Diddy Kong Racing
Back in the day, Mario ruled, among many other things, the kart racing genre. Naturally, other game developers wanted a piece of the pie and so they started shoving their own mascots into karts in attempts to dethrone the king. Some saw reasonable success, but none of them ever managed to top the plumber. That is until RARE released this fabulous gem in 1997.
Diddy Kong Racing has a pretty interesting development story. It was originally known as Pro AM 64, and the main protagonist was going to be Timber the Tiger. When our favorite game producer Shigeru Miyamoto saw the game, Pro-AM 64 ended up getting StarFox Adventure'd (instead of a completely original IP, Miyamoto decided to crowbar a well known Nintendo star into the game). And thus we ended up with what we know today as Diddy Kong Racing. In addition to having his name as the title he gets top billing on the box while poor Timber is so far in the background you almost need a magnifying glass to see him. If you look closely at the art on the cartridge, you can see him looking at his agent who's off camera assuring him to just roll with it because the paycheck will still be good.
"Yo, Timber! Hey you mad, bro?!"
The main component of the single player aspect is the campaign called Adventure Mode. The story is that the evil Wizpig has invaded Timber Island while Timber's parents are away. Timber writes a letter to his old friend, Diddy Kong, asking for help (presumably after rolling his eyes and cursing his agent under his breath for letting this happen). King K. Rool also sends one of his kremlings to follow after Diddy and that's how he ends up in the mix. Wizpig also brainwashes the island's four guardians under his control. As the player, you pick a racer and travel all over the island hubworld to win races to win magic golden balloons which helps break the curse placed on the island by Wizpig.
The way you progress is that after winning each of the section's four races, you are then able to challenge the boss of the area. Upon defeating the boss, you are given access to the next area (well, after doing all four races again with a twist, then beating him again in a rematch). At the time, no racers before it really had a story structure like this and it was much more interesting than the previous method of just playing through each cup in the grand prix to unlock the next one.
The developers wanted the gameworld to have a "theme park" feel and that, they did a good job with. You get to traverse the beautiful island hubworld via planes, cars, and hoverboats to each section. Each section has a theme to it, from prehistoric times, to the ocean, to frozen winter locales. The developers certainly succeeded in what they were trying to do, because the island really feel like Disneyland in its structure and themed sections. Visually, the game is fantastic. Colorful and inspired tracks blend really well with upbeat and catchy music to create a an amazing atmosphere and playing it really does touch on your inner child's sense of whimsy in that special way. No two tracks even really feel the same, even ones within the same theme/section. The creativity and imagination implemented is very apparent, as locales range from prehistoric paths that have actual dinosaurs stomping around them, to ultra-futuristic cities in space. A requisite in any respectable kart racer are powerups scattered around the track, and even these are creative and fun. Powerups are inside balloons scattered around the track and unlike Mario Kart's random system, you know what powerup you are picking up because it's indicated by the color of the balloon. Another unique thing about Diddy Kong Racing's powerup system is that you can upgrade your weapons. So for example running through a red balloon will give you a missile, but if you wait and run through another one, it will turn into a Homing Missile, or you can maximize the powerup by running through a third balloon, which in the case of the red ones would award you ten regular missiles. On top of adding more depth to the game, it adds an element of strategy and patience as a variable.
Outside of the campaign, there is a quick play mode that allows you to just jump in and play on any track that you have unlocked. This is also where multiplayer comes in, as DKR supports 4 man multiplayer and it is an absolute blast. There are also Battle Modes. There are basically two types of Battle Modes. One is a Mario Kart-style Deathmatch where the last man standing is the winner. The other is where each player has to race around the track collecting various items and returning them to their corner of the arena, and the first one to collect the required quanitity wins. These battle modes are incredibly addictive and if you are playing with friends, you will most likely end up spending most of the time playing the battle modes than the races. They provide hours of hilarious good times.
Pre-orders for Diddy Kong Racing were through the roof and when it finally launched in November 1997 it was met with a pretty respectable reception, but unfortunately not quite on the level of Mario Kart 64. A Nintendo GameCube follow-up was planned for the GameCube, but scrapped and would later become Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast for the Wii. The game later recieved a port on the Nintendo DS a decade later, but at the end of the day it was inferior to the N64 original, even with its bells and whistles.
To me, as great as Mario Kart 64 is, Diddy Kong Racing upstages it far as I am concerned. It remains my all-time favorite kart racer to this day and I don't think another game will ever take that title for me. The DS version is alright, but the Nintendo 64 version the superior version by a long shot and if you can track that one down, you won't be dissappointed. It's a real shame this game never got a sequel, but I guess some of the best games are those gems that never got a franchise.