Diddy Kong Racing Turns 20: A Kart Racer Too Cruel For This Earth


part iv: I, Loot Crate—Spring, 1998

A boy much taller than me put a Diddy Kong Racing cartridge in my hands.

I said, “I can do it this week.”

The taller boy said, “Is it hard?”

I said, “No, not if you know what you’re doing.”

The taller boy said, “I can’t figure out how to do it.”

I said, “You need to hit all the speed zips. And you need to let go of the ‘A’ when hitting the speed zips. That turns your zip green. Then, when the rainbow smoke appears out the back of your car, that’s when you hit ‘A’ again. That’ll give you just a little bit more speed.”

We began walking from our lockers toward the exit. I could see his dad. I’d never met his dad but his dad looked like an aged, stretched out jpeg of the taller boy. His dad was easy to identify. He was wearing a clean, half-zip sweater.

The taller boy said, “I tried doing that like you told me. It doesn’t work.”

I said, “It works. I can do it.”

The taller boy said, “Want to show me?”

We’d stopped in front of his dad. I thought, then said, “What? Now?”

The taller boy said, “Yeah! Come on over to my house and show me. Can Alex come over, dad?”

The stretched out jpeg-man screwed up his dad-face into a smile and said yes.

Conquering Diddy Kong Racing’s Adventure Mode isn’t terribly taxing. The taller boy had done the job without too much difficulty. However, the greatest challenge required the player to defeat the built-in time trial ghosts haunting each of the game’s tracks. The taller boy was struggling with that. Beating those times demanded total mastery. Setting new records on all the tracks earned you access to the fastest racer in the game: T.T., the nightmarish, living, clock-faced, cartoon machine-man.

I sat in the taller boy’s finished basement in front of a large TV. I defeated the record times on half the tracks without failing. My mom picked me up after she was done at work.

“I didn’t know you were friends,” she said of the taller boy.

“We kinda are. He’s paying me $10 to unlock T.T. on his Diddy Kong Racing.”

“He gave you his game?”

“Yeah.”

“Be careful with it.”

In modern parlance, the taller boy had just purchased a “loot crate.” I was the 1997 equivalent of paid DLC.

Not long after that, the taller boy invited me back over to his house again. I’d finished the time trials to unlock T.T. on his copy of the game. He wanted to play the game with me and some of the other kids from our class.

We watched an NBA game on his large TV. At halftime, we played Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside for fifteen minutes. We continued watching the NBA game afterward. We never played Diddy Kong Racing. He paid me $10. I never went back to the taller boy’s house.

In 2014, I encountered the taller boy’s twin brother at a Christmas party. He was talkative. He was probably on cocaine.

Diddy Kong Racing didn’t come up in conversation.

part v: Adventure Two

Diddy Kong Racing was an adventure. With Rare’s penchant for terrible British puns, I’m surprised they didn’t toy with the title a bit more.

(Parenthetical homework: think up atrocious, pun-based titles for Diddy Kong Racing. And I want it British, alright? British!)

DKR’s game’s main mode presented an island ready to be explored. An Indian-stereotype elephant in a turban asks you to retrieve gold balloons. The player selects a character (Crocodile, Badger, Tiger, Bear, Squirrel, Mouse, Turtle, Monkey, and the two secret characters, Rooster, and Clock-Monster-Man (the aforementioned T.T.)). On the island, the player discovers the doors containing themed realms, and the racetracks within, where the gold balloons are sealed away. The track dictates which vehicle you’ll use. Finishing all four of a realm’s races opens a boss race against a local monster on a unique track. Defeating the boss sends you back into the realm to re-tread the racetracks, this time demanding you not only win, but gather all the silver coins scattered across the level.

Where are they hidden? I dunno. You figure it out, chump!

These silver coin races demand mastery over your vehicle and total track awareness. Suddenly, all the movement abilities for all the vehicles—the two-wheeled turn, the hovercraft-hop, the airplane loop-de-loop—are all mandatory. You’ve only three laps to get it done. No gods will come to your aid, okay, dad!?

Go fast and git gud, old man!

Complete all four realms to open the race against the villain, Wizpig. He’s a magical hog. Outrun Wizpig and you’ll travel to the final realm, which is in space. Defeat Wizpig again, this time while he’s riding a rocket, and that’s the ballgame.

Until Adventure Two begins. This is what developers would call New Game+ (thanks, Chrono Trigger!). Adventure Two sends you back to the game’s beginning, mirroring the track layouts, and re-mixing the silver coins into much more difficult locations.

The game’s final test of skill lies in the time trial mode, discussed earlier.

In fact, Diddy Kong Racing was a game so demanding that Nintendo never copied any of its core elements into the Mario Kart series. That’s a pretty high compliment! The game remains a bizarre relic of a bygone era. It’s too cute to be anything but a freemium iPhone app today. It’s too cruel to join that Mario party—you know, Mario Kart? It’s too kitchen-sinky to be anything but a Rare game on Nintendo 64.

And it’s a truly skill-focused kart racer, which don’t exist now, and never did before. Kart racers are flighty and fun. Grandma can take a tug at that slot machine and enjoy a quick circuit, just as Little Billy can. Diddy Kong Racing is what happens when you throw the slot machine out the window, but keep the monkey. And that sounds like a chore. No wonder there hasn’t been anything like it in the last twenty years.

Raise a glass to the 20th birthday of Diddy Kong Racing: a dark competition in a brighter timeline.

Do you have any fond memories of Diddy Kong Racing? Talk about them in the comments below! Want to HEAR us talk about Diddy Kong Racing? Check out the episode of TTT about DKR below!

3 thoughts on “Diddy Kong Racing Turns 20: A Kart Racer Too Cruel For This Earth

  1. Hey, thanks! These stories actually happened. I’m not sure there are many games I remember so vividly. I have bizarre, interesting stories about Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4. Like everyone, I have strong recollections of the Wii launch. As time passes and the global library of games expands, individuals’ memories of games will likely become more unique. Thirty-Twenty-Ten is a good vehicle for tapping those specific stories.

  2. I love this game so much, Diddy Kong Racing. It’s one of those games I hold dearly to my heart even when it got so frustrating to play at times. It’s just a simple reminder that even 20 years later, that six year old kid full of hope and wonder is still there.

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