Rose-colored Glasses

With all this Rare nostalgia in full furor, I felt that the time was prime to talk about Diddy Kong Racing. After reading Stephen’s fantastic and lengthy review of the recently released Rare Replay for Xbox One, I was reminded of the omission, Diddy Kong Racing. Releasing this game would have been extremely tricky (not a pun to the character in the game).

Let’s examine why it cannot be released as-is. The title alone, baring mention to Donkey Kong’s nephew is a no-no since Nintendo controls all Donkey Kong universe properties. Also the character racer, Krunch, a Kremling, from the DK world has to be cast aside. So two out of the eight default characters have to be removed, the namesake included. Perhaps, Microsoft could have reworked the title and included it in the compilation as Conker Racing or Banjo Racing? I like the sound of Banjo Racing; a bit more kid-friendly than giving top billing to the foul-mouthed squirrel. This doesn’t seem too bad, really; excusing two characters that can easily be replaced by some other Rare animals. They can mine the Banjo-Kazooie series for filling that void. Gruntilda, Mumbo Jumbo, Bottles, and Boggy all say hi. Who doesn’t want to play as Boggy the polar bear as a solid heavyset character to counter Banjo the bear?

What surprised me immensely was how DKR was released in semi-remake form in 2007 as Diddy Kong Racing DS for Nintendo’s popular handheld. That game had to have several alterations; some very obvious. The Rare logos had to be removed; Timber had it on his cap for instance. The peculiar part was how all the characters were allowed to remain in the game except for Rare’s two big hitters, Conker and Banjo. It confused a bunch as to how Tiptup, Bumper, Timber, and Pipsy were all there from the get-go; it is strongly believed that these “C-list” characters can be included on a rival’s handheld.

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The Rare/Nintendo relationship with how characters can be used has never been set in stone and is the cause for a many internet speculation. How can we explain the odd removal of the classic SNES Donkey Kong Country games from the original Wii’s Virtual Console in 2012 only to magically reappear on the Wii U earlier this year (also back on Wii VC)? It gets more bizarre. When Donkey Kong 64 launched on the Wii U VC, it remained unaltered with a Rare game, Jetpac, hidden inside the burly quest.

There are two stories attached to Diddy Kong Racing’s exclusion from the Rare Replay compilation. One is the reminder that Nintendo should not have “let Rare go”, and two, that the formula Diddy Kong Racing enforced has long been neglected by both Microsoft and Nintendo.

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Fire Sale

It is overt as to why Nintendo fans bemoan the sale of Rare from Nintendo to Microsoft back in 2002. Fans lost the unique experiences that Rare’s golden era (90s to early 00s) afforded them. The firm had a first-party level of expertise when it came to developing for Nintendo hardware, from the Donkey Kong Country series to GoldenEye 007, and yes, Star Fox Adventures. These games were programming masterpieces, capable of pushing the hardware to their limits. They maximized the consoles they ran on; not only with graphics (Star Fox Adventures) but also charming art direction (Banjo-Kazooie). Say what you will about Star Fox Adventures being a Zelda clone, but Rare went out with a bang with their last title developed exclusively for a Nintendo console (dat FUR!).

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Not all visuals though; the controls were always tight (Banjo-Kazooie nearly on the level of Super Mario 64; Jet Force Gemini didn’t have the luxury of dual control sticks, but hey, I beat it back then!). The sound design was wowing; they famously utilized Dolby Surround technology for their later Nintendo 64 titles and those soundtracks! I got a lot of Aliens feels from the Jet Force Gemini score.

Party Like it’s 1997

Okay, back to Diddy Kong Racing. For the fourth Rare title released on N64 in 1997, Rare pushed art and pixels with nary an Expansion Pak in sight, while stealing some gamers from in-house rival and October’s Very Own Nintendo’s very own Mario Kart 64. It controlled with aplomb, had catchy tunes (by Rare legend, David Wise, no less), and featured an actual single player campaign (more on this later).

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But all this mastery of crafting graphics that tie perfectly with sublime game design, would all be for naught if DKR didn’t establish the most significant aspect, the characters. Rare cleverly launched DKR as a testing ground for new intellectual properties, namely, completely original characters. The entire roster except for the Diddy Kong and Krunch were unique. This is the portion that hurts the most; when Nintendo “let Rare go” us gamers lost characters we were invested in. These creations were not generic or rote characters; some people forget that Banjo and Conker first appeared in this little racing adventure. I guess Nintendo didn’t think these characters would be so adored and thought that Mario, Zelda, Metroid (we miss you Samus Aran) were enough to keep core fans.

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Aping is Good

The formula is ripe for the picking and it startled me that neither Nintendo nor Microsoft is aping Diddy Kong Racing. Why not release another racer on a Microsoft console to rival Mario Kart? Conker’s Bad Racing. Conker-Kazooie Racing. Anything. Or better yet produce another game as a launching point for potential future IPs. Build new characters along with established ones so that they can later have their own adventures.

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DKR featured a cockamamie story about an evil pig name Wizpig and had several mini-bosses you must race. It was goofy indeed, but thoroughly challenging. In fact, a younger me found it frustrating and too difficult to even beat the story mode. I revisited it many years later and the better gamer in me finally saw the end credits roll. Nintendo should, and can, write an adventure mode filled with bosses, a hub world, unlockable characters (more on that in a second), for their next Mario Kart. Make it a full-blown adventure. Spice things up!

For the record, I think Mario Kart 8 was “Game of the Year 2014” even in its current adventure-less form. But, why not ape past successes? Ape it before Microsoft reads this and makes Banjo Kart Racing! Someone do it! I have a Nintendo bone in me, but I don’t mind if Rare/Microsoft does it first. DKR pioneered the land/water/air design that at least Mario Kart has utilized of late, but other elements are forgotten. Bring back those crazy codes (where you type witty names to unlock settings, etc.) and capitalize off nostalgia, add that story mode with Bowser nuking the land, etc., include funny new characters (can later be spun off into their own games) as bosses to race, have unlockable worlds (I didn’t even know Future Fun Land existed until I replayed the game in the 00s), and please include hard (I mean very hard) characters to unlock.

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TicToc

I just unlocked T.T., the awesome talking stopwatch, in the year 2013 on a whim. Boy, was that a fun character to unlock; not only satisfying, but T.T. along with that crazy chicken, Drumstick, are two unlockable characters that are totally original. T.T. was so rewarding, not only because of the ridiculous difficulty and time needed to unlock, but also racing as him feels superb. He is no mere clone or skin; boosted stats galore! The game’s car/hovercraft/airplane trio all have distinct handling characteristics and even with the iffy N64 control stick, is still very much playable today; a testament to Rare’s ace development talent.

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The Microsoft vs. Nintendo Chess Match

No one would have complained a reworked Diddy Kong Racing on Rare Replay. No one would have complained a Mario Kart 8 with Diddy Kong Racing elements. And finally no one would have complained if either Rare/Microsoft or Nintendo spawned an entirely novel racer as a launchpad for future spinoff games. Rare Replay is a bittersweet reminder of how Microsoft and Nintendo are both guilty of not following DKR’s blueprint. I have not given up and I believe in time at least one of them will pay more than homage to the greatness that is Diddy Kong Racing. Because this stalemate is killing me.

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Slim Snerdy is a gamer 1st and a developer 2nd; reach him on Twitter: slimsnerdy or on Instagram: slimsnerdy.