Diddy Kong Racing DS
Meet Diddy Kong. Heís one of the few video game sidekicks that have managed to garner the attention of countless gamers around the world. At first glance, you wouldnít think that this little primate is one of the greatest unsung heroes of Nintendoís many franchises. Compared to his more popular partner Donkey Kong, Diddy seems pretty weak, useless, and wimpy. Donít let his appearance fool you; this guy can kick evilís ass with supreme prejudice. If brutally slaughtering baddies with lethal cartwheels and gracefully jumping along platforms arenít enough of a reason to give this guy some of your love, then his versatility as a character certainly will. Aside from providing some great backup in a fight, Diddy has been known to participate in music making, playing sports, and being in nearly every spin-off in the Donkey Kong series to date. Though he may have played second banana to his mentor in the older games, Diddy is most memorable in a game that featured him as the hero. Diddy Kong Racing was one of the greatest racing games on the Nintendo 64, and its latest incarnation, Diddy Kong Racing DS, tries to do even better.
Too bad it failed miserably.
Itís not like Nintendo and Rare totally botched this remake. They were actually smart enough to borrow themes and aspects from the older game. Apparently, thereís a monstrous pig named Wizpig running rampant across Diddyís homeland, terrorizing the local animals in an attempt to gain control over the nearby island. Since living under the rule of some psychotic farm animal isnít exactly the ideal way to live, the locals decide to send a letter to Diddy to get him to rid the island of evil for the umpteenth time. Since his partner Donkey Kong is nowhere to be found, the little guy decides to round up all his little animal friends (sans Banjo and Conker from the previous game) and speed off into Wizpigís hive of scum and villainy. But once the band of would-be heroes gets to their destination, they find that the island and its inhabitants have been imprisoned. Before Diddy can venture any further with his nonsensical plan for salvation, Taj (a purple elephant dressed up as a genie) appears and informs him that he needs to participate in a variety of races to free the island. Thus, our hero and his pals commandeer the vehicles conveniently nearby and decide to start racing.
Once youíve gotten past this thankfully brief reminder as to why racing games arenít supposed to have stories, youíll be free to explore the island. Thatís right, boys and girls. Instead of browsing menus a la Mario Kart DS to start races, youíll get to wander around a wide expanse of the island to find the tracks. These are organized into the little hubs that make up the area; once youíve driven through the nearest door or gateway, youíll find a series of other doors that lead to different tracks. Each door is decorated with an etching of a balloon with numbers on it. These numbers correspond to the amount of balloons (aka the prize youíll win if you finish first in a race) you need to access that specific door. Thus, youíll be forced to seek out a door with a low enough number, secure victory, and collect the rewards to access higher-numbered doors. Since you wonít get any balloons if you score in second place or below, youíll be forced to replay tracks until youíve completely dominated your competition. Itís not like these places are particularly difficult to find and access, but gamers that have enjoyed more streamlined formats might lose patience with this tedious adventure and racing game hybrid.
After entering one of the doors, youíll be given access to a kart, plane, or hovercraft to use in the upcoming race. None of these vehicles are particularly fun to use, however. The original Diddy Kong Racing championed the use of the Nintendo 64ís analog stick to make the controls seem more fluid and responsive. This time, the controls have been transferred to the DSís Directional Pad with shoulder buttons used for drifting and weapons use respectively. Accordingly, the controls seem slightly unresponsive and sluggish at best, which will make using the vehicles Ė the hovercraft in particular Ė far more of a chore than it should have been. Such problems are balanced out with some truly pathetic AI; youíll find that Diddyís friends are inept as racers. Many of the races are close and competitive only due to the facts that your opponents never make good use of the track layouts and the controls hinder you from getting too far ahead. The game tries to spice things up by including a small assortment of upgradeable weapons hidden within the balloons strewn throughout the courses. Youíll be able to blast your foes with missiles, leave proximity mines or an oil slick in your wake, gain multiple speed boosts, and zap anyone that gets too close to your vehicle. The weapons selection is not adjusted depending on your place in a race; unlike the combat system in Mario Kart DS, the racer in the lead will still have access to as many good items as the person in last place. Such weapons will frequently make your break your bid for victory.
There is, however, one more way to help ensure victory. At the start of the race, an icon will appear on the DSís Touch Screen. If youíre using the kart or the airplane, youíll have to take out your stylus and use it to rotate the wheels or the propeller respectively. If youíre driving the hovercraft, youíll be forced to blow onto the screen. Youíll be granted a larger speed boost at the start of the race depending on how much you used the screen. There are few things more awkward than using your stylus to rev up the vehicle, then scramble to get your hands back on the regular controls when the race abruptly starts. Itís even worse with the hovercraft; since the game gauges how much wind is going onto the screen at a given moment, youíll be forced to time your blows to get the maximum power. By the time the race starts, youíll be out of breath and panting as your competition speeds away from you. Itís one thing to have slippery controls and stupid AI. But forcing gamers to use the Touch Screen for such an idiotic boosting system is unforgivable.
Speaking of terrible uses for the Touch Screen, the game requires that you participate in a half-assed mini-game to complete the adventure. Once youíve finished enough races, youíll be granted access to the boss stage. Youíll get to race against a dinosaur, a giant squid, and a few other not-so fearsome foes. Should you manage to kick their asses, theyíll tell you to complete another set of objectives to complete an area. Upon returning to a track that you previously completed, youíll be mounted on Tajís flying carpet. Instead of racing again, youíll be forced to endure a horribly designed rail shooter mini-game. Armed with your trusty stylus, youíll float along the track and pop all the balloons drifting in your way. The problem lies with the controls; both the popping and the aiming are done with the stylus. Since many of the balloons are flung off in all directions, youíll have to first drag the stylus around the screen to get the camera into the right angle, then tap it again to bust your target. It can be tough when youíre trying to gauge distances; one misplaced touch can foil your best intentions. The game doesnít offer nearly enough time for you to get all of them; youíll frequently slip up, miss a balloon just out of reach, and pray that youíll be able to pop enough to meet the requirements.
Once youíve endured this poorly crafted excuse of a rail shooter, youíll get to face the boss again, but with only a slightly higher difficulty. After that, youíll get to go through all of the hubís races again. Instead of taking them one by one, youíll have to do them all in a row. This time, the prize for securing victory is a trophyÖand to face the boss again. In this third encounter, any semblance of quality racing gameplay is thrown asunder. Instead of taking on your opponent the old fashioned way, the screen will switch to an overhead perspective. The Directional Pad and shoulder buttons are replaced exclusively with the stylus. In order to get your vehicle to move, youíll have to use the stylus to spin a wheel that appears in the corner of the Touch Screen, and then draw a path for the vehicle to follow. At least, in theory. Your kart doesnít seem to like the change from steering wheel to stylus either; it doesnít make much effort to follow the stylus path accurately. When your kart slows down, youíll have to spin the wheel again. Since you canít control both the boosts and the direction at the same time, your vehicle will go careening off course, forcing you to try speeding up in the correct direction and somehow salvage a victory.
It doesnít help that Taj has his own set of equally inane races, either. Apparently, the elephant/genie isnít acting entirely out of the goodness of his heart. Heíll have his own set of races for you; youíll be forced to speed around the island, collect pickups, and blow out torches with yet another crappy use for the Touch Screen. Youíll have to suppress your murderous rage, however. Despite his poorly crafted challenges, Taj is also the guy that handles the gameís unlockables. He can upgrade your vehicle for better racing performance, and unlock the Track Editor system. Itís not like heíll just give it to you, though. Youíll have to collect the coins strewn throughout the tracks and use them to buy Tajís favor. As you replay the tracks countless times and scrounge around for change, youíll also get a chance to work on another sidequest that involves finding a series of keys hidden within the tracks, which in turn allows you to play against another competitor. In order to unlock this already hard-to-reach contender, youíll have to beat all his records on every single track. Rare may be infamous for its lengthy fetch quests to unlock everything in their games, but forcing you to replay the dozens of tracks multiple times on top of all that other stuff is downright criminal.
The gameís only semblance of saving grace comes with the multiplayer. Like Mario Kart DS, the competitiveness in Diddy Kong Racing DS is focused in the gameís Wifi features. Youíll be given the chance to take on up to five other contenders in an all-or-nothing race for online supremacy. The game boasts the typical DS Friend Code system in order to play against your buddies, but youíll be able to play against random racers as well. The terrible controls of the regular game are still present and accounted for, but at least the human players will give you a run for your money. The majority of the online gameplay runs fairly smooth, but youíll often find that your opponents will suddenly disappear from right behind you and magically reappear further down the track. This can be especially aggravating when youíve got a weapon needed to gain the lead and you canít rely on what youíre seeing on the screen. The fact that the game doesnít punish disconnecting gamers doesnít help much, either; since only the first place winner is awarded points, racers that are in the other positions wonít have a compelling reason to finish a race. It may not be as bad as the regular gameplay, but the online multiplayer has its own share of problems.
For all its mistakes, Nintendo did manage to do one thing right: the graphics. The DS isnít renowned for its abilities with visuals, but it faithfully renders the tracks and levels from the original Diddy Kong Racing. There stand Diddy, Timber, Dixie, Drumstick, Pipsy, and a few other characters youíll neither remember nor care about, all depicted with polygonal bodies, bright colors, and wooden movements. They all have voices, though their words sound garbled at best. The only exception is Taj, whose bland/stoner accent matches his character fairly well. At least the levels are crafted well; each area is filled with multiple paths, shortcuts, obstacles, and features to keep you interested in exploring. Youíll get to fly over flowing pits of lava, speed through dark tunnels and past villages, float along flowing rivers and mossy lagoons, board tiny pirate ships, and traverse Diddyís jungle homeland. All of these areas are designed fairly well, but the bright colors, jagged edges, and overly bland visuals leave something to be desired.
So, what exactly can we learn from Diddy Kong Racing DS? The idea of remaking an awesome game isnít an original concept, but itís still a good one. The game could have been good, even great. All of the necessary aspects were present; the variety of playable characters and vehicles, tons of tracks to play through, and an online multiplayer that could rival the best of what the DS could offer. Unfortunately, this game is marred by far too many problems to save it from its mediocrity. Exploring an entire island in order to race is tedious in itself. The need to win first place every time forces you to replay a track until you race perfection. The controls are slippery, and the gameplay seems sluggish. The Touch Screen features are poorly implemented. The difficulty, AI competitors, and convoluted mini-games are pathetic at best. Instead of allowing for more features to be enjoyed at your leisure, youíll be forced to complete nearly every aspect before finishing the adventure in its entirety, making the gameís replayability aggravating. Fans of Diddy Kong Racing, do not let nostalgia fool you into buying this game. In terms of the quality of its predecessor, Diddy Kong Racing DS has nothing to prove its worth.
Four out of ten