Welcome, Retroware community peoples, to a very, very special version of Franchise Fatigue. In this week’s column, it is my great pleasure to talk about some of the most enduring, classic video game personalities to ever grace the interactive entertainment pantheon. Timber the Tiger. Tiptup the Turtle. Bumper the Badger. T.T., the waddling, smiling, ambulatory stopwatch. All these everlasting achievements in character design had their prodigious birth in the classic Nintendo 64 racing game, Diddy Kong Racing.
With the irony out of the way, thanks for reading my contribution to Retroware’s Banjo-Monthie! Yup, alongside all the forgettably alliterative Hannah-Barbera ripoffs, Diddy Kong Racing boasts the first playable game to feature the ursine Reason for the Season, Banjo himself!
Snark aside, I genuinely love this game. Christmas of 1997 is when I noticed a large, box-like object sitting underneath the Christmas tree – I was expecting nothing video-game related, since my family was rather poor and I knew better than to anticipate miracles. Turns out I was wrong, and my sister and I were stunned to open the box and find – ta-da! A brand-new Nintendo 64, along with Diddy Kong Racing (YES!) and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (Immediate reaction: YES! Delayed reaction: UHH). Given that Nintendo 64 games were both scarce, and more importantly for a poor family, expensive, Diddy Kong Racing was a game I chewed and gnawed my way through several times over, like a rabid badger. Bumper the Badger, even.
Lucky for me, Diddy Kong Racing was bursting with content. From its tortured genesis as a caveman-themed RTS game, to an update of Rare’s R.C. Pro-Am series on the NES, the younger team at Rare who were putting this game together were ambitious and energetic, and the game certainly shows that. The game takes liberal cues from both Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64, but throws in no shortage of extra features, challenges, and multiplayer modes to keep the game from getting stale after several playthroughs. Granted, the game repeats an awful lot of itself – in order to collect every Golden Balloon, you need to get 1st Place in each track with all three of the vehicles, plus there’s the Silver Coin challenges on each level, two boss races per world, and time trials – but the vehicles all play differently enough to keep the momentum going, and most importantly of all, each of the vehicles is ACTUALLY FUN TO PLAY. A lot of mascot-based kart racers throw in extra vehicles these days, but I’ve yet to see one since that manages to make hovercraft racing not suck.
The game has so much to offer, but let’s talk about these… characters, for lack of a better word. So the legend goes, Banjo-Kazooie was originally slated to be Nintendo’s big Christmas seller in 1997. Rare’s top talent was working on the game and wanted more time to polish their masterstroke, so the humble Diddy Kong Racing, being produced by a younger team of designers and developers whose previous credits mostly included portable games like Donkey Kong Land, was pushed into the limelight. Also, according to a GamesTM interview with designer Lee Schuneman, the game at that time was R.C. Pro-Am 64, featuring Timber the Tiger and his ragtag group of cartoon animal compatriots – chief among them, Banjo the Bear, and also Conker the Squirrel, who hadn’t yet undergone his own major makeover into a foul-mouthed, urinating antihero vanquishing the world from melodic turdpiles. The Diddy Kong makeover happened almost literally at the 11th hour – depending on who you ask, Nintendo either “offered” Diddy Kong to the game, or “forced” Diddy Kong into the game. Either way, many of the game’s designers weren’t happy with the extra work they had to cram in, forcibly altering their near-completed game to accommodate Nintendo’s Donkey Kong “brand” while pulling all-nighters to ensure the game would ship before the Holiday Season.
Odd, that the company that created Diddy Kong would be miffed in any way to have to include him in their game, but no matter; the game was a huge hit, breaking sales records at the time and riding on the coattails of Nintendo’s boffo 1997 Christmas season for the N64, where the damn thing flew off shelves for the second consecutive year. The N64 would have one final decent Christmas the following year, thanks to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and the summer holdover staying power of Banjo-Kazooie, but would quickly slide in obsolescence almost immediately afterwards.
I think this game is fantastic, but due to the fact that two of its major stars – Conker and Banjo – are tied up with Rare and Microsoft, the only way to currently play this game without digging out your N64 is the 2007 “remake” for the Nintendo DS. Which is, frankly, a less-than-ideal port of the game, albeit far from terrible. Still, since there’s a crossover between Rare’s characters and Nintendo’s intellectual property, there’s probably no hope for either a Virtual Console release on Wii or Wii U, nor an HD remake on Microsoft’s Xbox. Dang.
Still, maybe there’s hope for Rare to use some of their since-forgotten mascot characters in some new games of their own. Drumstick the Rooster in: Grabbed by the Ghoulies 2: Ghoul School! Pipsy the Mouse: Time Detective! Taj the Genie: Ethnic Stereotype Teaches Typing! Hell, Rare made a puzzle game featuring Mr. Pants, a crummy doodle that was an in-joke on their old website. Maybe there’s hope for you yet, Bumper the Badger.
At the very least, and to tie this back in to Banjo-Monthie, it’s good to know that Banjo himself officially got his pilot’s license after this game in order to star in Banjo Pilot.