Today is, of course, the day of the Indianapolis 500. The race should be well under way by the time that I finish this post.
I’ve gone to a few race day parties with family and friends over the years, but I don’t really care about the race. More generally, I’ve never had much interest in any sort of professional sporting event–which makes me a bit of an outlier in Indiana, home of so many very vocal and proud fans of various professional and amateur sports (especially basketball, football, and auto racing).
I might not care much about the race itself, but it offers a convenient opportunity to reflect on racing games I’ve especially enjoyed. I’ve never been much into serious racing simulator games, although my wife and I had a lot of fun playing the racing simulators at last year’s Gen Con.
Honestly, the racing games I’ve enjoyed a lot have been the more cartoony party games. Therefore, Nintendo consoles have typically been the media through which I’ve played the most racing games. The N64 era was a high point for me, with titles like Mario Kart 64, Wipeout 64, Cruis’n USA, and Wave Race 64. But my favorites from that era–and games that I still remember fondly–were Diddy Kong Racing and Star Wars Episode I Racer.
Episode I Racer is probably not a surprise if you know much about me. It’s a Star Wars game that came out in my childhood; of course I would love it. When I watch The Phantom Menace as an adult, the film’s racing scenes feel like a gratuitous action sequence that disrupts the movie with fairly low-stakes content (no matter how much Qui-Gon bets on it). But as a kid, the race was my favorite part of the film. I accumulated a lot of the Micro Machines podracers, and I would simulate little races through the living room, looping into the kitchen, and down the hall back to the start. And as I have previously written, the learning of peripheral lore was one of the earliest things that really drew me into Star Wars, and the racing scene introduced me to so many quirky racing pods and so many exotic alien drivers packed with personality even in their short cameo appearances. So when Episode I Racer came out, it was a game that already strongly appealed to me.
The surprising thing, though, is that Episode I Racer is actually a decent racing game. There were so many varied courses, and it was fun to race through the vast majority of them. You gradually unlocked different racers with different pods; each racer/pod had different characteristics with their own strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, there was a small degree of customization, as you could swap out key components in your ride to improve (or potentially worsen) its performance, purchasing parts from Watto’s junkyard with your winnings from races. Even though the tracks were fairly linear, the environments varied wildly; some races were on the deserts of Tatooine or the toxic wastes of Malastare or through stormy jungles or barren and exposed asteroids or through tunnels deep underwater. The vehicles controlled pretty well, and you had to balance maneuverability versus useful boosts; if you extended boosts too long, an engine could overheat, and then you would lose valuable time with repairs. There was a great sense of tension and speed. I revisited the game some time in college, and it held up well, though I haven’t played it since then.
Something else that stands out to me is how the game used authentic Star Wars characters and environments and built an authentic tone, yet did not care at all about being “canon.” As a kid, this was unremarkable: it was a fun game, a sandbox to play out Star Wars racing fantasies. But while I’ve only been a peripheral member of Star Wars fandom, I’ve been on that periphery for a relatively long time, and I’ve seen how intensely many fans have worried about whether something is or is not “canon.” Especially with the canon reboot (and apparent worry from some fans about whether or not “Legends” branded content is somehow devalued as a result) and with new stories that play in a gray, canon-lite area, it’s interesting to see how nearly a decade ago a game came out with such little disregard for the whole matter. It wasn’t that there were obvious continuity errors or anything like that; where the story fit into the larger lore was irrelevant. Here, Anakin Skywalker could and did participate in races on various planets, not simply stuck on Tatooine, apparently not just a slave. The characters and settings were lifted into a fun experience that didn’t worry about drawing larger connections, and the game was better for it.
Diddy Kong Racing was another racing game that was more fun than it had any right to be. I’ve never played a Rare game that I didn’t like, though, and the same level of sheer fun and attention to detail Rare invested in its other games is on display here. It’s easy to pass Diddy Kong Racing off as a Mario Kart clone, but it’s way more than that. While I know there are tournaments for more recent Mario Kart games, the series is known for its randomness, for the ability of the guy in last place to get an item to upset everything and come back to first. It’s a fun party game but not necessarily a good test of skill.
Diddy Kong Racing demanded more. There were three different vehicles (car/kart, hovercraft, or plane), and there were eight characters to choose from that fell across three distinctive weight classes (heavy, medium, or light). Each vehicle and character handled differently, and some weight classes fared better at certain vehicles over others. To get and keep the lead, you had to become a master of timing and precision controls, figuring out when best to hit the gas at the start of the race to get an early boost, how to take a corner or a boost pad, finding and utilizing shortcuts (which often were accompanied with some degree of risk), and optimizing the use of items. Items were limited to basically three forms–missiles, mines, or boosts. However, these items, collected from balloons, were not random, and they could be powered up twice over. Figuring out where balloons with certain items were set on the tracks, and figuring out when a race called for a quick use of an item or hoarding for a later power-up, became important. On top of all that, the game had different environments that produced different operating conditions for vehicles.
Once you mastered a set of courses, new challenges would manifest–for instance, after beating a region and its local boss for the first time, you had to play through the courses again, this time collecting all silver coins in a level while still finishing in first place. And after finishing a region, you could then take part in the tournament race through the courses, attempting to place high enough in most of the back-to-back races to win.
Not only was the racing quite fun and potentially competitive, but the game was more than just a racing game. It had a whimsical and goofy story of sci-fi magic; Timber the Tiger’s island home was invaded by an evil space pig, and Timber recruited his animal friends (including Diddy Kong) to defeat this Wizpig in a series of races with the aid of a blue elephant genie. As with many Rare Nintendo games, Diddy Kong Racing was bursting with color, personality, and cutesy fun. And outside of the races, there were special battle challenge modes–and a whole open world island hub to explore, with many collectibles and some hidden characters to unlock!
The absolutely lovely and cheery game soundtrack certainly helped too.
I think this game is still an absolute blast to play, but I’ve also learned that it’s hard to get new players interested. The absolutely wretched N64 controller certainly doesn’t help. Most of these controllers don’t seem to have held up well over the years, and the analog stick sensitivity often seems to be way out of calibration, which is a major detriment for a game requiring such precise control inputs. But that complaint is almost overshadowed by just how bad the N64 controller design was; with the ease of use of modern game controllers, it can be difficult to adapt to the retro device. On top of that, the game does have a steep learning curve (especially given that it’s a kids’ game), making it frustrating for the new player to enjoy even a casual race.
Probably the best way to take in Diddy Kong Racing now, if you have no past experience, is to play the solo adventure mode, at least through the first dinosaur-themed zone, before you take on any human opponents.
If you’d like to do something racing-themed for race day (besides, or in addition to, watching or listening to the race itself), consider pulling out an old N64, inviting some friends over, and giving one of these older games a try!