Many of Rare's fans were deeply saddened when Microsoft purchased the company in 2002, thinking that no more Rare games would ever find their way onto a Nintendo system again. While Rare hasn't been making any games for Nintendo's home consoles, it has released a handful of games for the Game Boy Advance, and now, the Nintendo DS, as well. Diddy Kong Racing was released to mixed reviews on the Nintendo 64 in 1997. Almost 10 years later, the game is back, having gotten a touch-up similar to what Nintendo did with Super Mario 64 DS. The core game is mostly unchanged, but there are new race modes, new characters, touch-screen controls, and even online multiplayer. If you didn't like the original game, there's nothing here that's going to change your mind, and it's certainly no threat to the Mario Kart series, but it is a solid racing game that, good or bad, has enough content to keep you busy for a very long time.
There are eight characters playable from the outset: Diddy Kong, Pipsy, TipTup, Dixie Kong, Timber, Tiny Kong, Bumper, and Krunch; Banjo and Conker, who were in the original, are nowhere to be found. Unlike most racing games, Diddy Kong Racing has a story to explain why you're racing. It seems that a giant evil pig named Wizpig has taken control of an island that is inhabited by cute little talking animals. Because living on an island ruled by an evil giant pig stinks, the animals send a letter to Diddy Kong, who quickly rounds up his friends so that they can race each other and then race and defeat Wizpig. Nobody tells Diddy his plan doesn't make any sense, so they head off to save the day. Once you're on the island, a flamboyant purple elephant-genie named Taj guides you through the basics and sends you on your racing quest. Now you know why most racing games don't have a story. The premise is completely absurd and doesn't make a lick of sense, but outside of the opening cutscene, there's thankfully very little story exposition.
Rather than letting you choose a series of races from a menu, Diddy Kong's races are located in themed hubs (snow, dinosaur, beach, volcano...), which are spread across the island. The island is large, but it's mostly devoid of things to do, and it gets tedious driving from one hub to the next. Upon entering a hub, you'll see large doors with a numbered balloon on them. This number indicates how many balloons you need to have acquired before you can enter that specific race. Balloons are earned mostly by winning races, but there are a few loose balloons around the island, and you can also earn some by winning Taj's challenges. If you don't have enough balloons to enter a race or you're stuck on one particular race, you can drive to another hub where there's usually something else you can do. There's no prize for second place, so you'll have to win to earn a balloon.
Upon entering a door, you're taken to a race where you'll have to pilot a kart, hovercraft, or plane to victory. Each vehicle has its own distinct handling, and for the most part, they handle well, though the kart and plane are much more fun than the hovercraft. One of the lamest new features is the prerace boost. You'll need to blow into the microphone if you're driving the hovercraft to get a little extra speed. To boost your kart, you rapidly move the stylus or your finger downward, as if you're spinning a tire. You move your finger or stylus in a circular motion to simulate spinning a propeller when you're piloting the plane. It's a pain to transition from holding the stylus to driving, and it doesn't work all that well anyway, so the feature adds absolutely nothing to the game. Once the race starts, you'll find that Diddy Kong plays like most other kart racers. You can drive over pads to get a boost, as well as fire missiles and drop mines and oil slicks. Rather than rewarding the last-place driver with the best weapons, anyone can get the good power-ups by collecting multiple power-up balloons of the same color or by collecting upgrade tokens. The races are generally close, and they're rarely frustrating, thanks to the limited use of catch-up artificial intelligence. Every once in awhile, a race will be difficult, but it usually doesn't take more than a few tries to beat it.
Once you've cleared each of the races in the hub, you can take on a boss, like a dragon or an octopus, in a head-to-head race. Your reward for beating the boss is to do each course again. But this time, you'll be riding on a self-guided magic carpet, and all you need to do is pop dozens of balloons that are placed along the course by tapping the screen with your stylus. You can also collect coins by dragging them into your wallet in the corner of the screen. These challenges are quite simple, but they're fun and very addicting, especially if you're trying to pop every single balloon. Hopefully you enjoy the balloon challenges, because the game gets tedious after that.
After popping balloons, you'll have to take on that area's boss again. This time it'll be a little harder, but still not overly difficult. Once you've won, you have to race all of that hub's races again, but this time you'll do it back-to-back in a tournament format. Your reward for winning? You race the boss again. It would be bad enough if you were to just race, but on the third go-around, you view the action from above and race with your stylus. You have to spin a small wheel in the corner to get some speed and then draw a path for your driver to follow. This doesn't sound so bad at first, but when your kart slows down, the tire appears again and you have to spin it some more. While you're doing this, you can't drive your kart, so you'll end up driving off the course or ramming obstacles while you're spinning the tire. To make matters worse, your kart doesn't seem to follow your path very well. Suffice it to say, the whole process is a complete and utter mess and totally not fun.
Over the course of the adventure, you'll receive a few mildly amusing challenges from Taj, such as racing around the island collecting tokens. These help break up some of the game's monotony; however, one of his challenges is noteworthy because of its absurdity. There are some lit torches in two of the island's caves, and for some reason you must drive to each torch and blow it out. You're placed at the starting line (facing the wrong direction) and have only 60 seconds to blow out the torches. This is where it gets bad. You've got to drive up to each torch, get really close, and blow into the DS's microphone. Sometimes the torch goes out and sometimes it doesn't, which means you're guaranteed to have to make several attempts, looking like a fool and spitting on your screen each time. This doesn't feel like 10 years of progress.
Fortunately, Taj does more than make you blow on your DS like a moron. He'll also let you spend your acquired coins to upgrade and customize your vehicles, as well as unlock bonus features. The process for upgrading your vehicles is somewhat confusing, and neither the game nor the manual do much to make your life any easier. In fact, many of the game's newer features are explained poorly, if at all. It costs a fortune to upgrade your vehicle (to negligible results) and unlock new content. You have to repeat races more than enough already if you chose to ignore all of the upgrades and extra content, but the game really gets mind numbing when you have to race over and over simply to earn more money. There are some cool unlockables, such as the custom track editor, but you've got to jump through so many convoluted hoops to get them that many can only be earned with the help of a game guide. For example, there are four keys hidden in four of the game's races. You have no way of knowing where, though, and unless you've got a guide, you would have to drive around every nook and cranny of every race to find them. Certainly you get something awesome for your troubles, right? Well, for each key you find, you get to race a clock named T.T. But, the reward for beating him makes it all worthwhile, correct? After you beat T.T. four times, he tells you that you can unlock him if you are able to beat his lap time on every single course in the game. Rare was often maligned in the '90s for their tendency to make you collect and unlock a lot of stuff, but this is ridiculous. Even the last two levels have to be unlocked, with the final area subject to the same race-everything-three-times formula as the rest of the game.
One of Diddy Kong Racing's strengths is its multiplayer. Up to eight people can play in a single race or tournament, even if only one person has a copy of the game. Unlike many other games that support download play, you can pick from plenty of tracks and all of the drivers. Best of all, you can head online where six people can race each other via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Online racing is surprisingly smooth, and there was no lag to speak of. Even if you don't have any friend codes, you can still race online, which is nice for those people who find the whole friend-code system tedious. The experience isn't without problems, however. There's no way to communicate with other players, so it's hard to coordinate matches with friends. Something that may be a detriment to the online experience is that the game awards one point to the person who finishes first and no points to anyone else. You also don't appear to get penalized when you drop from a race, so it's not unreasonable to expect a lot of people quitting midrace when they realize they aren't going to win.
Diddy Kong Racing was a nice-looking game when it was first released on the Nintendo 64. The frame rate isn't particularly fast, which hurts the game's sense of speed, but it is solid and almost never slows down. The textures aren't all that well done, but the DS isn't exactly a texture powerhouse, so it's hard to knock the game for it. Diddy Kong still looks good from a technical standpoint, but there's very little creativity to be found in the art. The game uses bright colors to create the almost cartoon-like world, but course and character designs feel dated. None of the course settings are very original, nor are the characters, as they reek of someone trying desperately to make their cute animals catch on as mascots.
The same sort of thing can be said for the audio. There are plenty of different tunes that play throughout the game, and they're neither particularly good nor are they offensive. Per article 5b, section two of the Kart Racing Treaty of 1996, each racer spouts a short phrase when chosen, when they get hit by something, or when they hit someone else. You can record your own voice for your character, which is pretty neat. Taj seems to have a different voice than he did in the old game, and it's probably one of the worst video game character voices ever. Thankfully, he doesn't talk much.
At its core, Diddy Kong Racing DS isn't a bad kart-racing game, but its best feature, the racing, is buried underneath so much unnecessary garbage that some people will find it nearly impossible to enjoy. Had Rare stripped the island setting, toned down the tedious collecting, and tweaked some other minor issues, the game would have been better with less. Instead, it chose to add more and more content, and the game suffers for it. Some of the new additions, such as online multiplayer and the various customization features, make the game more enjoyable, but many of them, particularly the touch-screen controls, make it worse. If you don't mind that the game sometimes feels more like Donkey Kong 64 than a racing game, then you'll probably enjoy all that Diddy Kong Racing DS has to offer. But if you just want to race, there are better options.