Nintendo’s Resident Monkey Rolls in ‘Racer’
About 10 years ago to the day, the first details about a big game for the Nintendo 64 were released to a cadre of brand new N64 owners. Back then, Diddy Kong was a much better-known mascot, fresh from his Super Nintendo adventures in ‘Donkey Kong Country’ and ‘Donkey Country 2.’ Banking on the success of ‘Mario Kart 64,’ Rare and Nintendo decided to spin off the classic Country series with ‘Diddy Kong Racing.’
It’s been a while since Diddy has seen a new game or a major role in the Donkey Kong universe. Unfortunately, the wait for a new ‘Diddy Kong Racing’ or a significant starring part for Donkey Kong’s small-fry sidekick is still not over, even with the release of ‘Diddy Kong Racing DS,’ a remake of the 1997 classic.
The premise of ‘Diddy Kong Racing’ is still the same. In fact, the entire game is virtually the same. It is different from other racing franchises in that it allows players to race in three different types of vehicles: a kart, airplane or hovercraft. Each vehicle has different physics, which causes them to react differently to input and creates depth by making players master three nuanced control schemes.
It also adds elements of an adventure game to the standard racing formula. Instead of simply racing to the finish in a ‘Grand Prix’ mode with a set number of courses, players enter racing ‘worlds’ similar to those in an adventure game. These are themed environments representing elements such as fire, ice, water and more. Each race is one level of the world, and at the end of each is a boss battle. This is also conducted in race form, but the player must defeat the villain from his vehicle using weaponry such as rockets and oil slicks. These weapons can be used in all stages and upgraded three times by picking up colored balloons strewn about the courses.
Once a world has been completed, it can be replayed to beat a high score or to play unlockable challenges such as Taj the Elephant’s magic carpet rides, in which the player must pop a series of balloons by tapping the touch screen while moving through previously completed courses.
Some of the additions Rare made to utilize the DS’s touch screen, microphone and dual LCD displays actually hinder the classic formula, making the controls particularly frustrating. For example, at the start of each race, depending on what vehicle is selected, the player must use the touch screen to get a boost. For the kart, it requires spinning an onscreen wheel with your finger or the stylus to charge the speed bar. The same system is used for the airplane’s propeller, but for the hovercraft, players must blow into the microphone to charge the meter.
Unfortunately, in the case of the kart and the plane, this occupies the use of an entire hand and, especially in the case of the hovercraft, distracts from the race by forcing the player to watch the power boost meter on the bottom screen instead of the top screen’s racing action. The addition means that players must let go of the acceleration in order to charge up their boost and then, as soon as the race starts, quickly re-grasp the right side of the DS to prevent your vehicle from careening into a wall with its burst of speed.
It is entirely unnecessary and distracting, and clearly an afterthought tacked on in an attempt to differentiate the DS version from its N64 progenitor. The aforementioned Taj mini-games are also implemented weakly, and add little value to the gameplay. A steadily available course map on the touch screen and a new emblem editor improve customizability, and are welcome additions for an online title.
A major upgrade to the original is the graphics, which have seen a significant improvement over the past decade. Rather than leaving the dated 64-bit graphics, Rare has utilized the power of the Nintendo DS to create a 3-D graphics engine that looks like a jump in quality about halfway between the N64 to the GameCube, which is just shy of the DS’s peak graphical performance. The blocky characters have been smoothed, textures brightened, lighting improved and overall presentation sharpened significantly.
There are also two characters of old missing because of legal issues arising from Microsoft’s acquisition of the exclusive publishing rights for the ‘Banjo-Kazooie’ and ‘Conker’s Bad Fur Day’ franchises. As such, both Banjo and Conker have been removed from the game and replaced with franchise irregulars Dixie Kong and Tiny Kong. The biggest and best addition to the dated game is online play. Rare has used Nintendo’s free WiFi Connection service to its fullest extent, just like Nintendo’s flagship DS title ‘Mario Kart DS,’ to add a massive level of depth to the title. The same range of options as Nintendo’s defining racing title exist in the online mode, and a new friend alert system makes it easier to know when your buddies have logged on to their DS to play online.
Overall, Rare has provided DS owners with a title that is worth owning, but primarily for those who have not experienced the original game. The lack of substantive additions such as new levels, items, worlds or more popular characters leaves the game feeling quite dated. The addition of online play makes the game practically a must-have if you enjoyed the online system in ‘Mario Kart DS,’ but if you are buying for the single player experience and have had some exposure to the 1997 version, you might as well save yourself $30.