One man discusses his very personal journey with Rare’s kart racer in honor of its 20th anniversary. Read on to share the memories!
Hello! It’s me, professional internet storytelling opinion-haver, Alex Crumb. This month is the twentieth anniversary of the million-selling Nintendo 64 karting adventure, Diddy Kong Racing.
Twenty years? Wow! Time is a cruel, undefeated gut-ripper. Twenty years is enough time to raise a child and train him to play Diddy Kong Racing songs on a violin.
Twenty years is also enough time to become introspective about one’s life and consider how video games keep showing up at weird moments, crafting relationships and revealing particulars about our personalities. Diddy Kong Racing was a big deal when it arrived in 1997. How’s that? Well, it predates familiar racers including Crash Team Racing, Gran Turismo, and (glances over to Wikipedia) even Sonic R, making it a unique racing commodity in the video game’s newly-minted 3D landscape. It’s also the first notable western-developed kart racer. How about that! You can hear the Thirty Twenty Ten crew discuss DKR in the embed below.
But what the hecking crap makes Diddy Kong Racing remarkable? Before we talk about that, you’ll have to cast your brain back in time twenty years. The Sega Saturn was still alive and insisting that “virtua” was the way of the future. The Titanic was still just a boat on the bottom of the ocean and not yet an Oscar jauggernaut. Popular music was almost ready to reject grunge rock’s rejection of 80s synth pop and kids everywhere were wearing out their floppy Nintendo 64 control sticks chucking Bowser into oblivion in Super Mario 64.
Was the world ready for Diddy Kong Racing? Uh, yeah, totally! And here’s what happened to me when it arrived.
part i: The Lunchbox Incident—December 25, 1997
On December 25, 1997, my brother bundled my red school lunchbox in festive wrapping paper and put it deep beneath the Christmas tree. The lunchbox had a drawing of a zoo across its lid.
After twelve months with a Nintendo 64, I proudly owned three games:
1. Super Mario 64
2. Mario Kart 64
3. Star Fox 64
I had rented Goldeneye 007 once. The James Bond themed first-person shooter’s bloodless, airy violence was a point of contention within the family. The odds of receiving it as a Christmas gift in 1997 were 0%.
I turned my attention to the mascot-driven karting adventure, Diddy Kong Racing.
My brother had placed a boxed copy of Diddy Kong Racing inside that red school lunchbox with the drawing of a zoo across its lid before wrapping the lunchbox in paper, and positioned it at the very rear of our family’s Christmas gifts.
Exactly as intended, this boxy gift was the last one found at the end of Christmas morning. My brother put the wrapped gift in my hands, as is customary in my family (we don’t take presents for ourselves out from under the tree, I mean). I’d never taken a course in geometry, but I hadn’t found any gifts the shape of an N64 box that day. Discovering the last present did not match the believed dimensions inspired the kind of little-kid worry unique to the Christmas season.
I opened the wrapping. A half-second later, I found myself holding my own lunchbox on my lap. My brother stifled a giggle. My idiot child-brain understood this was my brother’s attempt to give me the gift of something that was already mine. While you don’t own many things as a child, you carry your lunchbox with you five out of seven days a week. Kid, you own your lunchbox. My brother was trying to pass off my lunchbox as a gift.
Or, worse, it was a weird, mean joke.
I can’t remember if I punched my brother or if we fought in that exact moment. He’d begun laughing too hard for it to not be a joke. Christmas isn’t the optimal time to joke with a kid. Confusion followed. There were probably raised voices. One of my parents allowed this to go on for ten seconds before reminding me to open the lunchbox itself.
There was Diddy Kong on the game box, seated in an airplane, pursued by a scenery-chewing hog-wizard. A turtle was piloting an inner-tube. A tiger was bringing up the rear in a car.
From where I was sitting, Diddy Kong Racing was born from a womb of cruelty.
part ii: Kart Racing—Winter, 1993
I stood barefoot in the snow. I shrieked at the sky.
Back inside the house, my brother was laughing.
I’d just given up a gigantic lead to him in Super Mario Kart on SNES. He’d capped his comeback with stars, lightning bolts, and a hail mary green shell round-the-corner ricochet that blasted into the lava in Bowser’s Castle. Such is the harsh life when praying at the altar of kart racing.
Nintendo invented the kart racing genre with Super Mario Kart in 1992, five years before Diddy Kong Racing. Their extra-cute cartoon Mario characters raced and fought with luck and skill to cross the finish line first. Super Mario Kart’s rudimentary A.I. maintained close competition with human players by cheating—using “rubber band” programming to magically achieve higher speed to catch up and keep it close.
When human players raced other humans though, you could catch up with your brother (or dad) by picking up items that help you or hinder your competition. If “get to the finish line first” is the first item on the kart racing design document, “arm yourself” would undoubtedly be the second item.
The received items in Super Mario Kart were randomized, but the weapons’ efficacy favored the jerk in last place, offering powerful catch up tools to keep the competition interesting. You can drive the wheels off your kart, lap after lap, while always living in fear that a messianic turtle-dragon, blessed by god, might drive a truck through your livelihood on the final turn, glittering stardust the last thing you see before closing your eyes, dead.
This is kart racing. It’s all about reaching the finish line and using skill and luck to get there first. Of course, skill and luck are printed on many a gamer’s headstone. Gambling is the finest thing a person can do, if he’s good at it, but the pastime of chance, whether slot machines or Rainbow Road, is nothing if not inclusive. Nintendo knew that. Go ahead and read the Wikipedia entry on kart racing games if you demand the internet’s collective definition for the genre. Know this: the Mario Kart franchise demanded kart racing be fun for everyone, whether the year is 1992 or 2017.
In 1997, Diddy Kong Racing represented a different vision of the future.
part iii: An Alternate Reality
Diddy Kong Racing embodies speed sports’ terrifying existence. Speed is for the the quadrupeds, for the animals. Humans aren’t meant to live at such desperate velocities. But we still seek the insanity. Racing activates the primal flight instinct that’s kept our species from the jaws of tigers. When you don’t feel fear when racing, then, son, you an’t racing. Nintendo’s very own F-Zero GX demonstrated going in a straight line and watching a speedometer rise ought to whiten your knuckles. The act of living while manipulating a physical body at high speeds ought to summon a death grip on your heart. Maintaining meager control ought to be a racing facsimile’s objective.
Refined racing skill ought to be the the focused mind’s reward, because it means you reached the finish line first, and somebody else is eaten, instead of you. What’s more, you just completed a great cardiovascular workout. You’ll be stronger for it. You’ll be harder to catch next time. You’ll make a more appealing mate!
What I’m getting at is that the animals (or the humans), that win races are gonna probably gonna, like, uh, have the chance to hug a girl. Or a boy, if that’s your preference.
Racing is a Darwinian blood-crucible. Diddy Kong Racing is a kart racing game that escalates above its genre to that alternate-reality Darwinian blood-crucible.
No, I won’t say what we’re all thinking, before you get ahead of yourself: Diddy Kong Racing is most certainly NOT the Dark Souls of kart racers.
Turn your attention to the only modern kart racing game on the market: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe! Its design remains a splendid, ever-reflecting gem. Released on April 28, 2017 for the Nintendo Switch, MK8D contains systems upon systems upon systems. Drifting, jumping, stunting, gliding, colliding, and zipping, the game has what the kids call “a skill ceiling.” You can get good at Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. You can achieve various degrees of expertise with practice and gumption, a far cry from the sluggish slot-machine of, say, Mario Kart: Double Dash!! on GameCube.
There are skills to practice and knowledge to be gained within the MK8D experience.
Nevertheless, all that Mario Kart still gets in MK8D’s way. Even in these modern times, you are still at kart racing’s mercy. There are still lightning bolts, stars, and blue shells sailing in from the rear, powered by gods and slot machines, dead-set on sealing up your skill ceiling tight as a drum.
Twenty years ago, in 1997, an alternate timeline was born, and Diddy Kong Racing was Mother Gaia. She was the earth and competition was the sun we orbited.
Diddy Kong Racing differed from its Nintendo 64 peer, Mario Kart 64, because in 1997, it possessed something few kart racing games had at the time: a skill ceiling.
Diddy Kong Racing was a speedy mascot adventure while still demanding you get good. DKR’s items are not randomized and weighted upon pickup. The game never shoves nitrous oxide up the eighth-place racer’s tailpipe. It never loads depleted uranium rounds into a younger sibling’s bumper-mounted shell-launcher. DKR does not resemble Mario Kart 64 in that space. The game instead contained a series of systems and control nuances not achieved in other kart games for another twenty years.
DKR’s items are powered up by striking consecutive balloons of the same color, rather than randomized, like Mario Kart. There aren’t any game-breaking items, even at full power. The game demands you recall an individual track’s item and know how to stack up your weapons or defenses, based on your immediate needs.
The game contains three vehicles: car, hovercraft, and airplane. Each vehicle includes control subtleties.
The car cannot not only powerslide, it can perform a jagged two-wheeled turn. The two-wheel turn is whip-crack snappy. It’s so ferocious the first time you try it, you’ll barf up your dinner and swear off it like malt liquor. Fifty hours later, you’ll swear monogamy to the maneuver.
Now, elsewhere, we have the hovercraft. The hovercraft is speedy, bouncy, and good on all terrains. The hovercraft can hop, while the car cannot. It can take sharp turns by hopping and rotating mid-air. Neat-o!
The airplane flies. It can bank, roll, dive, and even stall, if you hit a wall too hard. It’s slow and kinda sucks, to be perfectly honest.
Consider those control differences and then note how the game demands skill in maneuverability across multiple locomotive forms, as well as environmental memory.
Yes, I’ll say what we’re all thinking: Diddy Kong Racing is most certainly the BLOODBORNE of kart racers.
Thought it resembles Mario Kart 64 in form, DKR functions differently. The game’s developers at Rare, in all their Britishness, created an alternate reality of kart racing that would go unfulfilled. If it wasn’t already clear, there was no randomness. My dad refused to play DKR with me, only Mario Kart 64. That pretty much tells the story of kart racing, right there.
Subtlety and kart racing ain’t exactly “going steady” in the traditional sense.
Alex’s adventures with Diddy Kong Racing continue on the next page!