With the imminent release of Mario Kart 8 (I’ve got my Mario-themed Wii U pre-ordered and everything!), I thought it appropriate to revisit two classics of the kart racing genre: Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing. Released within a year of each other (MK64 was first), these two racers defined the Nintendo 64 party experience–but only one series went on to produce sequels while the other died after one game.
Many others have already voiced their opinions over the past 17 years (has it been that long?) about which game is better: ultimately it comes down to personal preference. When examining these games, I’ll incorporate both my experience as an 11-year-old and now as a 28-year-old playing with these games.
Without further ado, let’s get down to the merits of each game!
Kart racing has always been distinguished from more realistic racing games, in my mind, by their characters. In a realistic racing game, like Cruis’n USA or Need for Speed, the draw isn’t really the character you race as: many of these games don’t even give you a unique driver. Instead, the appeal is to race real-world cars, cars likely too expensive for most people to afford.
Kart racing, though, is different. Part of the fun is playing as cartoony characters from beloved games: nobody really appreciates kart racing games for the awesome kart design.
Let’s start with MK64. While later MKs would boast much larger driver rosters, MK64 only had a humble 8 characters, all standard Mario characters. Some characters, like Toad, Peach, Bowser, and Wario, hadn’t appeared in too many playable games before this point, so playing as some of these characters was quite special. The roster was decent, but honestly, I avoided Mario and Luigi whenever I could (and have since in all successive MK games): I’ve played as these two plumber brothers in other games for more hours than I can to remember.
DKR initially provides the player with 8 characters, just like MK64, though the game also features 2 unlockable characters, which gives DKR a slight edge over MK64. The characters in DKR, however, just aren’t as interesting. Rare was trying to establish an identity with DKR, so many of the characters come from Rare games. In addition to Diddy Kong, we had Banjo, Tiptup, and Conker, all characters we’d see in other Rare games. Krunch was a baddie from the Donkey Kong Country series, but really, who wants to play as a kremling? It’d be like if MK64 featured a goomba instead of Bowser. King K. Rool, on the other hand, that would’ve been a better choice.
The other characters in DKR have no established personality outside of the game. Bumper the badger, Timber the tiger, Pipsy the mouse, Drumstick the rooster, and T.T. the clock…I always found it hard to get invested in these characters. I know next to nothing about any of them. The roster would’ve been much stronger if they had filled it with unique Rare characters, such as other characters from the DKC series (like my girl Dixie!), any of the Battletoads, or B. Orchid from the Killer Instinct series (that last one may be a joke).
As crucial as the characters are, the tracks are more important. We come to these games to race! MK64 features 16 tracks whereas DKR features 20 (in addition to 6 boss tracks only available in single player). While DKR might have more tracks, MK64 has more variety. Most tracks have a unique theme, something DKR has less of. In MK64 we visit a dairy ranch, a monster truck stadium, a castle, a jungle, a turnpike, a desert, a chocolate mountain, and even a rainbow in space. DKR, by contrast, only has five unique themes: dinosaur, winter, water, black forest, and space: four tracks for each theme. So if you are looking for diversity in backgrounds, go to MK64. But if you are looking for variations on a theme, try DKR.
But these two games should be compared on more than just the number of tracks or the themes of the tracks. What really separates the tracks is playability. In short: MK64’s tracks are much “harder” to navigate than DKR’s tracks. MK64’s tracks have a lot of objects on the screen, from moles that jump from the ground to penguins to snowmen to rolling boulders to a giant spinning Yoshi egg to coconuts and more. How many people can honestly complete an entire race on Toad’s Turnpike without crashing into a truck or car?
Not only does MK64’s tracks feature an excessive amount of physical obstacles and barriers, most also feature hazards on the side of the road. Whether these obstacles are ponds you can fall into or ledges you can tumble over, you fall off the road a lot in MK64. Lakitu will pull you up and set you in place, but this takes several seconds and you’re almost guaranteed to fall into last place because of it.
DKR, on the other hand, has no ledges to fall from or ponds to drive into. Well, sort of. There are a few levels with water or ice patches on the side of the road, but if you hit them, you neatly bounce back onto the course. You lose about half a second, not the 3-6 seconds you lose in Mario Kart. While there are occasionally objects to crash into in DKR (like a dinosaur), they are much more avoidable.
Maybe DKR doesn’t have the track variety that MK64 does, but if I’m being honest, there are very few courses in MK64 that I actually like. Wario Stadium and Rainbow Road are easily my favorite precisely because of their lack of hazards and ledges to fall from. I hate the Yoshi level, Donkey Kong level, and Bowser level, among others.
What separates kart racing games from more realistic racers is the use of power-ups. You can win not only by being fast, but also by blasting your opponents. Both games feature power-ups and weapons, but their approach is very different.
The Mario Kart series famously (or rather infamously) gives players a sort of sliding scale when it comes to the random power-ups they grab. If you are in first place you get the worst power-ups, and as you move back to last place, you gradually get better and better power-ups. The purpose of this system is to make the races as evenly matched as possible, all the way until the last turn of the last lap. In Mario Kart, it really doesn’t matter how well you do in the first two laps of any race (unless you really mess up and fall behind): everybody can remember a time when they were in first place the entire race, only to be dethroned at the very last instant by a well-placed Lightning Bolt or Blue Shell.
DKR’s power-up philosophy is completely different. First, power-ups aren’t random. You pick up balloons placed around the track, and the power-up contained within the balloon is determined by the balloon’s color (red balloons are missiles, blue balloons are boosts, green balloons are oil slicks). The placement of the balloons is the same each time you play a course. The person in last place gets no assists in DKR. The other feature of DKR is that the power-ups graduate in value the more you grab of that balloon. For example, one red balloon will give you a single straight-shooting missile. Grab a second balloon and you’ve got four homing missiles. Grab a third balloon and you get 10 straight-shot missiles.
DKR’s system asks you a question each time you grab a balloon: use it immediately for a possible short-term gain on the competition, or wait and save it up to get more powers later in the race? The system could be more intriguing if the powers were more interesting. There is an obvious advantage to saving up red balloons, but the advantage of saving up any other color is almost negligible. The purple and yellow balloon will give you a shield, which lasts for a few seconds. Pick it up again, you get a slightly longer shield. Pick it up a third time…a slightly lower shield still. Considering that some courses only have one or two of a certain color balloon on each lap, to get three of some balloons would require you to forgo using any balloons until the final lap. The advantage just isn’t there.
While many people don’t like Mario Kart’s system because of the way it nullifies a person’s skill, overall the system is more effective and enjoyable to play. I enjoy the strategy of saving up balloons in DKR, but the only balloons worth grabbing are red balloons.
Single player mode
Single player in MK64 is very basic: race through the four circuits, advance through the 50, 100, and 150 CC stages, unlock mirror 150 CC mode, and that’s it. Not that this is easy: it can be challenging to place high when first introduced to the game. But it’s a bare bones experience.
DKR’s single player is multifaceted. Not only does it have the standard racing circuits, but it also features an overworld, a concept that is still very cool and very weird to me. What racing game features an overworld? The overworld connects the sub-domains, sometimes features unique races against the elephant, Taj, and even features collectable gold balloons. In retrospect, there really isn’t much to do in the overworld, and if you are looking at getting to a race quickly, it can be cumbersome to navigate. But it’s still a neat idea, and one I applaud.
Second, DKR features a variety of single player modes. Completing a race in first nets you a gold balloon: gold balloons are used to unlock new levels. Each world also features a “boss” race, another concept absent from MK64. Each world has a hidden key, plus, after you defeat the boss, you are asked to play through the levels again, this time to find 8 silver coins hidden on each track (usually placed out of the way). And once you complete everything, unlock the final world, and defeat Wizpig for a second time, you unlock Adventure 2, which features even harder tracks with even more obscure silver coin locations.
Plus, to unlock T.T., there is a time trial mode for each track where you are tasked with beating T.T.’s ghost, no easy feat.
So, there’s a lot to do. While I enjoyed this as a kid (I certainly unlocked T.T. with the help of my brother, but I don’t know if we ever beat Adventure 2 [there’s no real incentive to]), as an adult, beating the courses so many times in so many ways gets quite tedious. Some of the silver coin races are easy to beat, whereas others might take me up to an hour to beat, requiring near perfect driving and considerable memorization of the course.
The challenge is definitely there. What’s not good about the challenge, though, is that the courses available in multiplayer mode are directly linked to what you’ve unlocked in single player mode. It could take 10-20 hours to unlock most of the single player content just so you have a decent selection of courses in multiplayer mode. Lame.
This is where the games are hardest to compare. All factors considered, the multiplayer modes on both games are very good. Most people who owned these games spent far more time in multiplayer than single player. And even though the games are very similar in many ways, the multiplayer modes appeal to different gamers. MK64’s multiplayer is best suited for casual players, or groups with a range of skill levels, due to the sliding scale of power-ups. While DKR’s tracks are easier to navigate, the power-up system provides no support to people in last place. Assuming player skill is roughly equal, DKR races can often be determined by who gets in first place first. Once you fall behind in DKR it’s very hard to catch up. If you want to play a game based on skill, turn to DKR: there is no randomness in the power-ups here.
Another way to compare the multiplayer modes, though, is through the legacy of each game. MK64 has the staying power; DKR didn’t. Case in point: I never owned either of these games as a kid (and just purchased DKR a couple months ago at a used game store for $15); however, I knew plenty of people who did, so I’ve logged considerable hours into both. While I played DKR a lot as a kid, as the years passed, I played far more MK64. Simply put: more people have that game, and more people are familiar with the Mario Kart formula, so this is the definitive kart racing game that gets played at tournaments, parties, and get-togethers.
Let’s not talk about the battle modes in both games, okay? They are a fun diversion for 5 minutes, but I wouldn’t miss them if they had been nixed from the final product.
The final verdict
In many ways, I like DKR better than MK64. The tracks are better, the power-up system is innovative, the music is great, and the overworld still tickles me. And we haven’t even talked about the biggest difference yet, the choice of up to three different vehicles in DKR! The different vehicles, all with different speeds and handling, offer players a few choices. It’s really a testament to the developers that such diverse vehicles can be used on the same course and the race still be relatively balanced. Mario Kart didn’t add multiple vehicles until later, and even today, the vehicles are all variations of wheeled-contraptions: no planes or hovercrafts here.
But for all of DKR’s theoretical merits over MK64, if I had to examine my life objectively, if I looked at how these games performed in actuality, there’s no question that MK64 is the better game. Because the game is better known to people, is more accessible, and is still being played today, I can easily say that I have had more hours of pleasure playing MK64 than DKR. Not only that, but I have played MK64 with a wider group of people, including in many cases complete strangers, yet the interactions were always enjoyable.
Even if I have fallen off the edge of that stupid Yoshi level more times than I care to admit.
Which of these two games do you think is better? Which are you still playing today?