Revisiting My First Game 24 Years Later
Beating Diddy Kong Racing for the first time nearly a quarter-century after its release.
(This post was written as a script for the edited video above, which provides a more complete experience of the post’s subject. This video also contains unscripted interview sections notated in the text below. This text version is just for easier reference and comprehension for anyone in need.)
Even though I’ve blocked out most of my childhood, I still remember the first time I ever laid eyes on Diddy Kong Racing. My older cousin was visiting and had brought over his Nintendo 64, and he started playing this game on our TV, and I was instantly completely enthralled by the game’s visual aesthetic.
Consider just how goddamn bright this game would have looked blasting out of a Cathode Ray Tube Television compared to anything I could’ve laid eyes on by six years old, in 1997. Coming right after my previous obsession with Winnie the Pooh, the colorful cartoon animal cast, the bubbly upbeat music, and the sheer amount of red and yellow and orange blasting out of those early levels was more inviting than any cartoon or comic book or even video game I’d ever seen at that point--especially considering I was then only familiar with the children’s learning console the Sega Pico (on which I played Disney tie-in games as a toddler), and having been shown Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man X by a friend (which at least looked kind of cool but were impossibly too hard for me to play.)
Eventually that older cousin handed our family down some controllers with R and L buttons he’d broken in rage, and our own N64, with which I set out to spend twenty dollars I’d somehow accumulated on a game for it. Turns out new games were a lot more expensive than that--and also it took me a while to actually track down a copy of Diddy Kong Racing in Virginia Beach as a kid. I ended up buying Tetrisphere, which was a little too esoteric for me to grasp, but had a phenomenal trance soundtrack I could get down to while watching my mom play it. (Somehow my mom is one of the ten people on Earth whose played more than ten minutes of Tetrisphere.)
Anyways, eventually Diddy Kong Racing turned up at Blockbuster, which is where most of the games I got to play as a kid came from, because it was much cheaper to rent than to buy them--provided you remembered to get the game back to Dad a week later, and he remembered to bring it back to Blockbuster on time. (There’s a reason everyone was eager to escape this business model as fast as possible.) Playing a video game console and having a younger brother who’s close in age and equally interested in using it means playing a lot of multiplayer games--which made Diddy Kong Racing a perfect choice. (Especially when your rental copy had a file which already unlocked most of the stages.)
By far the stages I remember playing the most with my younger siblings and our friends were the battle royal stages, in which four players are dropped into an arena full of weapons and have to try and wipe one-another out. The open levels didn’t require you to learn the controls as well just to play as the racing courses did, and the direct, violent competitive element gave it a vibe not unlike versus mode in Goldeneye. There were also more nurturing, though equally sadistic ways to compete, like a mode where you have to pull dinosaur eggs out of a lava pit and into your own nest, and then rob the eggs out of the other players’ nests back and forth to see who’s got the most left at the end. Basically, these modes filled a similar party-game role in my childhood to Mario Party, Pokemon Stadium’s minigames, or Bomberman multiplayer.
Eventually, my family did come into possession of a copy of Diddy Kong Racing. I can’t remember if that happened at the end of the 90s when I was playing the most N64, or in the late 2000s when my brother and I started buying our childhood favorites now that they were fifteen bucks at used game stores. I’m at least fairly certain we rented the game more than once, and that at some point I attempted to play through the entirety of Adventure Mode with a fresh file, and I could not beat it. This game has four bosses that you have to beat twice before the final boss fight unlocks, and I don’t think I was able to conquer any of them the second time as a child. Actually, I didn’t even remember having fought the dragon boss before, so it’s questionable if I’d ever even gotten that far. You might be thinking that my broken controller would’ve made the game even more difficult for me, but I’m not sure if I even knew about the fact that holding R and L helps you make sharper turns until later in life. I was neither very good at video games as a kid, nor particularly determined to master the ones I had, because I really only had so much time to dedicate to playing single-player games alone.
Nevertheless, I went on loving the game, even if it made me frustrated that I couldn’t see all of it just because those bosses were so goddamn hard. Really, the magic of Diddy Kong Racing is something I could feel even just by turning on the console. Something about that Rare logo spinning in the sky overlaid with stock sparkling and children laughing sound effects always filled me with this sense of awe, that it already felt like I was getting pulled into the experience before the game even started. In retrospect, I see this as one of the many indications I will touch on of why this game feels so incredibly robust in a way that games rarely do anymore.
Before their acquisition by Microsoft in 2001 completely upended everything they were doing at the time, the UK game studio Rare was ahead of even Nintendo when it came to building their games out of a firm understanding of how best to make use of the hardware at their disposal. I think game developers have flown farther and farther afield of developing games around the limitations of the hardware not only because it is rarer for games to be aimed for just one release platform, but also because the possibilities of newer hardware are so much more difficult to account for. A lot of indie games are built to do things that most modern hardware will just have no problem with, and can therefore do whatever they want under the umbrella of that technological threshold--but it’s a lot less likely for a AAA developer to take the approach of making a game that will categorically make perfect use of the hardware it was made for. I think the Spider-Man games from Insomniac are the best modern Non-Nintendo example of games built around understanding perfectly what the console can do well and executing it near-flawlessly.
Diddy Kong Racing is not a large game by any definition, especially if you’re not good at it--but it feels complete. Every stage is almost equally fun and memorable, and the game will task you to master them if you want to unlock all of its content. It has easter eggs, cheat codes with both aesthetic and gameplay effects, a post-game where all the levels are flipped, the enemies are harder and the collectibles are in different spots, and a time attack mode which eventually gives you the best times anyone on the dev staff could get to compete with. It feels like the game was made to rise to any level of engagement the player might’ve wanted to have with it--whether they wanted it to be a casual party game to play with friends, or a decently challenging arcade racer to plow through in a weekend, or even something to be obsessed with mastering. The fact that it’s almost completely glitch-free has even kept it friendly to speedrunners.
Every aspect of Diddy Kong Racing is tightly-crafted. Animal designs make an obvious go-to for the low-poly aesthetic of early 3D games, and these critters are so goddamn adorable, while creating a unifying cast aesthetic in their color design and general shape. Looks like a couple shelves of stuffed animals, and I couldn’t be happier about it. For the playthrough I’ll be showing in this video, I chose Pipsy the Mouse because she looks like a Sanrio character. Unbeknownst to me, this was an excellent choice because Pipsy has the highest acceleration and handling, with the lowest top speed, which makes her the easiest character to drive with and crucially capable of handling the precision steering you’ll need on many challenges. Having said that, I did end up swapping out for Diddy Kong on the final boss because hitting the speed required to pass him was harder than maintaining course--but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I had no idea who any of the characters in this game were as a child, and it only got more confusing when I started finding out about the games that some of them were featured in previously. Diddy Kong was of course the first I would learn about, thanks to his connection to one of gaming’s oldest and most iconic characters, Donkey Kong. Considering that Rare had developed the Donkey Kong Country games for the Super Nintendo in which Diddy Kong was first introduced, even if this game was in a different genre, at least fans of those games could expect the same quality from this one. It was a great reason to give Diddy a starring role in a game, and differentiate it from being a Donkey Kong game in the process, while branding the kart-racing game Rare already had in development with something recognizable. Following with the Donkey Kong theming, there is also a Kremlin character who is original to this game, but is supposedly Diddy’s rival that followed him from the DKC universe.
I would have to bet that Rare didn’t want to theme too much of the game around Donkey Kong because it would mean a lot of playable monkey characters and reduced focus on the star potential of Diddy--which I think was very wise, because I doubt I would’ve been interested in the game without the variety in its animal characters. The next thought, then, must have been to collect various other animal characters from Rare games. Banjo made an obvious choice, considering he would be the protagonist Rare’s huge 3D platformer for the N64, Banjo Kazooie. And yes, I said ‘would be’ because Banjo-Kazooie didn’t come out until 1998! In fact, while I have no idea if either of the Conker games had been concocted in any way prior to Diddy Kong Racing, the kid-friendly Game Boy Color game dropped in 1999, and the insanely raunchy throwing up of the hands and proclamation that we don’t give a fuck that was Bad Fur Day didn’t drop until 2001. Even when I first found out about the Game Boy Color game, I remember having thought “oh, so where this is where Conker comes from,” even though he technically came from Diddy Kong Racing! Tiptup also appears in Banjo Kazooie, and again it’s hard to tell if he existed in the hands of Rare before or after this game. Bumper the Badger actually looks similar enough to the badger character from Banjo Kazooie that I’d thought it was the same character for a long time!
It is probably for the best that this character roster was cobbled together of designs which were each meant to carry their own gaming franchises, even if a lot of them didn’t pan out. Timber the Tiger was actually the main character of the game that Diddy Kong Racing started out as, which apparently was a real-time strategy game that somehow evolved into an animal racing game?? I have no idea how that creative pipeline looked, but it makes sense when you consider the game is set on Timber's island where his family lives, which his good friend Diddy Kong is visiting while all of their parents are on vacation together. This parenting is proven extremely responsible when a giant mean space pig shows up to rain on everyone’s parade and challenge you to some races.
Bumper the Badger and Pipsy the Mouse are residents of Timber’s island, but Pipsy was actually meant to star in her own Astro Mouse game even before Diddy Kong Racing, which was canceled and her design recycled into this game, just like many of these characters would be recycled into future games. You can almost feel how badly Rare wanted to create their own interconnected universe of intellectual property and characters so they wouldn’t have to lean on Nintendo so much, but it never really panned out. Another of their later games, Dinosaur Planet, would find itself reskinned as Star Fox Adventures on the Gamecube--which may or may not be a canonical prequel to Diddy Kong Racing, because it features the partner character Tricky the child Triceratops, who is also the first boss as a grown-up in Diddy Kong Racing.
Once you’ve selected a character and start playing Adventure Mode, Diddy Kong Racing drops you into one of Rare’s ever-popular hub worlds: a concept fondly remembered by many N64 gamers that has fallen by the wayside over the decades. DKR’s hub isn’t all that large, but it’s perfectly designed to chill out, mess around and get used to the controls, and creates an instant sense of progression when you start to explore it--assuming you don’t just launch straight into the first level. Around the island, you will find doors marked with numbers signifying the amount of balloons you have to collect before entering by completing levels or finding the five hidden balloons on the island. I won’t go into too much detail about the way DKR controls its pacing while giving the players options to face multiple challenges at their own leisure after a while, but suffice to say that it’s cleverly handled.
Also clever was the inclusion of a friendly face on the island to offer the service of switching your vehicle--even if the execution was a bit dodgy. I didn’t think much of Taj’s dialog as a kid, but it’s hard to ignore an Indian elephant whose only dialog sounds like he’s working behind the counter at a convenient store. This is definitely gonna raise a huge red flag for some people which is unfortunate, but as a kid I actually remember thinking of Taj as much more integral to the game than he really is. He shows up at the end of each stage to give you a balloon, and challenges you to race him around the island with each vehicle after you’ve acquired a certain number of balloons, but he doesn’t really contribute to the actual story of the game or do much beyond helping you out. Still, I think as a kid, something I might’ve perceived as an adult presence looking out for me was kind of comforting.
As you explore the island, you get to enjoy some of the programming wizardry Rare helped pioneer as the background song seamlessly shifts, performing the same melody on different instruments to reflect the vibe of that part of the hub. This is something they’d famously do again to the same awesome effect in Banjo Kazooie, and the theme songs from this game have been even more stuck in my head for my whole life than the ones from that game. Every track here is so flighty, upbeat and energetic, with catchy melodies and unique instrumental combinations that give this endlessly positive, playful and cheery vibe while also pumping you up to hit top speed in the races. The vocal samples and xylophone melodies from the song that’s in the first flying level are particularly inspired. I think a lot of what draws my ears to these short, loopy tracks is just that they swap instruments so often between melody lines, so it feels like it’s always shifting gears and twisting while maintaining the same speed and energy. A lot of tracks have this kinda surf-rock vibe that tells you what’s going on is fun and exciting without being intense or threatening. All around I think it’s one of the all-time great video game soundtracks, with only the minor complaint that a lot of songs get reused in different levels, which lessens the feeling of connection between the songs and the levels themselves--although it also means you might get to hear a song you liked from a level you didn’t want to play as much in another one.
Getting into the races themselves, I find this game to be a lot more balanced and less head-implodingly frustrating than its most obvious close comparison, Mario Kart. While I still enjoyed Mario Kart 64, which came first on the console and had an advantage in its greater breadth of variety, it didn’t feel nearly as tightly-constructed and blisteringly fun to play as Diddy Kong Racing gets when you start to master it. In particular, its handling of items is both more straightforward and leads to way more tactical implementation during matches, lessening the feeling that they turn it into a party game considering how much you can benefit from the strategic use of collectibles.
First and most importantly, and totally unknown to me as a kid, the bananas which litter each level will increase your top speed as you take the course. These bananas don’t respawn on the next lap, so it’s first-come first-serve on nabbing all the extra speed you can--but they also tend to be placed a little out of the way, requiring extremely careful maneuvering to pick them up without losing ground by throwing yourself off-course--and to complete all the game’s challenges, you will learn to perfect these stages down to the exact timing of finger flicks.
There are five types of power-up balloon carefully placed through each stage to create a system of balance between them. The missile power-up can be fired at opponents to stop them in their tracks for a couple of second. By collecting two of this power-up in a row, you will be updated to a homing missile that targets an enemy within a certain range, and collecting three will give you ten of the regular straight-firing missile--which is interesting, as these two missile extensions really have whole different purposes served depending on where you’re currently placing. To compete with missiles coming at you from behind, there is also a temporary shield power-up, which you will naturally figure out the right moments to use when you know the weapons. You can also pick up traps to lay down for the people behind you and maintain position.
Blue balloons build into a bigger and bigger boost, which mimics the behavior of the zippers you can hit throughout the stage. I didn’t even know as a kid that if you let go of the acceleration before hitting the zippers you’ll boost even harder, which is necessary for the final boss fight. There is also a rarer magnet power-up that lets you quickly pull yourself up to the next racer ahead of you--which can especially come in handy on the silver coin challenges, which have you returning to each level to collect ten coins before the race is over while still placing first, and are the first part of the game to present a significant challenge.
Aside from the collectibles, all you’ve got to worry about is the environmental obstacles and learning the secret optimal pathways through each track. Every level’s pacing feels just right--there’s always just the right amount of stuff going on at once and in sequence, each stretch of the course presenting multiple angles of approach on your way to optimizing the run of it and beating the often quite-challenging AI of later levels. It’s very much a game that makes time whiz by, especially when you get to something really challenging and start hitting “restart level” every time you make a mistake, not realizing you’ve suddenly make thirty attempts and it’s forty-five minutes later.
I’m a little bit dodgy on calling Diddy Kong Racing a hard game just because I couldn’t beat it as a kid, considering that I did it across two afternoons before writing this script. Having said that, Diddy Kong Racing is a three-hour long game if you know what you’re doing, so the fact that it took me four times longer than that should tell you something about how many attempts I had to make on the really hard parts. In particular, there were several second fights against bosses that I wasn’t even sure I possibly could beat after my first handful of attempts. Some of these are skill checks--for instance, you’re completely fucked against Tricky if you haven’t mastered the timing for boosting at the start of the stage. Oftentimes if you can manage to get a lead on your opponents, especially by picking up lots of bananas during the races, it’s a lot harder for the enemies to get past you--but at the very start of the race when you’re still picking up speed, if you make any mistakes at all on certain courses then your best choice is to restart immediately.
Diddy Kong Racing rose just to the threshold of my patience for beating it, in part because I knew it was a short game and if I could just overcome these few serious obstacles I’d be done with it, but the first couple of times I fought Wizpig I just thought, there’s no way. Eventually I did it, though, and got to see the space levels that I didn’t even know about until literally yesterday when I played them all for the first time, and god that was an absolute blast. I guess the file I played on as a kid had never gotten this far, and by the time I’d beaten the game I could hardly believe I’d done it myself. I did not even remotely feel ready to take on Adventure Two, though, which mirrors all the stages, changes the locations of the silver coins, and beefs up the AI even harder than it was before. Even as much as my skills had grown in making it to the end of this game, I just couldn’t see getting through an even harder campaign in the same amount of time.
Nevertheless, the temptation to do it all eventually is still there, especially because you can unlock another character by beating all the time-attack trials, and I’m a little more confident I could do that than that I could do the second adventure--but that can wait. One of the things I miss about games from this era is how they weren’t counting on being plowed through in a weekend and then forgotten about like a lot of modern games seem to be, but instead to be something you can go back to again and again for a hit of that same atmosphere, game feel and ever-increasing challenge that asks if you can get even better at the game than the developers could in the time they had with it. I feel like it’s a game which allows the player the opportunity to get as much out of it as went into creating it in the first place--at least, beyond all the prior stages of the game’s life that never came to creation.
A lot of my expectations and interest in video games sprang out of Diddy Kong Racing and its contemporaries on the N64. It has this kind of elasticity to it, as a game that makes as much sense to play for twenty minutes as it does to play for twenty hours--as much sense to keep playing alone as to keep playing with friends. Maybe not in the obsessive way that a group of friends might buckle down to dedicate their entire summer to playing Smash, but in the way that you could throw this game in any given weekend when you just wanna vibe out with a video game for a couple hours and it will always hold up just as well as the first time.
I am not sad that Diddy Kong Racing didn’t get a sequel, although I am upset at the story of the Donkey Kong Racing game which spent a while in development, only to be canceled eventually in the chaos around Rare’s acquisition by Microsoft, and likely had some of its corpse picked to construct the body of the unloved Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. I doubt I would’ve been too excited at the shift in atmosphere that likely would’ve come from centering on Donkey instead of Diddy Kong, but I’m sure the game would’ve been outrageously fun in its own right. Still, I am perfectly content to return to Diddy Kong Racing exactly as it is, because it was already everything I wanted it to be in the first place.
Eventually the game was remade with some alterations for the portable N64 otherwise known as the Nintendo DS, but from what I hear the new inclusions weren’t all that welcomed--and for me, DKR without local multiplayer just didn’t seem right. Netplay may have come to dominate the multiplayer space in gaming, but the vibe is totally different and nowhere near as appealing to me personally as couch multiplayer has been ever since I enjoyed it for the first time playing games like this with my brothers in the 90s. Having said that, if I could load up online matchmaking on my Rom copy of the N64 game I’d be doing that right now, so I guess it’s only something I wouldn’t want in trade for local multiplayer.
Completing Diddy Kong Racing for the first time in 2022 at thirty years old was a lot more satisfying than I would’ve expected. Its music and aesthetics are no less appealing to me now than they were when I was a kid, and my appreciation for the tight technical polish on display is only even greater now that I have more to compare it to and appreciation for how game development works. This game just nailed everything it was going for on every level, and has aged just as gracefully as the Gamecube’s classic racer, F-Zero GX, and even better than most of the Mario Kart games in my personal opinion. It’s definitely not a game for everyone, but if you like other old-school games in the genre and know how easy it is to emulate N64 games on all sorts of devices, then I think it’s worth giving a shot to Diddy Kong Racing--but maybe only if its aesthetic is as instantly appealing to you as it was for me.
I have been Trixie the Golden Witch, find me @goldenwitchfire on social media. Thanks again for reading, and never forget the great stuff from your past.