Jimi Fletcher’s pays tribute to his darling and much-missed wife Carole, who only ever liked one video game: Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing. To Jimi, Carole was the Wiz to his Pig, the Tip to his Tup and two quarters of his life’s TT Amulet.
Chances are that you’re someone who can knock up their list of favourite games; after hours of careful deliberation, it could stretch from the dozens to the hundreds. Maybe you can name a list off the top of your head right now; for me, it’s Sonic 2 for the Master System, GTA: Vice City, Donkey Kong Country, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (arcade), Wave Race 64, Resident Evil 2, Super Monkey Ball, Mario Tennis, Mario Kart 64 and, of course, Little Nemo: Dream Master for the NES. Can’t forget that one.
Yet there are many people who wouldn’t classify themselves as gamers at all: the kind of souls who could only list a handful of titles they’ve ever played, let alone enjoyed. The gaming bug bit them, but the symptoms were short lived.
For example, my older sister, back in the early 90s, only really got into a mere three games as far as I can remember: the very popular Alex Kidd in Miracle World, the not-so-popular Putt and Putter for the Master System, and the ubiquitous Tetris for the Game Boy. Then she moved onto other things. End of. The all-encompassing likes of Mario, Sonic and Street Fighter II were never going to appeal.
In an even more pared-down example, there was my beautiful wife Carole, for whom Diddy Kong Racing was the only one. As a post-Mario Kart 64 racer that widened the possibilities of what the genre could deliver to bursting point, it was a phenomenal success, and rightly so: few games delivered such gleefully entertaining fun back in the late 90s.
I was always planning on writing about Diddy Kong Racing for GameTripper because of my excitement leading up to its Christmas 1997 release, which bordered on feverish. Since then, the game has taken on a new meaning because of my wife’s love for it.
My Carole sadly passed away in March this year after living with cancer for a year and a half, and this review is now one of many little tributes to her, because it always intrigued me why this game of all games won her over when every other one didn’t.
Let’s take it back to the start
When we first started seeing each other, Carole’s prior penchant for this game was quite the unexpected discovery, especially since I didn’t imagine her as someone who was really bothered about video games. Truth was, she wasn’t really for the most part, but this was a major exception.
She had her own second-hand N64, and this was the only game she owned for it, so I’m figuring she played the game previously elsewhere and wanted a copy – and, by extension, a console – for herself. By the time we were going out, the N64 was arguably a thing of the past; this was the time of the PS2, GameCube and Xbox, after all, so both of our consoles were gathering dust and we never really discussed it too much.
I wish I could talk to her in detail about what it was she loved about it. Sadly, it’s too late now, but writing this article helps me, because it’s nice to be able to concentrate on a little thing she loved and try and get to the bottom of why she focused on this game only.
First though, the facts. Diddy Kong Racing seemed to come out of nowhere back in 1997. Looking back on old issues of the glorious N64 Magazine reveal that it was announced a mere three months before its release date. Now compare that to the game we were all impatiently waiting for at the time: The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, which was getting delayed more and more to the point where it wouldn’t be available for another year after Diddy Kong (it was worth the wait, to be fair). Suddenly, the thrill of Rare’s surprise blockbuster was even more giddying.
Back then, I obsessively pored over issues of N64 Magazine, and previews boasted insanely colourful screenshots that made the already-released Mario Kart 64 look hopelessly drab. Thanks to the informal, lively and enthusiastic (yet also ironic, funny and self-deprecating) approach of its writers, N64 Magazine seemed to feel just as shocked and thrilled by the game’s impending release as I did.
Over a couple of issues, I got to see previews of Diddy Kong Racing, and I don’t think I’d ever stared longingly at a game’s screenshots as much as I did with these. I wasn’t alone in my house either regarding this. My stepdad, with whom I’d developed an obsessed and hilariously competitive love for Mario Kart 64 (and to a lesser extent, Wave Race 64), was also insanely excited about this game, and it was an absolute given that it would be under the tree on Christmas Day. We’d both read and read the preview pages in issues 7 and 9, but issue 10 was THE one: it had the full-length review.
Good tidings were brought
I think 1997 was probably one of the last Christmases I can remember where I absolutely could not wait to get my/our present the next day. Satisfaction was agonisingly postponed as we got the game not in the morning, but later in the evening; officially, the game was a present to my stepdad from his mum, and we weren’t visiting her until later during Christmas Day.
If she’d had an N64, I could’ve ignored the adults and played the game right there and then, but custom dictated that we wait until we got home. Fair enough; I accepted my sentence through gritted teeth. I’m sure my stepdad was just as frustrated, but being an adult and all that business, he did an exceptional job of looking like he wasn’t bothered.
That night, playing Diddy Kong Racing for the first time, I was wowed by just how accessible it was. It’s easy to take for granted, especially if you’re well versed in games. Established genre rules become second nature to seasoned gamers, but to someone like Carole, who wasn’t overly familiar with the medium, a game of this magnitude could have potentially become overwhelming and even off-putting.
Not here. Even if you weren’t already familiar with Super Mario 64’s world-based geography, DKR’s genius was that it was extremely familiar but incredibly fresh. Simply put, it was the same as other games of its kind in that there were races to be completed, points to be collected, tournaments to be won and so forth, but it took tried-and-tested premise and wrapped a whole world around it.
You started off, just like Super Mario 64, in a colourful expanse – Adventure Island – where you were greeted by your helpful guide Taj (an elephant-genie who rode a magic carpet and spoke in a “comedy” Indian accent… you almost expect him to say “thank you, come again!”) who told you to drive to a nearby cave called the Dino Domain.
It immediately became clear how simple the driving controls were. Sure, there were later tricks to learn like releasing the acceleration before a boost, but when it came down to it, you had one button to move and one button to stop and the ever-amazing and intuitive analogue stick (one of the N64’s prime successes) to direct your vehicle. That was it!
Pretty much anyone could get a handle on Diddy Kong Racing’s set-up. There was no real need for tutorials or anything like that – you were racing within a minute of starting. Carole liked this sort of thing – a contemporary and state-of-the-art game for sure, but ultimately, when you stripped away the gorgeous layers, it was a very easy thing to get into indeed.
Upon entering Dino Domain, just like in Mario 64, there were many entrances to what turned out to be prehistoric-themed racetracks, in which you had to finish first in each to win a prize balloon, and these gave you access to tracks and challenges.
However, twists started to appear, like on the fourth level where all of a sudden you were no longer driving a kart but flying a mini plane through a volcano! Wonderfully, the plane was no mere afterthought to the game’s concept, but a truly joyous addition to the action, and handled brilliantly. Later, there would be a hovercraft too, which was trickier to master, but well worth getting the hang of.
Also, I noticed that just before that fourth race – Hot Top Volcano – you wouldn’t have enough balloons to access it, so you had to explore the island to see if there were any stray ones floating around. It was a great example of the excellent learning curve of the Diddy Kong Racing and the sort of thing that Carole adored – there was just enough non-linearity to give her a sense of freedom, but not so much that she felt stranded.
Stages on stages
Aside from the core races, there were also boss races, where you had to beat a monstrously oversized and formidable opponent, as well as battle bonus levels, which you could only access with a key that was hidden somewhere in one of the four races. These were essential if you wanted to get all four quarters of the Time Trial (TT) amulet so that you could unlock later stages.
These battle stages weren’t too much fun, sadly. Also (!!!), once you beat the boss level, you had to replay all four races again but this time with the added challenge of collecting ten scattered silver coins, which you needed to get as well as reaching first place. There was also the Trophy Race, where you had to play all four races again (!!!!) but only had to place first overall, so this was much more like a traditional racer, and the closest this game came to a Mario Kart style experience.
From there on in, you progressed to other worlds located in, around and, in one case, hidden across the island: a winter world (Snowflake Mountain), a water world (Sherbet Island) and a woodland world (Dragon Forest). Beautifully, the soundtrack on Adventure Island subtly changed to mirror the environment as you approached it; sleigh bells for Snowflake Mountain, tropical beats for Sherbet Island, that sort of thing. This would be a Rare quirk repeated for Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, and it was a wonderful touch.
After all that, you had to race against chief antagonist and Bowser on steroids, Wizpig. Then the game ended… or did it?
Not yet. If you re-entered the game and drove into the Trophy Race scoreboard located near Sherbet Island, the seemingly innocuous lighthouse nearby became a spaceship that took you up to Future Fun Land, which boasted four more levels. If you’d collected all the TT amulet pieces, you took on Wizpig again, and only then did you complete the game properly.
Or did you? Well, yes and no. There was also Adventure Two, the game’s mirror mode. Back in 1998, I was more than happy to play the game all over again, but today I honestly wouldn’t have the patience. Carole wouldn’t have wanted to play the game twice either back then, and I can’t blame her. Often, this kind of duplication move feels more like padding. Sometimes less can be more.
The same goes for the Time Trial races, that you needed to beat in order to unlock the ridiculously fast TT character, who would help you replay the game with far more ease. There was also another unlockable character, Drumstick, who you obtained by driving over a frog with an identifiable rooster crest somewhere on Adventure Island. Blimey. I don’t know what was in the water at Rare HQ in Twycross, Leicestershire, but someone should have investigated it.
Graphically, Rare used all the colours in its creative palette to deliver a gorgeous world of comfy spectacle. The Dino Domain levels were fun and engaging enough, but by the time we got to Snowflake Mountain, my eyes may have melted and even wept with joy at the sheer seasonal loveliness of it all. Playing this at Christmas at the time added an extra level of wonder; it was like driving and flying through a winter wonderland of festive lights and celebratory good cheer. I loved it. Carole loved it. My friends loved it. Who couldn’t love those levels?
I must give special attention to the incredible Walrus Cove track: a non-stop thriller of a race that came complete with primary-coloured lantern illumination, a boost-powered 360-degree loop and the jauntiest, most grin-inducing theme David Wise ever created.
Sherbet Island, with its hovercraft levels, was like Wave Race 64 with the realism smoothed out; the tremendous water effects and beautiful sunny visuals were in abundance. Dragon Forest was full of deep greens, crazy castles (honestly, Boulder Canyon was so much fun it was almost hilarious) and bucolic woodlands.
Meanwhile, Future Fun Land gave Rare the opportunity to go all-out with the visuals – suddenly you were racing on planets, negotiating your way through space stations like at the end of Star Wars and making severe corners in utopian future cities. It was all so stupendously delightful, like a sugar rush, and Wise really delivered the goods on the theme tunes for this world; Spacedust Valley, Star City and Darkmoon Caverns are three of his finest achievements. The guy’s a genius. I also need to give praise to Graeme Norgate, whose array of wonderful sound effects gave the game such splendid character.
Bringing it home
So, why did Carole ultimately like this game over everything else?
Well, above all, it was the sheer dazzle and charm of Diddy Kong Racing that won her over. Of all the game developers delivering the goods in the 1990s, Rare was arguably the brightest and funniest of the lot.
While not as snarky or smart as 1995’s Donkey Kong Country, the humour in Diddy Kong Racing was nevertheless exceptionally cheery and delightfully cute. The colours dazzled, the endless visual quirks delighted. I mean, you could drive through a dinosaur skeleton, a pirate ship, a castle, a spaceport… you could use bubbles and even a drawbridge as obstacles to screw over the other players.
The polygon graphics were also incredible: an immense step forward from Mario Kart, and it gave the designers lots of creative possibilities, like allowing your driver to look backwards when they reversed their vehicle. You could almost see the twinkle in Wise’s eyes as he composed the almost psychotically upbeat theme tunes, or the developers’ giggling themselves into a frenzy when recording the goofy vocal samples.
On the other hand, the innocent/creepy laughing during the opening Rareware logo never failed to unnerve me. I’m surprised Boards of Canada didn’t sample it a year later on their Music Has the Right to Children LP. I also thought they were channelling Barney from The Simpsons when it came to delivering Tiptup the Turtle‘s panicked cry. Maybe the less tolerant would have found this game unbearably candy-coloured, but for the rest of us, good times were guaranteed.
Carole also loved it because it was a pretty easy or, at the very least, an accessible game for the most part – only the bosses and some of the Silver Coin Challenges providing a serious trial. I certainly don’t mean to patronise my wife here, but she was hardly going to go for the controller-snapping brutality of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts!
And to be fair, those bosses were bastards. I couldn’t imagine Carole having the patience to deal with them. In fact, I distinctly remember throwing my controller on the floor in unparalleled fury when that disturbing-looking octopus boss (who looked like the severed brain with eyeballs from RoboCop 2) on Sherbet Island edged another win over me, an action that caused my stepdad to tell me off in understandably stern fashion. Those controllers weren’t cheap after all.
Luckily, it wasn’t damaged, unlike my pride. Even playing this boss today proves to be insanely tricky, but just like the old days, I simply have to beat it; I promised myself during one recent late-night session that I’d get him by midnight or give up for the night, but I carried on regardless until 00:15 when I finally bested the aquatic sod.
So yeah, for the most part, the game’s challenges were just right – both of the Wizpig races seemed utterly impossible at first, but you just had to keep at it, and before you knew it, you were a pro. Sure, trial and error was involved – a turn-off for some – but the sense of relief and achievement at the end felt totally earned.
I do get bemused when some reviews of games knock it because you have to replay bits again and again in order to be good enough to complete it. Er, that’s what’s supposed to happen! Games aren’t movies or books: you’re not meant to sail through them in one linear path the first time you play it. If I’d have completed Diddy Kong Racing in one fell swoop without having to replay races, I’d have considered it a total waste of my stepdad’s mum’s £40.
Ready to mingle with single player
Carole also loved it because, unlike many racing games, the real pleasures lay most of all in the single player. Since she lived alone at that time, the game fit her like a glove.
Personally, I feel that even though driving games can be tremendously satisfying in single-player mode, there’s always a sense of loneliness when playing them. You drive alone, interact with no-one (unless it’s a competitive drive, in which case everyone’s against you) and in games like OutRun, Hang-On or the original F-Zero, you just keep on going, as long as you can, down long stretches of relatively empty road, beautiful horizons in the distance but no-one to enjoy the view with.
If this sounds a bit maudlin, maybe it is, but driving games do get me dreadfully existential sometimes. Often they can provide blissful serenity, at other times a weird sense of isolation. Even Mario Kart, with its liveliness and action, remains a lonely experience in one-player, probably because it can’t help but suffer in comparison to the joys of the multiplayer option, where every race is a party and a thrill, and always with friends.
Diddy Kong Racing is that weird exception: a racing game where the single-player was so overstuffed with colour, humour, fun and variety that it never felt like a lonely experience. It may very well be the most satisfying single-player racer ever for me.
I think some of it has to do with nostalgia; it felt like a childhood game that you’d somehow missed out on during your formative years, brought bang up to date. An interactive cartoon, taking you back to more innocent times. Yet for some, this childlike approach was probably a turn-off. Compared to the sexier, more contemporary and edgy fare that the PlayStation was delivering, when Tomb Raider, Gran Turismo, Resident Evil and so forth were taking gaming into its flat-sharing, booze-drinking 20s, Diddy Kong Racing was all about talking turtles, racing stop-clocks and evil mega-pigs.
It was hopelessly uncool, really, and yet I truly loved it for that. It was adorable escapism, and that’s also why Carole loved it. Years before we met, she was living in a dump of an area with horrible, noisy, antisocial neighbours and it was a stressful time for her. This game, for what it was worth, delivered a little respite.
Unfortunately, the multiplayer is where Diddy Kong Racing failed to reach pole position. Something was missing. Whereas hours could be spent in heated competition with your friends on Mario Kart 64, and said friendships could break down at the release of a blue shell or well-timed lightning bolt, the same sparks failed to ignite here. If it had been any good, Carole and I could have enjoyed some two-player rivalry, but what was the point when it was such a snooze?
When I was at university from 1999 to 2002, Diddy Kong Racing was barely touched by me or my housemates either, whereas Mario Kart 64 may as well have been permanently glued inside the cartridge slot, were it not for GoldenEye 007. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that, beneath the bells and whistles of Diddy Kong’s tracks, they ultimately lack the addictive ingenuity of its rival.
Apart from the dreary anti-climax of Rainbow Road and the introductory blandness of Luigi Raceway, every track in Mario Kart 64 was a work of inspired treachery and inventiveness, which worked in perfect sync with the game’s formidable weaponry, and that’s another of Diddy Kong’s relative failings. The magnet icon, which beamed you to the racer directly ahead of you, was a neat touch, and the missiles did their job in the same way the green shell did, as did the oil-spills/mines/bubbles, but the killer blows of the lightning bolt or the controversial blue shell didn’t have an equivalent. Plus, icons that you saved could be overridden by accidentally driving into a new balloon, which was, and still is, very annoying.
The biggest problem of all, and one that N64 Magazine astutely pointed out ahead of its release, was that there was no chance element to the icons – you knew what you’re getting all the time, and as such, that killer unpredictability factor was badly missed. On the plus side, the AI seemed a lot more balanced – you could reach first place and stay there like you’ve earned it, and not be constantly bothered by your unfairly advantaged rivals.
Maybe it was the unfamiliarity of the characters that let it down. After all, one of Mario Kart‘s joys was being able the wickedly delightful opportunity to play as Bowser or Wario, two of the biggest dickheads in the Mushroom Kingdom. We’d all come to know and love all these characters to lesser or greater extents; being able to play as them in a different context – in this case racing – was an irresistible challenge. It proved successful enough to work again in golf and tennis forms too.
Diddy Kong Racing wasn’t as interested in gradually building up a universe that we’d come to know and love. Except for Diddy himself, the characters and worlds were completely new, which on one level made it incredibly refreshing and unfamiliar, but maybe it was the unfamiliarity that meant that it didn’t connect with gamers of my age so much. I couldn’t list off all the characters now if my life depended on it. I know there’s Tiptup (a given, I always played as him), Banjo and Conker (because they’d get their own games), and er, Krunch? Dipsy? Badger? Bodger?
Thinking about it, the other major multiplayer sensation from around this time was Rare’s GoldenEye 64, which took the ultimate adolescent/post-adolescent dream – to be James Bond – and synthesised it with our familiarity and love of the most recent Bond film at the time and its most iconic set-pieces and locations, as well as the chance to fuck over your mates in ways just as brutal, callous and hilariously petty as Mario Kart. Yet it was totally different from Mario Kart too. Together those two games marked the N64’s most enduring and loved multiplayer legacy. Diddy Kong never came close to matching their impact – we’d already got Mario Kart to satiate our driving kicks, so why bother with second best?
Second place doesn’t mean first loser
Despite its flaws, Diddy Kong Racing stands up remarkably well. Playing it again has been amazing fun, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking. It’s brilliantly structured, extremely generous and often delightful. It synthesised genres to extraordinarily fresh effect, and it still feels shiny and new.
The fact that it hasn’t been infinitely followed-up or reworked – barring Banjo Pilot for the Game Boy Advance and Diddy Kong Racing DS for the Nintendo DS – means that the game remains an exciting, lively challenge even 22 years later. That it hasn’t been made available for modern-day virtual shops makes its original N64 presence even more special.
Even though Carole never replayed the game, she’d always remember it with a smile and a chuckle. Playing all of Adventure One this last month proved to be a bittersweet experience: fun, exciting and intense for sure, but also a little bit sad too. I wish I’d been there at the time to watch her play this game, before we’d ever met, long before I lost her.
That’s the thing with playing games from your past: a lot of the past comes back along with it. Ultimately, though, it’s been comforting and even a little cathartic to revisit it.
Shortly after Carole’s death, one thing I wanted to do, a desire that seemed to come out of nowhere, was to lose myself in a video game, specifically Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I first played it when I was suffering from anxiety and depression back in 2003, and it did help me out a bit back then. The excitement, originality, great music and stunning atmosphere made for a real escape.
I figured that it might do the trick again, but this time I didn’t have the energy to get past missions that were proving to be too difficult, and I was finding the whole experience lonelier than I’d ever found it before. Plus, the black comedy and violence just wasn’t appealing to me as much. Maybe another time, I thought.
Eventually, a few weeks later, Diddy Kong proved to be a better fit for me, and playing it as part of research/revisiting for this article gave me a proper focus, and it’s really helped my mood. Its sheer innocence, joy and good-natured fun (plus its humour) turned out to be just as engaging now as it was then. Like listening to old songs that remind you of earlier times, old games can do the same thing, even if in this case it’s partly a weird kind of nostalgia-by-proxy, given that Carole and I never played the game together.
Of course, I have my own memories of the game, but I also was thinking about Carole’s own take on it too. As I said, she really wasn’t a gamer, and the thought of her getting really into a game both amuses and bemuses me, bless her!
- Best single-player racing experience ever (for me)
- Gorgeous to look at and listen to
- Genuinely inventive and original execution
- The multiplayer is seriously dull
- Almost too much of a good thing – some may find it all a bit too repetitive
- Beneath the bells and whistles, the tracks don’t have that Mario Kart ingenuity
If it was good enough for my wife, it was good enough for me – Diddy Kong Racing, for all its flaws, was and still is an astonishingly lovable and utterly engaging treat. It’s 22 years old this year and it still plays as beautifully as did back then. As gorgeous as a rainbow, as cute as a button and as addictive as sugar, it really does hold up.