I recently quit my life for a week to play Diddy Kong Racing.
I know I set myself up for some amount of ridicule with this admission. Although it’s the sixth best-selling Nintendo 64 game of all time, even I can admit that many of its aesthetic choices haven’t exactly aged like a fine wine. To describe some of the character decisions as ‘whimsical’ might be giving too much credit; a full half of the playable characters were so memorable as to never appear in another game (Bumper the Badger, anyone?), and the blue elephant genie-helper named Taj has to be one of the strangest NPCs in Nintendo history. Most glaringly, the single-person gameplay doesn’t even make an attempt at describing a coherent plot; it’s not hard to fill in the blanks regarding that ominous pig-face statue you pan across in the opening moments, but you’d think Taj would at least throw you a bone amidst his cacophonous grunts of grandeur.
This being said, as a child, I thought Diddy Kong Racing 64 was a fantastic game, and I still do. I think it’s because it effectively harnesses some of the more timeless elements of video-gaming, while providing an array of subtle variations to keep the player engaged in ever-evolving ways. I’ve come to think that Diddy Kong Racing epitomizes an ethos of game-making that I think is important to acknowledge and praise in our current gaming culture.
In a sense, Diddy Kong Racing’s gameplay appeal can be traced back to the primordial ooze of video games — Asteroids, Pong, Donkey Kong — in that the act of playing the game is the game; your main motivation is not to uncover the next plot point, or to save the world (if those things exist in these games, it’s for the unabashed purpose of bookending or extending the gameplay; caring about these elements is unnecessary). The entire project of playing is centered on the gamer mastering the mechanics of the game to such a degree that they can complete the range of challenges the game presents. I find that the best games of this mold can have a timeless, universal appeal; instead of aiming to dazzle the gamer with beauty and ingenuity and variety, they simply hold a mirror up to the gamer and ask a simple question: “Let’s see what you got.”
So, yes, DKR is a kart game: You accelerate, you steer, you use wacky items, and you try to win races. But the one-player Adventure mode provides engrossing variation on this simple theme. It’s most obvious in that you must master the controls of a hovercraft and an airplane in addition to the kart, but most engaging is the variety of tasks it presents. In addition to the standard array of courses, there are also boss races, battle-style contests, tournament-style race sequences with point tallies, a beguiling doubling of each course in the form of a “Silver Coin Challenge,” and the fascinating challenge of finding a key hidden in some tucked-away corner in each of the four worlds. While many of these elements exist in pre-DKR kart games, the game in question assembles them into a more satisfying whole.
Playing the game through again, I found myself especially obsessed with the Silver Coin Challenge. It’s a simple conceit: To complete it you must collect eight silver coins scattered in often-inconvenient places throughout a course, while also winning the race. In practice, though, it’s a wrinkle that changes the entire way you play. It requires a heightened level of steering precision; foresight, in keeping track of coins you’ve missed and getting on the next lap; and even an element of exploration, in that some of the coins may lay off the beaten path. None of these things change the fact that you’re still playing a kart game. They just serve to bring you deeper and deeper into what it means to execute the simple mechanics at a very high level.
In my experience, there’s a sort of meditative bliss that can be achieved at this level of gameplay – where the self-consciousness of the fact you’re playing a game disappears, and a synthesis of hand-eye impulse and implemented strategy draw you completely into the act of play.
DRK is something of a perfect monument to this type of gameplay. Having more of a plot would be superfluous to achieving this focus; lusher course renderings would be pleasing to the eye, which turns you into an appreciator rather than a player; even the utter replacements of some characters would simply draw more focus to the gameplay itself, and less to a brand.
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot states that a poet must articulate and engage with the history – the “tradition” – of her form, and that truly inventive work is minted through engaging in fresh dialogues and reorderings with those ancient ideas and themes. Although the history of video games is a blink of the eye, comparatively, I believe this is a credo that our creators should be following as well. Diddy Kong Racing is a prime example of this being done right. And call me a simpleton, but I’ll probably be quitting my life for this game again, when enough years pass that it’s once more scrubbed from my memory.
About the Author:
Drew is the guy who comes over and demands you play Mario Tennis with him. He is also a playwright, couch-surfing traveler, and sometime Internet-writer for such conglomerates as MTV Networks and Village Voice Media.
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