speed up all that well. But it’s harder to push him around as a result. Fortunately, Dino Domain is very forgiving in that regard. The stages are pretty short and don’t have a lot of sharp turns or pitfalls to worry about. It’s very much there to help you get accustomed to the controls without much to worry about. And man it handles a little bit looser than you would expect from other games like Mario Kart 64 (an article down the line for sure), but you also have more vehicle options: a kart, a hovercraft, and a plane.
Anyway, Krunch made his way through each of the tracks, doing pretty well in Hot Top Volcano (which, by the way, has amazing music) and finally making his way to the boss: Tricky the Triceratops.
With much difficulty, Krunch managed to beat Tricky to the top of the spiral mountain (not that one) and he was offered the chance to take on the Silver Coin Challenge. Each of the four race tracks had eight silver coins that had to be collected before coming in first place. Once Krunch collected all 32 coins in the world, Tricky would face him again. And oh boy that was even harder.
See, each of the first four worlds of Diddy Kong Racing has something of a re-fight mechanic like you would see in Mega Man. Except in this case instead of one huge boss rush at the end, the worlds are split into two halves, marked by a race against that world’s boss. Winning each race will net you a balloon to unlock other tracks, and the second run with the silver coin challenge will net you another one.
Anyway, Krunch managed to beat Tricky again with much difficulty, at which point he was rewarded with a piece of Wizpig’s amulet and offered a spot in the trophy race. Did this go well?
So with all of this done, Krunch was able to finish his leg of the race and pass the torch onto our next racer.
LEG 2: SHERBERT ISLAND
Racer: Bumper the Badger
Apparently Sherbert Island is the third world and not the second? You need ten balloons to even enter the lobby and for some reason I distinctly remember always handling Sherbert Island before Snowflake Mountain. Maybe I was a sequence breaker at a young age or something, but I digress.
Sherbet Island’s courses are mainly water-based, so most of them will involve the use of the hovercraft. I remember having such a hard time getting the hang of the controls as a kid, but coming back to it all these years later it was easier than I remembered. Just let up on the gas a little and make your turn before speeding up again. Then again I’m still working through Adventure Two at the time of writing, so I could be wrong about this. Either way, it was a little easier this time around.
And then I got absolutely stomped in Darkwater Beach.
This is another interesting deviation from other racing games at the time: Each of the four worlds had a key hidden in one of the stages. Generally off to the side (except for Dino Domain and Dragon Forest) and might take a bit of hunting to find, but if you can grab it you’ve automatically unlocked that world’s minigame. You don’t even have to finish the race or come in first. As soon as you go back to the lobby, a small cutscene plays and you’ve unlocked the game. It’s neat, but again will take a bit of legwork and you’ll almost always have to forfeit your position in the race to get it.
So anyway, Bumper finally made his way through the courses of Sherbert Island and ran his first race with Bubbler the Octopus.
Bubbler proved a brutal opponent. Every boss in the game gets a head start on you, but at least Tricky only rushed forward. Bubbler dropped mines in his wake, so you had to try and get ahead of him as well as dodging his traps. Poor Bumper went flying a few times and just like with Krunch, there were a great many restarts. But he finally managed to come out on top, and just like with Tricky, he was challenged to collect all 32 silver coins.
Once again, this took a while, but Bumper did it, and in the process Bubbler had apparently learned a new trick: Instead of mines, he now left multiple bubbles in his wake. Touching any of these would drop your speed to zero, lift you into the air for a couple of seconds, and then pop, allowing you to keep going. Bubbler is tough, there’s no doubt, but with clever use of missiles (read: grabbing three red balloons, lining up with him and firing all ten missiles at him in rapid succession) you can get ahead of him and stay there. And finally Bumper did just that. Another piece of the amulet, another trophy race. And did Bumper come out on top there?
And so begins our third leg of the relay. Tell me, who better to handle an icy world than a furry mammal of some kind?
How about an ectothermic reptile? No, not Krunch. He already had his time in the spotlight.
LEG 3: SNOWFLAKE MOUNTAIN
Racer: Tiptup the Turtle
I never used Tiptup that much when I was younger. I loved the sounds he made whenever you crashed into something though. One of them sounded like Kermit the Frog and while I have yet to cover any Muppets games in this blog, I can promise you it will happen eventually.
Snowflake Mountain is a bit removed from the action compared to Dino Domain or Sherbert Island. Both of those stand out nice and easy. Snowflake Mountain though? You have to fly through a tunnel and up to the door, otherwise you can’t reach it. Fortunately, Taj is on hand in the hub to switch your vehicle out for you as you need or want. It’s a great little anti-frustration feature that really encourages the player to get a feel for each of the vehicles before heading into a race. Plus you’ll need to use all three vehicles to reach all four worlds.
So how does a turtle handle on ice? Not that badly, actually. I’m not absolutely certain whether or not the characters have their own stats to differentiate from one another, but it does feel that way. At least a little bit. Tiptup was able to corner no problem, and even held his own pretty well against Bluey the Walrus.
Like Tricky, Bluey’s race is just to the end of his course. No extra laps, just get there before him. Fortunately, Bluey is kinda slow in the first run. There are also blue balloons everywhere so you can get some incredibly handy boosts if you’re having trouble keeping up. You don’t absolutely need them, but it is a good idea to use them if you pick them up.
And just like that, Tiptup was on his way to collect silver coins and rechallenge Bluey. But before we get to that, I just need to say that I do not have fond memories of Frosty Village’s silver coin challenge.
I don’t think I took any pictures of it, but the silver coin challenge puts each of the coins you have to collect in some more remote locations. Some tracks have branching paths and you’ll have to cover both to grab all eight, other times they’re right on the edge of the water, as was the case with Frosty Village. And each time you take on the challenge, the AI drivers are faster than they were the first time you raced them. It can be difficult to collect all of the coins (especially when some are well off the beaten path), but it is doable. You just need to know the track and figure out where you can get ahead of the other racers.
And then comes Bluey round two. He’s much faster this time around, and there aren’t nearly as many blue balloons in the path. But after only a few tries, Tiptup came through with flying colors. By which I mean he just barely got ahead of Bluey at the last minute. That gave me a rush and it was kind of great.
Tiptup lived up to his fellow racers and took first in the trophy race as well as coming out on top of the Icicle Pyramid deathmatch, netting him another amulet piece!
So that’s three of four worlds down, but where’s the fourth? Well, as it turns out, it’s tucked behind a waterfall near the hub. Both of our reptile friends have had a go and I really don’t like Pipsy the Mouse for some reason (search me, I don’t really know why), so I had to choose between a handful of the remaining racers.
LEG 4: DRAGON FOREST
Racer: Banjo the Bear
Banjo’s here and he’s got his signature shorts and backpack, but Kazooie’s not here with him. I once asked my older sister why and her answer was “Kazooie would be fried chicken.” I learned later on that Banjo-Kazooie was still in development when Diddy Kong Racing came out, so it makes sense that Banjo would be on his own here. Plus it would be kind of silly to have Kazooie right there with him in the same kart. I say this knowing that Banjo and Kazooie have their own car-based game (I will cover Nuts & Bolts at some point, I promise) and that they’re playable characters in Smash. But at the time? I dunno, it makes sense that Banjo was on his own.
So Banjo made his way to Dragon Forest somehow and worked his way through each of the four courses. Let me tell you, finding the key here was a time when I was younger. But I remember how to do it so vividly that it was almost second nature to me in this revisit. Before taking on the boss of Dragon Forest, Banjo made his way through Smokey Castle and collected the final piece of our secondary amulet, giving us a golden replica of T.T. the Chronomaster, just without arms or legs. And then came the boss: Smokey the Dragon.
Like Bubbler, Smokey’s race is three laps, and requires the player to dodge around his obstacles. But where Bubbler left mines and bubbles in his path, Smokey places fireballs that hover in your path. Fitting for a dragon!
Smokey took a few tries, but wasn’t all that bad. Some of the silver coins were a pain to find. I remember one in Windmill Plains being hidden next to a waterfall at the edge of the course. That was kind of annoying, but Banjo came through and got them all. The second run of Smokey’s race went much smoother as well, surprisingly. More fireballs and he was a little faster, but Banjo won the final piece of the Wizpig amulet and took first place in the trophy race. But things weren’t as simple this time around.
Once you collect all four piece of Wizpig’s amulet, the stone head near Dino Domain opens up and you can take him on at last. It’s not an easy race though. Wizpig is fast enough that you need to hit every single zipper on the track if you want to get ahead of him in the three laps you have to race. One miss and you’re done. But once you’ve won, that’s it! Game’s finished!
After Wizpig breaks up the celebration party, you can go back into your save. Provided you have all four gold trophies, you can take the fight to Wizpig himself and take on the last world of the game. And as this is Diddy Kong Racing, who better to take on Wizpig on his turf?
LEG 5: Future Fun Land
Racer: Conker the Squirrel
Look, it’s Conker. I would be a fool to just ignore the king himself. Granted this is before he became an alcoholic and his voice changed significantly, but he already had a knack for mischief. What a time.
So anyway, to access Future Fun Land, you need to take first place in all of the trophy races and then honk your horn in front of the trophy sign by the lighthouse. A cutscene will play and you’ll make your way to a racing lobby in space. From here, you’ll have to race through the remaining four courses twice before you can face Wizpig again. Once to get a feel for the courses, then again to collect 32 more silver coins. And then, once you’ve collected all 47 balloons (a strange number, but it works) and every piece of the T.T. amulet, you get the chance to take on Wizpig. Only this time, you’re in a plane and Wizpig is…riding a missile? Or maybe a rocket?
Despite racing you on a rocket, Wizpig is significantly easier this time around than he was during the first race. Maybe it’s because of the plane’s additional maneuverability and reduced speed, or the fact that there are red and blue balloons scattered throughout the course, but either way Wizpig doesn’t barrel forward like he did when he was on foot.
Despite all of this, it took a few restarts to get used to the course layout and figure out a path that worked for me. But finally, Conker was able to beat Wizpig at his own game, at which point Wizpig is defeated for good. Everyone returns to Timber’s Island to celebrate and the credits roll. At which point you’re actually given a cheat code! There are actually ten different codes from what I could gather, but I only got one.
Normally, this is where I would give my thoughts on the game overall, but this isn’t the end of the game. In fact, there’s a second adventure mode! The balloons change from gold with a blue pattern to a mirror-like quality that looks like a disco ball in the icon. Interestingly enough, the courses are mirrored as well!
Past that, Adventure Two is pretty similar. Every map is mirrored and the silver coins are put in new spots (making some of the races even more difficult), but it’s still fun! I actually decided to run through it again with Bumper up until Dragon Forest, at which point I switched off to Conker. And then my controller broke.
On the plus side, it was a third-party controller and it wasn’t out of rage. Sadly this meant I couldn’t do anything else with the N64 until I got a new one, but the folks at Classic Game Junkie came through and I picked up a Tribute 64 controller to replace it. Man, I’ve missed translucent plastics. And it feels good too!
*NOTE: Once again I have not been paid to promote either Classic Game Junkie or Retro-Bit’s products, I just really like them.*
Beyond mirroring the maps and the new placement of the silver coins, there isn’t much difference between Adventure and Adventure Two. They play out the same way, but muscle memory can really work against you. Even with Conker behind the wheel, Wizpig 1 proved difficult. But we got there within a day. I even got another cheat code for my trouble! For a two-player adventure mode, just type in JOINTVENTURE.
So yeah, that’s Diddy Kong Racing. Steering is a bit loose compared to Mario Kart, but it almost has to be in order to properly account for the hovercraft and plane steering. The races can be brutal, but I never really felt angry with it. Except for when I looked down at the map during the silver coin challenges and first place was on the exact other side of the map from me on the final lap. Fortunately that didn’t happen too often and once I came up with a system for the challenge rounds I did much better.
If you have access to a Nintendo 64 and the means to play it on your setup, give Diddy Kong Racing a look. It was a lot of fun, and you can unlock T.T. as a character if you can beat his time on every course. I thought about it, but in the end I decided that I’m good. Like I’m sure he’s great, but nah man. I’m not subjecting myself to that inevitable headache. Rare, you folks did good. I hope this is a proud part of your history.