Release Date: 25/07/07
Ask N64 owners back in 1997 which they preferred, and a good proportion would have insisted that Diddy Kong Racing was the best racing game on Nintendo's 64-bit console. It arrived as a complete surprise, arguably superior to Nintendo's superb Mario Kart 64 thanks to some clever level design and an enduring single-player challenge. Still, nearly a decade later, Rare's re-issue on the Nintendo DS has a lot of work to do if it's to woo players away from the immensely successful Mario Kart DS.
For those who didn't get to play the original, DKR was notable for its open-ended single-player "Adventure" mode, which set itself apart from the usual "Grand Prix" structure introduced by the Mario Kart series. Instead, you chose a character and raced across tarmac, sand, water, lava and even through the air in the hunt for the dastardly Wizpig. But what really separated it from the likes of other kart racers was how it allowed you to not only drive a standard car, but also race in a hovercraft and an aeroplane, with each having its own control nuances to master.
Diving into the main game of Diddy Kong Racing DS, it becomes reassuring to see the gameplay largely remains intact from its N64 incarnation - knowledge of the vehicles and tracks routes will still garner reward; use of numerous incremental power-ups can be the secret to success; and only a first place finish is enough to progress past each stage.
First impressions nonetheless are mostly formed around some new shoddy menus and the dreadful front-end presentation, which seem intent on spoiling the reunion party. Those squawky-voiced, sickly-sweet characters make a return. Hate them or, well, just despise them with every bone in your body, they're still as grating and annoying as ever. In fact, (thankfully?) some haven't actually made the cut, because, although once the love-child of Nintendo and Rare, this DS version is a now a bit of a copywriter's nightmare. Due to their contractual obligations with Microsoft, Banjo and the now foul-mouthed Conker having been dropped completely in favour of Rare's own Dixie and Tiny characters. The collectables from the Coin Race mode obviously lose their N64 emblem, but in contrast Nintendo and Rare logos are still lovingly sketched into walls on many of the stages, and Diddy still sports his trademark Nintendo cap. Oh yes, then there's Taj. He's the blue, turban-wearing Indian elephant, who pops up throughout the game to teach you the basic controls of each machine and also awards you with a golden balloon each time a race is completed. It's curious to discover then, that he now has a truly bizarre, straight-laced English accent – and those who remember the original game will recognise where politics have got in the way of an otherwise funny and thoroughly likeable character.
Although the music isn't as nauseatingly infectious as it once was (thanks to the DS's tiny speakers) and there is some loss of graphical frippery here and there, Diddy Kong Racing's charisma is still intact, from the vehicle handling, items and satisfying speed-up zippers. To their credit, Rare have attempted to introduce lots of extra features and re-arrange the game structure to prevent the whole thing being dismissed as just a lazy port. Unfortunately, this has been mostly unsuccessful. Most immediately glaring is the bizarre requirement to use the stylus on the starting grid in order to get that all-important boost start. Not only is this remarkably fiddly, but it's also too hard to pull off. With practice it becomes easier, but having to energetically blow into the mic to start the hovercraft again after a failed race is enough to make anyone feel light-headed. Although the handling of each vehicle is essentially the same as it always was, piloting the aeroplane without analogue control is now trickier and less satisfying. Bananas (which acted like coins from Super Mario Kart) have been removed completely, and instead there's a heavier emphasis on weapons, highlighted by the special tokens found dotted around the tracks which upgrade items into new, super all-powerful variations.
If this review appears to have been nit-picking so far on aspects of the game that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, then the point has to be made: a re-release of a game as much-loved as this one (and surely it has to be, considering it's been granted a reprise) is bound to come under scrutiny when extra "features" just appear to have been shoehorned in for the sake of it. Take the custom track-editor; a technically smart inclusion that allows you to literally draw any course you'd like, but in practice it's a dull and limited affair, with empty backgrounds and a weird grey colour scheme applied to each track. And it's a shame, because forgoing all of its misguided additions, Diddy Kong Racing DS is still a great, playable game, and some new features actually deserve some attention. The inclusion of a sound recorder that allows you to re-record your own voice samples of incidental sound effects is very smart (and will hopefully be copied by more developers in the future), as is the option to customise track billboards and your own player icon. The demanding balloon-bursting mini-game that pops up after completing a standard race is the most addictive addition to the game - making full use of the touch screen, the tour litters the stages with fifty balloons, each and every one begging to be popped, like some sort of videogame bubble wrap. In true Rare fashion, there's also a veritable bucket-load of unlockable content, from characters, new single and multiplayer modes and tracks, customisable vehicle colours and upgrades. Arduous as it is, there's enough appeal in the main game to prompt you to open up a good proportion of its secrets.
Perhaps most surprisingly (given it was the weakest aspect of the N64 version), the multiplayer and especially online modes deliver some of the game's best moments. Not only are all of the race and battle arenas eventually available to choose from, but they can also be taken online via the Wi-Fi service, where up to 6 racers can compete. The Wi-Fi performance is rock-solid stuff too, with nary a case of lag in sight. Whether it overtakes Mario Kart DS in the popularity stakes is still to be seen, but Diddy Kong's online options offer great value for money.
The big question of course: is this really better than everyone's favourite racing game? Diddy Kong Racing DS is still a compulsive challenge and for sheer content and variety, it wins outright. But it's not a fully convincing reinvention, and equally it's changed too much to feel like a reassuring old friend. Ironically, most of what the developers have tried to add to the game subtracts from the overall enjoyment and for those reasons it's difficult to recommend above Mario Kart DS, and even harder to those who still love the N64 original. If you've never played DKR before though, or you're looking for a non-moustachioed alternative, this is now definitely your first port of call.