Diddy Kong Racing seems to be the consensus favorite among the first batch of fully-3D kart racers from the 64-bit era. And there's plenty of valid reasons why; it was the best-looking of the bunch, had a top-notch soundtrack, and had the most expansive single-player mode. After replaying it for review purposes, however, I can't say I'm in love with it, and I think I may even have to give Mario Kart 64 the small preferential nod. While the multiplayer is as good or better, the vaunted single-player mode is supposed to be what really sets this game apart, and there I found that the robotically perfect CPU combined with track layout that is frankly outright cunty at times really bogs it down once you get past the opening set of levels. I wonder if the favoritism for this one isn't owed to a bunch of kids who got it for Christmas
back in 1997 and are running off of fond nostalgic memories, not having actually played it again in a long time.
Rare basically cloned the Mario Kart formula here, using a more lackluster roster of their own characters (including a REALLY toned-down Conker). They sought to elevate the game above being a simple me-too clone with two developments, however; the addition of planes and hovercrafts to the normal kart racing mix, and also by adapting the "hub world collect-a-thon" formula from their N64 platformers.
The planes are fun, at least when it comes to racing. You need to control the plane to get to the areas of the hub world beyond the first, however, and in that setting it's pretty painful to manuever. The hoverboats have poor handling and those races really aren't much fun. Though to the game's credit, it has races that mix two or even three different vehicle types, something not seen again until the much more recent Sonic and Sega Transformed.
The single-player experience is pretty fun for the first set of levels, capped by a neat "boss battle" in which you take on a giant triceratops. From there, however, you're forced to throw yourself either at a series of tedious ice-track levels, or the tropical levels which are loaded with wonky hovercraft control. The "hub world" structure does allow you some freedom to skip over these levels so long as you've collected enough balloons (mostly coming from placing first in races, but a handful are also hidden around the hub), but only temporarily. To unlock the final two sets of levels, you have to beat each world's bosses, and to take on the bosses you have to finish first in every race in that world. You can put crappy tracks off for a little while and do other stuff, but eventually you'll have to place first in all of them.
Aside from these things, I also really don't like the way the game handles collisions; even incidental contact with any sort of wall or CPU racer slows you down way too much. This is much less of an issue in multiplayer, when everyone else you're racing will be subject to the same limitation, but against Perfect Robo-Computer who never hits anything it makes some of the later single-player tracks just far too frustrating to complete.
To end on a positive note, the "capture the eggs" multiplayer battle mode is better than most of the modes that the Mario Kart series would come up with for the rest of its life up to the present. I'm not convinced it's actually a better game overall than MK 64 when the big new single-player feature is throttled by over-difficulty and only one of the new vehicle types is actually any fun to use, though. Worth a pickup for established hardcore racing fans just because it's so rich in features it's guaranteed to have *something* you'll enjoy, but I wouldn't be in any hurry to replace a party copy of MK 64 with this for entertaining casual players.
Diddy Kong is what's hot in the streets