Sunday, March 3, 2013

Video Game Review: Diddy Kong Racing

Diddy Kong Racing has been kind of a cult classic ever since its release in 1997. There were few kids growing up, that I knew of, who had it. Really only my best friend and myself. Which is a real shame, because this was one of the better titles for the Nintendo 64. A lot of critics and ignorant individuals who only gave it a passing glance simply scoffed at what they thought was a "Mario Kart clone." They were wrong. Diddy Kong Racing is Mario Kart 64's superior in almost every way. In fact, I'd say the only Mario Kart title which can hold a candle to this title is Mario Kart DS, which is an example of what every kart racer should be.

Diddy Kong Racing is kind of a bizarre game for a few reasons. The first of which is its protagonist, Diddy Kong. Diddy is kind of Donkey Kong's Luigi. Now this is actually his second starring role, as he was the primary protagonist of Donkey Kong Country 2 as well, however, that game was part of a trilogy and featured Donkey Kong as its title character (despite his being only playable in one game.) Diddy Kong was a popular character at the time, and kind of represents the nineties for Nintendo characters. He's almost a perfect embodiment of the decade: a hiphopping youngster who saves the day and crashes the party of them fickle old folks. Still, Diddy Kong was a sidekick, and not just any sidekick, but the sidekick of a side character. It's actually really surprising that this game wasn't Donkey Kong Racing, but I suppose it's just as well seeing how that turned out.

The other oddity is that, besides Diddy Kong himself, there are no returning characters to be found amongst the ten-character cast. They did add Krunch who is a Kremling (the enemy species at war with the Kongs in the Donkey Kong Country games. Krunch is modelled after the basic enemy grunts from that series), but he's a very different looking Kremling in a lot of ways. I think this is primarily because it was the first time a Kremling had been rendered for a 3D environment, but it was also the first time we got to see a Kremling who was a child. Up until then, all of the enemies had been adults. Krunch blends in with the rest of the DKR cast so well, in fact, that it was several years before it finally clicked on what he was supposed to be and why he was there, and I still sometimes have trouble remembering that he's just a grunt in King K. Rool's army.

Three of the other characters—Banjo the Bear, Conker the Squirrel, and Timber the Tiger (who acts as the secondary protagonist for this game)—were added as promotional characters so that when their own titles were released a couple years later gamers would be able to recognize them. This worked with Banjo, who went on to star in the Banjo-Kazooie franchise, and to an extent with Conker—the protagonist of Conker's Bad Fur Day and its remake. Timber's game, unfortunately, never came to fruition. One can only wonder what it would have been like.

Additionally Pipsy, Tiptup, and Bumper round off the starting cast (there are two unlockable characters, but I won't ruin that for players who haven't yet had a chance to grab this game.) Tiptup was later seen in the Banjo-Kazooie games, and I recently talked about how much confusion this caused for us nineties-childs. Pipsy and Bumper have never been seen again, outside of Diddy Kong Racing's DS remake. It's kind of unfortunate that all of these characters, who were full of so much perk and charm that they easily rank amongst the most memorable characters on any gamer's list, have fallen into a weird IP funk. Nobody is really sure who owns the rights to them since Rare was sold to Microsoft sometime in the early 2000's. This is all perfect fodder for another post, so I think I'll hold off on that until tomorrow (if I can keep motivated about it.)

The most mysterious mammals in video games.
Of course what good are a bunch of NASKONG wannabes without a pit crew? Aiding our lovable little pals is Taj the Genie, an elephant guardian who resides on Timber's Island, and strange sentient clock who goes by the name of "T.T." They assist the characters in different ways. Taj can transform the boring and average go-kart into a miniature plane or a hovercraft, allowing the racers to take to land, sky, and sea. T.T., whose name either means "Tick-Tock" or "Time Trial", can activate the Time Trial mode. He also keeps track of the player's progress and will, at any time, display for them the amount of trophies, amulets, and balloons they have collected. To beat the game, you're going to need all of them.

So what has brought this ragtag group of racers and ride-alongs togeher? None other than an evil, intergalactic space wizard known as Wizpig. His terror knows no bounds, and despite having the most absurd motivation in a Nintendo title (he wants to be the best racer in the universe, and he kills those whom lose to him), he's actually a really dark and sinister character who will definitely stick with you after the game is done. And, pulling his massive weight for him are four large and powerful island inhabitants who have been placed under his spell. Diddy Kong's objective? Release the spell on the four island guardians and defeat Wizpig in a one-on-one race-to-the-finish.

Yeah, it isn't the tightest or most logical story on the planet. But it's light and fun enough to keep you engaged, and it's probably one of the better storylines to accompany a racing game—a genre known for having absolutely no story at all. Although I will admit that, in my opinion, Nicktoons Racing for the GameBoy Advance had the best and most plausible storyline I've seen in a racing game so far. Maybe I'll review that for you someday.

While the story might seem lacking when summarized like that, the game really brings it to the fore by replacing the average "Grand Prix" type mode with an "Adventure" mode, which comes complete with an overworld that allows the player to drive from one race to another, all while staring down Wizpig's ghastly decor at every turn.

I actually really miss the extreme egotistical villains of yesteryear.
The game is a visual treat, even in the modern era. This might just be because I really appreciate the way older games look, what with the jagged polygons and such, but I think this game is simply awesome to play. It's bright, it's colorful, and it has an aesthetic which has become quite rare in modern times. I have to admit, though, that it hasn't really aged well. This is due in large part to the modern television screen, which simply displays at a higher resolution than the Nintendo 64 was designed to handle. Which is a real shame. If some of these polygons could be smoothed out, I think the game could probably hold up pretty well. Even with its limited textures and use of sprite-objects.

However, the graphics aren't entirely without their natural flaws. On occasion you'll notice some bits and pieces that have failed to load properly, or even at all, which can cause invisible objects or pieces of Diddy's hat to disappear mid-race. This became a real problem for me during the Silver Coin Challenges where your goal is to collect eight silver coins and finish in first. Well, sometimes those coins just would not show up. On more than five occasions did coins fail to load, only to show up during my second run. At least twice I parked where I knew the coin should have been and waited, watching as it eventually came into existence before my eyes. This is a game-crippling error, and I can't overlook it no matter how much I want to.

Actually, there are a few game-crippling errors. Don't get me wrong, this is still an amazing game. Any beginning or casual player won't ever have an issue with the way it runs, besides the lack of Silver Coin loadage. However, those who want to play on a higher level (and you're going to have to be one of them if you ever want to beat this game) will quickly grow weary of some of the intensely disturbing errors in programming. For starters, the physics are just totally wonked up. There really aren't any physics. There have been times where my character hit a bump in the road and spent the next five minutes literally driving down into the earth. They also have a habit of attempting to climb walls or simply bouncing because the road happens to be constructed of multiple objects. These are huge issues.

Kind of following in line with that, the characters don't control well at all at high speeds. Now I know that, to some extent, this is an attempt at creating realistic car physics. Of course you will lose traction at higher speeds. But that doesn't excuse the times when a character seems to be possessed with the desire to lose the race and turn in the complete opposite direction of where you want to go. There are times where you'll be cruising along and come across a zipper. Well it doesn't matter whether you push the joystick left or whether you jam the damn thing right, because the character's going to go wherever the fuck he feels like going. Usually this happens to be up a wall or into the river. This is never going to be onto the zipper or into the coin. Never. Never. Never.

The last issue with characters are the taller ones. They tend to get stuck on everything. This makes them less desirable to play as, because there are a lot of narrow tunnels where their going to crash their head on the ceiling and hang like a chandelier. And when they do manage to drop, they're probably going to be doing a wheelie for the rest of the race. This is extremely annoying.

Know what's even more annoying? Inaccurate hitboxes and objects which don't fill their whole square. You are going to get hung up on invisible corners so often that you will, at some point, want to toss the controller down on the ground and give up. These corners will reach out and ensnare you, ripping out all of your momentum. Oh, and then you'll crash into another one when you think you've gotten away. Enjoy watching every single other racer drive by you.

As cute as this game is, it gets brutal. One little slip-up and you're going to lose. No ifs, ands, or buts. You will lose if you crash into a wall or miss that zipper. You will not ever catch up to the other racers. Most of the time your loss won't even be your fault, it'll be the fault of the inaccurate hit detection, and this gets very frustrating. I also noticed some intense slingshotting in the later stages of the game, where CPU racers will catch up out of nowhere and continue cruising at impossible speeds right a whole lap past you. It's worse than playing a hacker over XBLA in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing. You're not going to win. This is going to be a deal breaker for a lot of people. But grit your teeth and hang in there, because putting up with these faults is worth it.

Because despite all of the flaws, and maybe partially because of them, this game is a beautiful work of art that I encourage you at least attempt to master. A lot of people have called the game tedious and it does follow Rare's design philosophy of "collect and reuse everything." And that isn't really a lie. Playing the game straight through, cover-to-cover so to speak, is pretty exhausting. To really complete the game, 100%, you're going to be on every race track at least seven times. That's 140 times you'll see the same twenty tracks. This gets old.

A lot of people don't like having to collect things in video games. I noticed several reviewers from the time complain about the "forced replaying" during the Silver Coin Challenges, but I really didn't feel like that at all. In my opinion, the Silver Coin Challenges added a legitimate new dimension to a level you had assumed you already mastered. It took a simple level, something you'd already completed, and dialed up the difficulty. This is fun, and so, so satisfying to defeat.

Additionally, there are four mini-games and six bosses to defeat. Two of the mini-games take a note from Mario Kart's Battle Mode, requiring you to blow your opponents away before they do the same to you, while the other two games are completely unique to Diddy Kong Racing and take advantage of its environments and gameplay. These are really fun, but unfortunately they're so limited in number (again, like Mario Kart's Battle Mode) that you're going to get bored of them pretty quick.

The boss races are a lot of fun, and you can replay them after you've already removed the spell from the boss character. Two of these are unusual races which require you to go from point A to point B as opposed to completing a series of laps, and these are going to be the boss races that stand out the most. Younger or more inexperienced players will often complain that the bosses are unfair and too difficulty, and I admit that this was my memory of them. However, upon playing through the game recently, I learned this simply wasn't true. All of the boss racers (minus Wizpig) are actually slower than the top speed of the slowest racer available. I know this because I took the liberty of cycling through every playable character, just to get a feel for each one before I gave my verdict on the game. If the boss catches up to you at any time beyond the first few seconds of the rest, it's because you screwed up. Which isn't too difficult, because the stages have enough traps and hazards where you can almost consider the tracks themselves to be the real bosses.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I played each and every character to get a feel for them. They all have quirks, but they can all be used efficiently with enough practice. Obviously some characters, like Banjo and Krunch, are meant to be used by more experienced players while Pipsy and Tiptup are meant for the beginners. If you lose because of the character that you're playing as, try somebody else. There's someone there for everybody. And, here's the cool part: once you learn what you're doing, once you learn how to properly brake-turn and drift, every character is a weapon in your hands. You can complete every single challenge the game throws at you with any character you want. There is no lack of balance among the pre-designed challenges.

Player vs. Player, on the other hand, is a different story. Now I haven't actually played the multiplayer because I only have one working controller for my N64. However, I can remember from my youth, and I can tell you from having played the game again: there is no sense of balance with some of these characters. The two unlockable characters have some pretty poor handling, but it doesn't matter. Their speed will leave every other character in the dust. Now, maybe it's possible that in the hands of skilled players it doesn't matter who you play as, but I'm almost positive that the game lacks real balance. Fortunately, there's a cheat code that allows all four players to use the same character. So I guess that almost makes up for it.

The real selling point of Diddy Kong Racing was that it was a racing game which not only gave you cars, but gave you planes and hovercrafts. Each vehicle handles pretty differently, and each character uses each one differently. Some characters are really good with planes, while others... well... don't fly with Krunch. I have to say the planes are my favorite vehicle to use. They're just so free, with so many possibilities. You can even do barrel rolls. However, they're slower than the regular go-karts, so there's a difference there. And while the karts and planes can have really awesomely tight turning, the hovercrafts are slow and really aren't turning anywhere. But they're the only thing that can get it done over water. You have a lot of preference here, and there will be plenty of opportunities to acquaint yourself with each vehicle.

Sound and music is a big part of Diddy Kong Racing. Unlike the DS port, the characters are all voiced superbly. There's a little stereotyping with some of the accents, most notably Taj who speaks with a very stereotypical Indian accent, and there are some oddities with the characters (Smokey the Dragon is just amusing to listen to), but these are part of the charm of the game. I don't think anybody will be offended by Taj's portrayal, and he isn't cast in a negative light. He's actually the game's representation of goodness, replacing Wizpig's face as his own on areas which have been cleared.

Regular sound effects, such as crashing into trees, are as colorful and cartoonish as the visuals. Of course the silly "sproing-oing-oing" of hitting a palm tree quickly loses its charm and becomes the sound of a thousand restarts. As fun and jolly as it is, it's going to forever haunt my dreams...

The soundtrack is going to be hit or miss. A lot of people can't handle happy music, and I can't say that I really get that. They aren't going to be happy with this music. They're going to be even more displeased when they find themselves humming it later that evening, because almost every single musical track in this game will stick with you. It could be months later and you'll find Frosty Village playing between your ears. Personally, I set it to loop every Christmas. Drives everyone nuts.

But really, I love this soundtrack. It was composed by David Wise, who had previously contribute scores to the Donkey Kong Country trilogy and also hides a few dozen other big-name scores under his belt. Bit of a legend, really, and this game does him no injustice.

After all is said and done, I have to give this game a good score. Even with all of its glaring and obvious flaws, the game is good. It's hands-down a fun game, a memorable game, and a game every gamer and every parent with a gaming-inclined child needs to try. Don't let yourself pass this up. Even sixteen years later, this game will not let you down.

I give it a whopping nine out of ten on my brand new rockonmeter. Which will be represented here by asterisks because I haven't actually drawn the meter yet and can't do a thing without MSPaint, and I run a Ubuntu... soo... we'll wait on that.


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