Did any of the Playtonic people work on Diddy Kong Racing? I wonder what they would think of my criticisms.
I'd have to give it to Mario Kart 64. Now before we get started, I know that after reading this, a lot of you are going to be tempted to counter with all the ways that Diddy Kong Racing outdoes Mario Kart 64 and to catalog all of Mario Kart 64's flaws. This essay is not a whitewashing of the problems in Mario Kart 64. Mario Kart 64 is far from perfect, and I acknowledge that Diddy Kong Racing is better than Mario Kart 64 in a lot of ways. But I still feel like despite all that, Mario Kart 64 is the better game. In fact, I just played them both side by side and back-to-back and then made a list of all the superiorities and inferiorities between them and all the things that are wrong with them. Anyway, here we go:
1. The game is somewhat slower than MK64's 50cc. I feel like every racing game should make you feel like you're going fast just like how Sonic needs to be fast; it needs to be fun and awesome and make you feel like you're racing in the Indy 500. MK64 does a much better job of capturing the feeling of moving at high speeds. It also accomplishes this by having longer courses than DKR, making you feel like you're traveling a great distance in a short time. Even the 50cc manages to make me feel like I'm going fast. That game really seemed like it was trying to emulate the feeling and coolness of what it would be like to race in NASCAR. The large tracks also add to the immersion because they make you feel like you're in a gigantic world, which I feel is just a bit greater than how DKR's smaller tracks were more lively worlds.
2. I hate the controls. DKR controls badly. Some people criticize MK64 for having poor controls, but most never criticize DKR for having poor controls when it controls much worse than MK64. Why does it control worse than MK64? Because DKR does this thing that Double Dash does that I hate where when you try to turn, you face the direction you want to go, but the kart itself moves in a C motion in the opposite direction, and then it goes the in the direction you want it to go (and when you drift, it's even worse). I loathe this. It makes me go around and miss almost everything I try to get and sometimes hit the sides of entrances. I HATE IT! You'll see a zipper that's very slightly to your left, and you hit left on the control stick, and you swing wide to the right away from the zipper, missing it completely. The only way to get what you want to get is to begin turning way beforehand, but that's unintuitive and less convenient. Everyone is instinctively just going to move the control stick in the direction of the thing they want to get right when they get to it. Mario Kart 64 lets you do that. In Mario Kart 64, you push the control stick in a direction, and you go in that direction. And since the Diddy Kong Racing controls aren't intuitive, that means that I constantly have to be conscious of my button inputs at all times. That means that I have to actually experiment with and memorize the physics of the game and always be aware of them to plan around them. That breaks immersion, and it's also mentally tiring, and I can't keep it up the entire race, and when I get sucked into the moment, sometimes I'll forget to do it and play it like one of the Mario Kart games and mess up. You can't play this like it's Mario Kart 64. I've actually learned to get what I want by turning away from it and avoid things by turning towards them. What sense does that make? It makes the game harder than it should be because the challenge is coming from the inconvenient controls instead of from the opponents matching my skill and forcing me to use skill and wits. But at least it allows you to dodge things, which is cool.
Another thing wrong with the controls that Mario Kart 64 got right is the lack of zero turning. In Mario Kart 64, if you hit both the acceleration and brake at the same time, you could stop and turn in place, so if you ever got turned 90° and hit a wall, you could just hold A&B at the same time, turn, and go right back on track. It takes a second. Diddy Kong Racing doesn't let you do this. If you hold A&B you still go forward but slower than if you weren't holding B. The tracks in Diddy Kong Racing tend to have dead end nooks and crannies that you can get stuck in, so have the karts control this way makes righting yourself a tedious chore and so much worse than it is in Mario Kart 64. Why did they design it like that? It's not intuitive. It's not precise. It's more inconvenient. No one's ever going to use it in a race because it slows you down. It has no use in the game whatsoever. What was the point of making it like that? Jungle Falls has this tunnel after the bridge where the tunnel entrance sticks a out few feet from the wall, leaving 2 little alleyways on either side of it. I ran into one of those alleyways, and I drove back out and tried to turn into the entrance, and the forward movement and away-from-where-you're-trying-to-go turning made me drive passed the tunnel and into the other alleyway on the other side of it. It took me forever to get into that tunnel, and by then, I had no hope of winning the race. In order to get better turns, you have to experiment with the controls to find out that you can hold A, B, and R to get something near a zero turn (but still not as good as MK64) or let go of A and then hit B and/or R to get a better turn. But most people aren't going to experiment with the physics and controls; they're going to do the obvious thing, and when that doesn't work, they're going to keep doing it and live with the results. The Mario Kart 64 karts are faster and control better than the hovercraft and plane and thus, are more fun to use, but those 2 vehicles are still fun to use, and I love that they put in new ways to play the game.
I could never beat this game as a child, and now I understand why: because of how awkward and unintuitive the controls are.
3. The items are definitely a weak point as they are inferior to MK64's items. MK64 had iconic and great items like the green shell, the red shell, triple green shells, triple red shells, the blue shell, the lightning bolt, the starman, the boo, the banana, the banana bunch, the mushroom, triple mushrooms, the super mushroom, and the fake item box. Diddy Kong racing only has 5, and all of them are inferior: the missile, the boost, the oil slick, the shield, and the magnet. The Mario Kart 64 items are based on an existing and fantastic series, making them better; the Diddy Kong racing items are original, making them seem off-brand. This wouldn't be so bad if they were better and some of them weren't inferior versions of MK64 items.
MK64 has the green shell, which is a game changer, and a thing that sets it above not just DKR, but all non-Mario racers. Why? Because of its ability to ricochet. This changes everything. The green shell's ricochet makes the gameplay so much more exciting and fun, adding a chaotic element, and when you're near one that's bouncing around, you feel fear, and that's immersion. DKR's missile doesn't ricochet, so it hits a wall and that's it. Gone, making it not nearly as good as the green shell and drastically hurting the game. Not only that, but you can't shoot it backwards, hold it behind you as a shield, or hold it behind you and touch it to people riding your bumper, something I found myself doing multiple times a race in Mario Kart 64 (because of the rubber banding). This makes it useless when you're in first place and have no one in front of you, so if you're way better than the other racers, meaning that you spend the majority of the race in first, get ready to spend some of the race just driving forward. With the equivalent of nothing. Just driving forward. It also has the problem of going through the air instead of traveling along the ground, so if you're on an incline facing up, it'll fly into the sky. It would've been nice if you could catch people in the explosion. The missiles can't even be used to destroy the green balloon items. Because of its nature (being a forward shooting projectile), you can't help but compare the two see it as an off-brand, inferior green shell. The same thing goes for the boost, the oil slick, and the shield. And then you have the triple shells. I don't think I need to explain how awesome those are.
Let's look at the homing missile. It is true that the red shell as it exists in MK64 is near-worthless. But you can't hold it behind you as a shield, or hold it behind you and touch it to people riding your bumper, making it worthless in first place.
The boost is just a worse mushroom. Why? Because using it off-road still slows you down, and even go slower than driving normally on-road. MK64's mushrooms are way more fun to use because going off-road with them doesn't slow you down, and you can take shortcuts you could before. Diddy Kong Racing has almost none of those. Even the level 3 boost off-road is still slower than driving normally on-road.
The oil slick just copies off the banana, which wouldn't be so bad if it were as good as it. You can't throw it forward, shoot it backwards, hold it behind you as a shield, or hold it behind you and touch it to people riding your bumper. Can the oil slick even stop projectiles? It is one of the more useful items in the game, though, at least in comparison to all the others. And then you have the banana bunch. I don't think I need to explain how awesome that is.
The shield isn't as good as the starman. The starman makes you go faster, makes you not slow down when you go off-road, lets you brutalize people (which is very satisfying), has cool theme music that strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies, makes you look like an invincible god, AND protects you from items. While the shield does let you touch people to spin them out, it barely does even does that. You would think that the level 2 & 3 shields would do worse to them, but they don't. It's anticlimactic and unsatisfying, and the lack of a speed increase, poor controls, and other players' driving make it very hard to pull off. It's almost useless in first place. The shield can't even hurt other players in battle mode.
And then we get to the magnet, the one original item of the game. I like this idea; it's a creative one. Too bad it's useless in first place.
Now I know what you're thinking: if you don't like those items when you're in first place, why don't you just not get them? Because of the way that the game handles items; instead of them always being randomized, they put specific items in specific places, so you can pick and choose what items you get. This is flawed because when you're racing, you always want to take the most efficient path possible, the shortest distance between 2 points. This often leads you through items you don't want and forces you to forgo ones you do. If you're in first, and the shortest distance between 2 points leads you through a red balloon (which is worthless to you), and there are green balloons next to it, which would would be useful for fending off the people behind you, you have to go out of your way to get them and slightly set yourself back. The only balloons you'll ever want to go out of your way for are the blue ones.
Which brings me to the way the game does the items. I think it's interesting, being able to choose and upgrade your items. It leads to a new way of playing the game. But I don't think it's as good as Mario Kart 64's way of doing items. Having the items always be randomized is more fun, and it simplifies things. When you hit an item box, you hear that iconic jingle, and getting an item feels like a cool mini game in and of itself. And the key to replayability is variation, having the game be different each time you play it. Having the same items always be in the same places helps make every race the same.
But like I said, having the same items set about the stage in the same place every time isn't bad; it's a different kind of game. I get what they were going for, which is strategy and choice, risk and reward; I just don't think it's as good as the Mario Kart way of doing things, but still good. And these "flaws" I've brought up aren't problems that can be "fixed" as they are what makes the system what it is in the first place. That being said, I don't know if I'd want it to be changed to be more Mario-Kart-like. At least this way, it really does feel like a new thing.
On a side note, sometimes the balloon placement is counterproductive. One of the motifs of this game is upgrading items, right? Well, sometimes you'll be trying to upgrade a specific item, and then you'll come to a row of balloons that has none of the item you want, and sometimes, you'll have to go around them (and set yourself back), and sometimes, you can't go around them; you have to go through them, but they're spaced so close together, you'll most likely touch one, or touching one is unavoidable. Placing the balloons this way interferes with that whole gimmick of patience and combining items and what the game designers were even going for in the first place.
So yeah, the items are definitely Diddy Kong Racing's weak link. 4 of the 5 items in this game have way cooler versions in MK64, which also has several other items that are fantastic. The items in this game are a joy and make the game so much more fun, especially the battle mode. A lot of them have several uses, and all of them are always useful, and that's how you judge bad item design, by how often an item is useless, by how often it gives you nothing to do.
But maybe this was intentional. Maybe they purposely made the items lame because they wanted the game to be focused on the racing. Maybe they couldn't think of anything. Or maybe they just wanted the game to be different than Mario Kart 64.
4. There are a lot of spots in the tracks where you can get caught on something, and it's a tedious chore to get uncaught and back on track. I don't recall this ever happening in MK64.
5. MK64 has much better voice acting (except Peach).
6. In MK64, they player character cheers when someone runs into their banana or otherwise gets hit by one of their items, letting you know you made contact. DKR does not do this. The only way to know if someone ran into one of your green balloon items is to do a lap to get back where you dropped it and see if the item is still there.
7. MK64's multiplayer is better than DKR's battle mode (see #2&3), the banana and collecting game isn't as good as for the same reasons and also because collecting bananas isn't as exciting and engaging as MK64's multiplayer, and the egg collecting game isn't as good for the same reasons that the banana collecting game isn't as good and because you frequently have to stop and turn around slowly because that's how you have to do it if you want to turn without really moving forward because of the way the planes control, and stopping to turn around slowly isn't as exciting as MK64's multiplayer. But I appreciate the variety and the fact that they tried to include something differently.
8. You can't hop in the karts. In Mario Kart, you can hop in the karts. Since I'm used to that, not being able to do it here is slightly disorienting.
9. You can't do mini-turbos.
10. You can't draft.
11. The credits sequence isn't as good, and it just reuses another song from earlier in the game. MK64's is better because it has a better, ORIGINAL song that's emotional.
12. The tracks aren't as good as MK64's. Though due in part to their smaller size and the fact that the high speed makes the tracks feel like the Indy 500, making them way cooler, the biggest reason why the tracks aren't as good is because none of them stick out. This is because they grouped them together into groups of 4 and made every track in that group share a theme, making them feel samey. All the tracks in MK64 are different; yeah, there are 3 circuits and 2 snow tracks, but the other 11 are all different from everything else, so I'll let that slide. I noticed that there are no "fan favorite" or iconic tracks among fans of this game, but in MK64, you have Luigi Raceway, Toad's Turnpike, Wario Stadium, Royal Raceway, and Rainbow Road, and almost every other track is beloved by the fans. Diddy Kong Racing, however, has no track that's known among the fans as "the Diddy Kong Racing track". You can only ever think of them all as a group. Making sure that they were all part of theme worlds made sure that none of them will ever reach for the stars. I think this is good as an adventure game, but not so much as a racing game. In fact, I almost want to say that Diddy Kong Racing is more of an adventure game than it is a racing game. In Mario Kart 64, it's like they came up with a bunch of individual track ideas and stung them together into the different cups. But with Diddy Kong Racing, it's the opposite; it's like they wanted to make an adventure game with different worlds, and then decided that you should race on them, and then decided that you should be able to race on them against other people; the multiplayer aspect almost seems like an afterthought, or at least like it was a lower priority. But again, these aren't really problems that can be fixed without changing what the game itself is and erasing the developers' vision, and the whole thing offers something different that's great in its own way, and I'm glad we got it; it'd be a shame if it never existed. I just feel like that vision ultimately is not as good as the Mario Kart 64 vision.
1-3 are what really hold Diddy Kong Racing back for me. Everyone always touts that you have 3 different ways to experience the game vs Mario Kart 64's only 1 way to play the game, and while they are greater cumulatively, none of them are as good individually, and that's where Mario Kart 64 wins. The thing that you are always doing is the most important thing. That thing in Mario Kart 64 (the driving itself) is greater than every individual mode of play in Diddy Kong Racing. They may be greater when adding them all together, but that doesn't matter because you can only do 1 at a time.
Judging which game is better is difficult because the result changes depending on what criteria you use. Diddy Kong Racing is better than Mario Kart 64 in almost every way, therefore, it is technically the better game because it is a better game as a whole, but while it might have a great adventure mode, more polish, a way better soundtrack, way better graphics, more content, and more to do, and while all of this might merge together into great work of art, and I can see why that speaks to people, the few ways that Mario Kart 64 are better are more important.