IGN Review of Diddy Kong Racing DS
Though Microsoft bought development studio Rare from Nintendo lock, stock, and barrel about a half decade ago, through some weird off-shoot side-deal Rare and Nintendo can still partner for handheld development projects. It's an arrangement that's worked well for Game Boy Advance products like the Donkey Kong Country series as well as the quirky puzzler It's Mr. Pants, and the racer that spun out of Rare's other franchise, Banjo Pilot. Diddy Kong Racing DS marks Rare's first entry into Nintendo DS development, and it's an ambitious one. On the one hand, DS owners get a nice re-creation of the racing game established on the Nintendo 64 close to a decade ago, complete with some of the most elaborate internet play functions seen yet on the handheld. On the other hand, the development team couldn't leave well enough alone: there are tons of DS-specific extras added to the product, some of which have been spawned from unsuccessful concepts that were scoffed at in the system's first year.
On a system where Mario Kart is king, a character racer has to be something special for players to take notice. Even though the line-up of characters in this game are extremely generic and uncreative, Diddy Kong Racing DS definitely has a lot to its design that sets it apart from Mario Kart DS: namely its multi-vehicle class structure and its "adventure" model. Players can drive karts, fly planes, and zoom almost friction free in hovercrafts, and many of the tracks in the game have been designed for two or three types. For example, in some courses, you'll notice that there will be shortcuts that are only accessible via airplane since, naturally, these vehicles can fly up and down as well as maneuver left and right. The three vehicle focus definitely adds a lot of variety to the racing design since each craft handles significantly different from one another, and luckily each style has been balanced with competent and skillful controls.
The racing's more about skill than weapons, though there are the occasional offensive and defensive items tossed in. Diddy Kong Racing's pick-up system is about building up the power of a held weapon: grabbing a red balloon will snag a one-shot missile, but holding onto it and picking up a second red balloon will increase its potential. The downside is that any other balloons will be ineffective if they're picked up while holding onto a weapon. In the dozen hours we've played Diddy Kong Racing we didn't find any terribly overpowered weapon that could demolish the competition, so at least on the surface the game's pretty balanced. On the downside, there's no great equalizer to keep races close -- if you're being trounced and lapped, you really don't get any extra handicap to zoom you back to the rest of the pack. But hey, if you can't keep up, then you need to start practicing before jumping into multiplayer.
Diddy Kong Racing DS' single player presentation is one where players don't necessarily follow a rigid GP layout like Mario Kart. Instead, players wander through an overworld where they must find their next race in the five different locations. So those looking to just jump in and race with all available characters will be out of luck simply because the game's structure doesn't work that way. But this adventure model does open up a cool sense of discovery since not only do you have to find the next location, but you can also find little hidden gems along the way that will unlock additional trinkets outside of the racing. Using the stylus and manipulating the world with it is key to finding some needed money to open up special tracks, multiplayer modes, and unnecessary-but-cool customization modes. And some characters are hidden by some untraditional means -- if you see some frogs bouncing around the environment, for example -- try to flick them around in a specific location.
Obviously these touch-screen elements have been added to the preexisting Adventure Mode that was incorporated in the Nintendo 64 original, so any time you're encouraged to touch the lower screen, you can pretty much assume that it wasn't in the original game and created specifically for the Nintendo DS "remake". It's these new DS-centric elements that point to the fact that this is a first-generation DS game handled by a team that's not quite familiar with the platform. Some elements are cool -- the idea that it actually takes a bit of skill to get a rocket-start at the beginning of a race by quickly rolling an on-screen wheel or spinning an on-screen propeller may seem a little gimmicky, but at least they tried something other than the "press gas at three tenths of a second after the second yellow light" idea that Mario Kart popularized and everyone else copied.
But then you get into some truly unnecessary, and ultimately unfun, DS-specific elements that disrupt the flow of Diddy Kong Racing DS. Take, for example, the fact that each track has a "Touch Balloon" challenge that players are forced to play through in order to progress through the ranks. These levels are flat out bad and poorly developed -- essentially you're flying through each track in a first person perspective, popping balloons and collecting coins while zooming through the world. These levels have horrible touch-screen sensitivity that not only makes it clunky to rotate your view of the area, but it also makes the whole balloon-popping thing more wonky than it should be.
There are also some really bad Touch challenges in the boss levels that are also pretty terrible, but since you honestly don't have to play through them to progress through the Adventure Mode they don't kill the fun all that much. Imagine taking the Kirby Canvas Curse mechanic of guiding the character around with strokes of the pen. Now apply that to a racing game, and cripple the control and make it even harder to accelerate and move. That's what you get in Diddy Kong Racing DS' extra boss mode -- the payout is huge, but it's just so awful to play.
And someone really needs to tell Rare that microphone blowing is so 2005. It wasn't a whole lot of fun when developers did it in the Nintendo DS' early years, and it's still not fun now. But yet, we have some challenges that require you to drive around the environment blowing out torches, and building up the turbo boost in the hovercraft. Let's use the microphone for something other than making gamers lightheaded, guys.
Luckily, Diddy Kong Racing DS excels in extras and actually offers a mean set of items that really does encourage players to zoom through single player mode to unlock the lot. Yes, you'll have to work at opening up many of the different tracks and modes, but in some cases the effort's worth it since you won't be able to make them available in multiplayer modes unless they're unlocked. The Diddy Kong Racing cartridge clearly has one of the largest EEPROM saves of any Nintendo DS game: you can open up the ability to edit custom decals and billboards, you can record your voice for each of the different actions in the game, and you can even open up a track editor very close to the end of the adventure.
The real gem: online play. Along with some solid single-cartridge and multi-cartridge multiplayer support that offers networking with as many as eight players locally, the Rare team manages to squeeze in six player races over the internet via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection system. Diddy Kong Racing DS features a casual and functional lobby system that makes it easy to track friends who are online and ready to race, and the statistics tracking makes it simple to see how well you compare against other racers in past challenges. The online feature list comes just shy of what NST did in Metroid Prime Hunters last year, but Diddy Kong Racing DS comes in a close second.
The core game might be considered a port from the Nintendo 64, but honestly there probably isn't much still in the conversion. Voices have been rerecorded, and the graphics engine is completely native to the DS platform. Visually we've seen better out of the Nintendo DS system, and compared to Nintendo's own Mario Kart, Diddy Kong Racing doesn't even come close; the framerate's smooth but at 30 frames per second instead of Mario Kart's 60, which definitely affects any sense of speed the racing game could have. Environments and characters are nicely rendered, but again -- Mario Kart DS, a year-old product, trounces it in graphic appeal. To be fair, it's clear this game was Rare's first big project with the Nintendo DS, so we're hoping to see the teams squeeze a little more graphics juice out of it for its next run.
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