Author’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2015 in celebration of the Month of May on another website. It has been published here for your viewing.
To anyone who is a native Hoosier, the Month of May is the best month of the year. With the 500 Festival and the Indianapolis 500, May has always been a big deal to the local community in Indianapolis and the surrounding areas. Gaming Crossroads is having a Month of May celebration by focusing on our memories of one special racing game. For the first time in Gaming Crossroads, I have some special guests contributing to the discussion.
While Mario Kart 64 was my multiplayer racing game back in the day, Diddy Kong Racing was my go-to single player racing game on the Nintendo 64. I remember getting Diddy Kong Racing as a birthday gift back in 1998. Today, I still have the same cartridge I got eons ago, and it still works. Diddy Kong Racing is both fairly and unfairly compared to Mario Kart 64. It was, for me, an enriching single player experience thanks to the Adventure Mode. Racing games usually focused more on multiplayer, not a single player story. Diddy Kong Racing was the opposite. Adventure Mode had worlds, hub areas to races, boss fights and trophy races. Playing single player was even required to unlock the multiplayer tracks and modes. After completing Adventure Mode once, Adventure Two was unlocked. This was a more difficult, mirrored version of Adventure Mode. One way that Diddy Kong Racing was ahead of Mario Kart at the time by including vehicle options. Besides cars, players could also use hovercrafts and planes. It took Mario Kart seven entries before they included flying and water racing mechanics to the series. Several tracks gave players the option to choose the vehicle they wanted, though some tracks only had one vehicle choice, such as the hovercraft being the only choice for water-filled tracks, as it would be impossible to use karts in such levels. As for the multiplayer, up to four players could race against each other in the tracks. There were also four battle arenas for up to four players to compete and win against each other. While it is not as memorable as Mario Kart 64’s battle mode, it was still a fun distraction.
Diddy Kong Racing was a game changer when it came to the item mechanics. In Mario Kart, racers would receive an item at random to use against their opponents. Diddy Kong Racing took out these randomized results with color-coordinated balloons. Red balloons contained missiles, blue balloons held speed boosts, green balloons had trap projectiles, yellow balloons were for shields and, finally, rainbow-colored balloons contained magnets. The balloon pickups were always in the same spot in every track, so there was strategy involved with the balloons and item mechanics. While you could pick up an item and use it immediately, this was not always the best strategy. By picking up balloons of the same color consecutively, the items could be upgraded into better versions. For example, running over one red balloon granted the player one missile. Running over a second red balloon turned it into a homing missile. Running over a third consecutive red balloon upgraded the homing missile to a barrage of 10 standard missiles. This forced players to strategically pick up items and use them to their advantage over the competition. Do I use the item immediately or upgrade it to a more powerful item in a less favorable situation?
Whether or not Diddy Kong Racing is a “clone” to Mario Kart 64 is a debate I will leave to everyone else to draw their own conclusion. Personally, I don’t consider it one, but, rather, as a kart racer that successfully expanded the Mario Kart formula and added its own features to stand out. Plus, it is one of the few racing games to successfully give us a worthwhile single player mode.
I’d like to talk about a racing game near and dear to my heart. It’s actually the first racing game I ever played. Well… no, that was Super Mario Kart. That is, it was my first racing game that didn’t involve land-based vehicles. No… that was Wave Race 64. Well, OK, my first snowboarding game? Ugh! No, that was Snowboard Kids 1. OK, fine. Atlus’s Snowboard Kids 2 may not have broken a lot of new ground with its 1999 release on Nintendo 64, but what it lacked in innovative features, it made up for in streamlining and simplifying the mechanics of the original Snowboard Kids, making it an overall better experience for the effort.
Anyone who has played a snowboarding game in the past, be it 1080°Snowboarding or the more recent SSX games, knows that a major component of these games is the ability to perform a variety of stunts in order to increase your score or receive other rewards. For those who have never played Snowboard Kids before, it very much follows the old Mario Kart formula of racing to the finish, but also utilizing a variety of offensive and defensive items to help get an edge over other racers. These could be found in red and blue item boxes that peppered each course that players would race through. Interestingly, rather than simply receiving an item after going through a box, players would actually have to pay for these items with coins that could either be found along the course or by earning them by performing stunts. No coins meant no items when a player would hit one of these boxes (though that’s still better than simply slamming into them like you would in the original game).
What made Snowboard Kids 2 so much more accessible than its predecessor was the way it handled these stunts. Whereas SBK1 had individualized (and often difficult-to-perform) moves for each character, the sequel simply gave everyone standard flips, spins and board grabs. The difference is that players would be able to perform these stunts endlessly by continuously pushing the A button and a direction as long as they were still in the air. It may initially seem like a cop-out to avoid having to animated different stunts, but, for young, middle school-aged me, it was a godsend to finally be able to do some sweet stunts, regardless of the character I was using.
With this not insignificant issue dealt with, it became much easier to concentrate on the racing and strategic competition of the game. While players still had access to more traditional items like slap gloves that would home in on opponents and knock them down, there were plenty of other tools that would confound and infuriate. Key among these were snowballs that turned you into a snowman for a short time, preventing you from steering; a parachute that shot you into the air and forced you to wait till you floated back to earth; and an ice ball that would simply freeze you in your tracks. Oh! And let’s not forget the game’s “Blue Shell,” the ability to shoot out frying pans that would instantly flatten all opponents. Needless to say, competition could get pretty cutthroat, so knowing when best to use these different attack and defensive items was just as important as racing well. And, though the game doesn’t feature a huge number of tracks — only nine total in the main story mode — it makes up for it with a small handful of boss battles. Yes, boss battles in a racing game. These sections are less races and more about damaging the giant enemy until it’s defeated, but it was still a fun diversion and a great way to break up the action.
And, boy! If Snowboard Kids 2 didn’t have some of the best music to come out of the generation:
So, yes, Atlus was charming me with memorable games long before I ever heard of Shin Megami Tensei or the Persona series. Unfortunately, I was apparently the only one. After this 1999 title, the series didn’t see another entry until 2006 with the release of SBK: Snowboard Kids on the DS — a game that I didn’t even know existed till I started researching for this article. Since then, though, it appears that the series is done, as it’s now been nearly 10 years without a new game. However, with a cast of cute, individualized characters, diverse tracks, an interesting arsenal of items and a fantastic soundtrack, Snowboard Kids 2 is still a great game and a real breath of fresh air for anyone looking for something a bit more unique than the usual kart racers of the era.
I remember when the Wii was the most exciting thing I ever heard of. Back in 2006, I wanted to try every game that was announced for the thing. I’d heard Monster Games’ Excite Truck was actually pretty unique, and, since it was a motion-controlled racing game, I put it on my “I Will Eventually Get” list. And I did… last month, when I found out copies were going for $2.99.
But this isn’t about Excite Truck. It’s about the sequel that Monster Games developed three years later: ExciteBots. I was hyped for it when I saw the coverage in Nintendo Power. This was a game I was most certainly going to get. Robots doing crazy tricks while racing at high speed? That was exactly the type of thing I was looking for, since I felt like an eight-year-old in an 18-year-old’s body (still am, to some degree). And… I completely forgot about it.
Well, not entirely. I’d see a copy every now and then, and think, “Man, I really need to get that someday.” It wasn’t until I found a used copy for $1.99 that I finally decided to pick it up. Problem is, I’m not 18 anymore. I have a full-time job, a quickly-approaching wedding and a hobbyist game journalism profession to juggle. Plus, while my love of all things geeky hasn’t worn off, the allure of motion controls, especially for racing games, has long since been left at the wayside. Would I still get the same experience I was expecting when I was younger? Would it even be possible?
Those were the questions that I asked as I popped in this long-awaited experience. I think what shocked me most was how much I’d changed. I was holding my Wii Remote horizontally, and I kept hitting the control pad to try to steer. I remember in my early time with the Wii, I was trying out the motion controls and getting invested in them. Now, apparently, I’d rather hit a button.
Also, some of the actions aren’t as intuitive as I’d like. Tricks, for example, require you to boost up a ramp, do a jump, hold Up on the control pad, then tilt the Wii Remote to the side. That’s hard to remember when going so fast. But, in order to get the best rank, you’ll need to do tricks to rack up points. Basically, it just takes some getting used to, but I don’t have the time anymore to get good at it.
Honestly, I’ve enjoyed my time with ExciteBots, but I can’t help but wonder what my enjoyment might have been if I’d gotten it back when I first heard about it and was still excited to see what motion controls could do. Not that I hate motion controls now, but I don’t have the same excitement about their possibilities that I used to. I’m not the same person I was, so I guess it’s time to move on to things I’ll enjoy more now.
We invite you to share your own memories of your favorite racing video game to celebrate the Month of May. What are some of your personal memories with your favorite racing games? Were there any memorable moments with friends? With family? Why has your favorite racing game stood out from the rest?