It’s time to rewind!
Picture this: it’s 1997, times are simpler. The Backstreet Boys are popular, Nintendo 64 is all the rage, Rare is making good games, and there is no YouTube to look up how to beat that annoying Octopus boss in Sherbet Island. That’s right – today, we’re talking the N64 classic, Diddy Kong Racing!
Diddy Kong Racing was THE racing title on the Nintendo 64 – forget Mario Kart. Diddy Kong Racing had something that a lot of racing games from back in the day lacked – a compelling single-player story mode. When the main antagonist, Wizpig (literally a wizard pig, go figure) takes over Timber’s island, it’s up to you to best every track, challenge, and boss in each of the four areas to defeat him. With the help of the questionably designed elephant genie, you’ll need to collect golden balloons by winning races, in order to unlock the more difficult tracks and progress through the game. Adventure Mode entailed winning on four tracks, before a boss race (four bosses, each unique to the four areas) and then a second series of races, which involved collecting hidden coins on each track, while still finishing first. You then had to beat the boss once more.
As a kid, and still today, these boss, and silver coin races were legitimately challenging (looking at you, Greenwood Village) but always fun. I can still recall, with perfect clarity, that stupid stopwatch (apparently named T.T.) saying “No, no, no! Wrong way!” as I scrambled to do a quick U-turn and grab a coin that I’d just narrowly missed. The silver coin challenges were a steep ask in terms of difficulty, but when you finally managed to scrape through with a win, 8 silver coins in tow, you felt like a goddamn champion. The race items in this title weren’t anything to write home about, with only a couple of hazard options, a shield, some missiles, and speed boosts, (indicated by different coloured balloons) but they were still helpful to maintain your lead, or do some catching up. Most importantly, each track had its own theme song, and they are all straight fire – go check out the soundtrack if you’ve never heard it. The variety of vehicles you had to choose from were also unique compared to other cartoon racers: you could drive the standard car, a plane, or the dreaded hovercraft, with its wonky controls and hard-to-maintain speed. If you were racing in multiplayer with that one cousin you didn’t like, you absolutely recommended they give the hovercraft a shot.
The tracks in this game – all located in the four main hubs of Dino Domain, Snowflake Mountain, Sherbet Island, and Dragon Forest – were all vibrant, colourful, and creatively designed. There are mountain tracks that will take you through icy loops and snowy villages. There is a bay full of whales (that might give you a boost to a short cut) and ruined pirate ships. There are ancient canyons of dinosaur bones, and rivers of lava. There was also the ‘secret’ bonus world, Future Fun Land, which was space-themed. The roster of characters available to play was equally as colourful – you have some Rare staples, like Conker, and Banjo, along with newly-introduced Tiptup the turtle and Pipsy the mouse, the latter two being my favourites. There were also fun, alternate game modes, like capture-the-eggs in Hot Top Volcano – piloting a plane, you had to pickup and drop-off 3 eggs onto your characters platform, and have them sit there long enough to hatch. You could steal eggs from others or grab them from a lava pool in the center of the arena. This led to more than one salty screaming match between my friends and I, when eggs were inevitably stolen, and L’s taken less than gracefully.
I still have a working copy of the N64 version of the game (not the trash fire Nintendo DS remake) and I still go back to play it every now and again. Diddy Kong Racing was the Nintendo 64 title that always stood out to me as a fun racing game, and one that still managed to include a solid, single-player story mode that made the game compelling enough to play solo. All of its elements gelled so well together, with the characters, environmental design, and soundtrack, to create this standout title. It will always be my favourite N64 racing game, and I have so many good memories of playing it.