Laying to Rest the Ghost of Diddy Kong
Do you have a game you’ve never completed? Let me be more specific. I don’t mean a backlog; every gamer has a backlog. Last year alone I bought three physical and a bunch of digital Switch games, all of them either barely attempted or never played at all.
No, I’m talking about a game that you have (or have had) in your collection that you always wanted to complete. A game you like, maybe even love, but for some reason or other never got around to completing?
Over the years I’ve revisited most of the games of my youth that had outstripped my skills and lateral thinking at the time. I’ve revisited Spenser Mansion and helped the S.T.A.R.S. Alpha Team destroy the T-virus. I’ve returned to a Super Nintendo era Hyrule, defeated the wizard Agahnim and been reunited with an uncle I had to leave for dead in the sewers of a castle. I’ve even gone back to take on the Neo Zeed as Joe Musashi and finally seen the good ending in The Revenge of Shinobi.
Until now one game ending has always eluded me: Diddy Kong Racing.
Back in the days of the Nintendo 64, British game studio Rare could do no wrong. They produced hit after hit for the console including Banjo Kazooie, Conkers Bad Fur Day, Goldeneye, and of course Diddy Kong Racing.
Diddy Kong was a kart racer that was a rival to Nintendo’s own Mario Kart 64 and while they shared many of the same characteristics (cute characters, colourful tracks, weapons picked up from item boxes) Rare’s single-player experience was superior in my eyes. Adventure mode wasn’t the usual 4 races and win a cup fare, it was a full-blown adventure where races branched off a single hub area, similar in design to Peach’s castle in Mario 64. You drive around the hub island unlocking new areas by collecting a required amount of balloons, which are awarded for winning races and defeating the end-of-level boss race for each area. It’s a clever level progression system that has you winning races to open up new areas.
The character selection is standard kart racing fare with small faster characters that are light and easy to knock off track, heavy characters that are strong but slow to accelerate, and balanced ones in between. I favoured Tiptup, a small light turtle similar in handling to Toad from Mario Kart.
On the track the main difference is that you don’t just race in karts, there are also flying stages that require you to pilot a plane, and water-based stages where you have a hovercraft. Some races are a standard race to the finish, others have you collecting silver coins on your way to finishing first. Once you’ve battled through all stages you face off against the evil Wizig for a chance to bring peace back to your island.
The game was released in November 1997 and was well-received, selling 4.8 million copies, and has a Metacritic score of 88. I picked up a copy sometime in 1998 and enjoyed the game until my house was burgled and my N64 and games were stolen later that year. The copy was replaced and I started it again, getting around halfway through before getting stuck and giving up.
Over the years I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve started a new file and tried again. Copies were sold and re-bought, the Nintendo DS re-release of 2007 was tried, but still, the end credits eluded me.
In the notes app of my phone, I keep a list of all the games I’ve ever completed (I’m not really sure why), and while looking through it late last year I started thinking about the games I couldn’t finish at the time. These are the games I’ve had to go back to with more skill, patience (and YouTube tutorials) to complete in later life. Diddy Kong’s omission stood out like a sore thumb.
Armed with the Chromebook we purchased last year for my daughter’s homeschooling, a PS3 joypad, and Mupen 64 from the Play Store, I tracked down a copy of the game and started another playthrough. For legal reasons I’d like to state I do own a copy of the original cart, but not a working N64 to play it on.
Muscle memory intact, I breezed through the early stages, even managing to win the first Wizpig race without too many restarts. I kept plugging away at the game over the course of a couple of weeks until I arrived at the final showdown, the last race with Wizpig.
This is where the story is supposed to read that I defeated my nemesis with ease and that 22 years of toil and hardships had been forgotten. But the truth is, it was so hard! I played that last race over and over again for days. Start the race, trail so far behind I can’t catch up, restart. Get slightly ahead and make a mistake, restart. Be miles in the lead and get hit by an asteroid, restart.
Eventually, I gave in and accepted my mere mortal skills weren’t enough and used save states. I saved the game when I got a good lead and if I messed up restarted it from that point. In fairness to me, I only used 3 across the final race and I finally defeated him and brought peace back to the colourful cartoon island.
It’s quite a bittersweet experience to finally complete a game you’ve been playing for over half of your lifetime. On one hand, I was happy to have finally beaten the game, but on the other, it’s sad to see the last stronghold of your youth crumble before you. There are no more. No more games of my youth to be completed, no more 90’s villains to defeat, no more blocky low-res lands to save.
I guess I game in the present now; where’s that backlog?
Thanks for reading.