Let's be clear, it's still really just a racing game. However, there are other little things that you do in between that make it somewhat of an adventure. But the story's there simply to add color to an already colorful game. It's simple fodder, a silly premise to give you, the player, an excuse to run through all the tracks. The story and characters are meant to be lighthearted in the extreme and, to that end, it's a really jolly game.
Gameplay: My guess is, many of you are well familiar with the basics of Diddy Kong Racing (DKR), but just to be clear...it's a racer offering three modes of transportation: kart, plane and hovercraft. All three present a unique challenge and are each fun in their own way. The controls are quite similar to those of Mario Kart DS, using the face and shoulder buttons to navigate. Additionally, you'll receive a boost, at the beginning of each race, in one of three different ways. For the kart, you'll have to use your finger to spin a wheel just before the race begins; for the plane, you'll use your finger to spin a propeller; and for the hover craft, you'll utilize the DS' mic by blowing into it. Some critics have scoffed at these DS-specific additions, but I actually find them to be an inspired and welcome part of the game.
Characters each have three different stats: acceleration, handling and top speed and each character is a little bit better or worse in each respective category. However, there are a few un-lockable characters who pretty much trump all others, and getting at them (and unlocking tracks) will become a main focus of the single-player experience.
The Adventure Mode (single-player) consists of an overworld, one in which you are guided through by a blue elephant named Taj. In addition to the races, the adventure will also include various challenges he will present to you. Some of these challenges can be downright grueling, but the only way to progress further and gain access into other worlds (tracks) is by way of completing the challenges. The variety doesn't stop there, though. The island also holds many secrets and the bounty is actually quite worthy.
But the meat of DKR is, indeed, found within the races…
There are 24 tracks to eventually unlock, three vehicles and 12 characters to choose from. The vehicles, I think, all handle quite well and, as I alluded to earlier, the stats of each character have a relevant effect on how your racer will control. The tracks offer a tremendous amount of variety and they're all very cool to look at. There are balloons, which contain items such as missiles, boosts, road hazards and other diabolical delights. Also, throughout each course, there's an array of zippers (boost markers) and utilizing each one will be essential to your success later on in the game. The races are fun and they're plentiful.
What's not so fun are some of the tacked on challenges. Other critics have complained about them and with due cause, I must say. Not all rubbed me the wrong way, but there were one or two that had me begging the Divine Forces of Nature to "please allow me to win!" The game also makes you jump through a lot – for me, way too many – hoops to get at the unlockables and without them you'll likely not be able to fully enjoy the multiplayer experience.
Which bring us to...the multiplayer experience. It's the reason I bought the game and it was worth every penny. When you're playing single or multi-card gameplay, or playing online via the Nintendo WFC, you'll have access to (provided you've unlocked them already in the Adventure Modes) all of the tracks, characters and battle modes. Amazing! The single-card offering is the best I've yet seen in any DS game and the online options are incredibly deep, as well. The hassle you experience in single-player becomes a worthy trade-off for what you gain in multiplayer. The game's still quite new, so there's no telling what might rear up online, but from what I've seen thus far DKR is a real online dream machine.
I could go on and on talking about different elements of the gameplay, but who'd read it?
Graphics: DKR is a reworked 3-D game handed down to us from the N64. Interestingly enough, it immediately made me think of Rayman DS upon first seeing the game in person. Some of the objects within DKR are beautiful to look at and others are a real eyesore. Overall, however, the game does a much better job than Rayman DS in its transition from the elder system.
There are really only a few moments of extreme blockiness and they reside in the opening cutscene. The tracks, however – though you can at certain points throughout the game make out the textures – offer a much more subtle mix of polygons. The developers did a fine job in this area of masking the fact that the DS lacks texture filtering. The tracks are also extremely varied in their look and design and, for the most part, it's a lot of fun going through each one. The characters, however, are a little thin. What do I mean by that? Well, though they're indeed 3-D, they lack a fair amount of detail and come across as being less than fully three-dimensional. But considering the nature of the system the game is on and the size of the overall game itself, the graphics are actually quite a fine visual offering.
Sound: There's a lot of goodness here. Each track (again, there are 24, plus the battle tracks) has its own unique song -- granted, most are mere variations of a single theme. However, each track song is presented with different electronic instrumentation and, together, the songs add even more variety to the entire presentation. The overworld music even changes slightly as you make your way through various parts of the island.
Plus, there are real voices in DKR – woohoo! The game's not saturated with them, but the little bits that are thrown in are a nice addition to the whole experience. Some folks have complained about Taj's voice (or other characters), but, having not played the original, it makes no difference to me; it all sounds good.
Lastly, the sound effects are really cool. There are laser sounds from spaceships, swooshing effects from the vehicles, explosions and various other sounds and noises that come across quite nicely on the DS speakers (though, they're even better-sounding with earbuds). There's even an option to record your own voice, so that when certain actions occur in the game your personal snippets will sound off; that's a ton of fun.
Presentation: The presentation is quite a mixed bag. On the surface, everything looks amazing, with so many different elements crammed under one hood. However, there are certainly some things that could have been added, others that could have used a bit of a tweak, and yet others that could have been left out altogether.
Let me begin with the elements of the game's presentation I found to be on the mark. The overworld: I love the way the single-player gameplay works out. Traveling throughout the island and discovering various goodies is a very cool way to present the gameplay. I like making my way to the different worlds this way. It adds quite a bit to the overall experience. Everything is easily accessible and navigating your way to the tracks is definitely half the fun. I also enjoy the way Taj is worked into the gameplay, as a sort of all-in-one shop and menu selector. You can visit him (or his tent) to upgrade your vehicle(s), change the sound-recorder settings, unlock goodies, and other various options. In addition to the overworld, the general menu options (upon first turning the game on) are implemented nicely and there are a lot of ways to customize your gaming experience.
Going back once again to the multiplayer elements, DKR really packs quite a punch. Single-card (and multi-card) multiplayer offers you the ability to race with up to eight players locally and, as mentioned previously, all the characters, vehicles and tracks you've unlocked in the story mode are available here. There are also four un-lockable battle tracks (playable with up to four players), which offer a whole other unique form of gameplay. All these options are available when playing online via the Nintendo WFC (though races are for up to six players only).
What's not so great? Well, for starters, some of the Taj challenges will bring you to the edge of insanity. One of the challenges requires you to blow out a number of torches while riding around in the hovercraft. Sounds easy and fun, perhaps, but with the time allotted and the speed at which you must huff, it's completely frustrating and literally dizzying. There are one or two other such challenges that just aren't fun. In some cases, the developers take a gameplay element beyond the point of being a "challenge" and turn it, rather, into a painful experience you wish would end. But, thank goodness, these elements of the game are few.
That's not my only gripe, however. There are two other main areas of the game I have a problem with. The first one being the way in which the character stats are divided. They are separated into definite tiers and that makes little sense to me. You've got characters like Diddy and Dixie who might have two bananas (bananas are the icon used to display the power of a stat) in acceleration and three bananas in both handling and top speed. But then you've got Timber who has three bananas in all of the stats. Why then would you choose Diddy or Dixie? Sure, they might be your favorite-looking character or whatever, but there's no strategic reason to choose them. The character T.T takes this to the extreme, in that his stats are something like five bananas in both acceleration and top-speed and four bananas in handling; no other character comes even close to those stats. So, what you're bound to end up with are online races in which everyone uses T.T. Meh.... Personally, I would like to have seen every character given the same amount of bananas (either nine or 10) and then distribute them differently for each character. This would offer players 12 unique ways to approach racing. But the current balance of the characters is really quite a sizeable flaw when you consider how much is wasted in the multiplayer experience.
I did say two things, didn't I? The other having to do with upgrading your vehicles. You're only given a vague description of what you're improving. There's no way to know exactly what you're getting and, at about 100 coins a pop, that's an expensive way to experiment. This little faux pa is definitely on the lower end of the spectrum of things missing, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
Finish Line: In closing, I want to briefly state something about the game's "fun factor." In spite of its shortcomings, DKR is a tremendous amount of fun to play. Perhaps due to the ridiculous challenges you have to undergo within the single-player game, it feels all the more rewarding enjoying the fruits (unlockables) of your labors. But make no bones about it, the multiplayer kicks butt! Rare (the developers) might make us heel like dogs in the Adventure Mode, but they do, eventually, give us the promised treat online and in the single-card offering. Some things could have been a bit more defined and the characters could have been given a much better balance (and some things could have been taken out altogether), but, in the end, you get a game that's a ton of fun and worth the price of admission.
No, I didn't compare this game to Mario Kart DS (much) or to the original incarnation of DKR on the N64, and I really can't. Besides, it's probably worth more to you to know what you're getting as it pertains to playing it on the DS. It's a flawed piece of software that still manages to be great fun.
Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!
Presentation / 9
Tremendous multiplayer offering; the overworld is a great way to package the gameplay; and there are a lot of neat little elements that make it easy to customize the experience to your personal liking. A better description of the upgrades would have been nice, though. However, the included manual – as per every Nintendo-published game I've ever owned – is first-rate and full of helpful details about the game.
Graphics / 8
Not perfect, but quite nice. The frame-rate is a little slow, but it's solid. Some textures are a bit blocky and the character models are nothing to rave about, but, considering the size of the game, it is a wonderful visual experience, overall.
Sound / 9.5
An amazing variety of themes and sounds and the addition of actual voices is always a treat. Also, the output of all those sound elements comes across really well on the DS speakers.
Gameplay / 7.5
The vehicles handle very well, with good sensitivity. The track designs are quite varied and a lot of fun to run through. The characters, however, need better balance, and some of those challenges probably could have been left out altogether.
Replay Value / Fun Factor / 9.5
In spite of the game's flaws, it still manages to be a ton of fun, especially in multiplayer. If there is a genre that is meant for online play it's racing. There are a lot of great multiplayer options and, with all the variety offered, you should definitely find inspiration to keep coming back.
Overall / 7.9