Rare tried very hard to ruin Diddy Kong Racing by adding frivolous touch screen modes. They almost succeeded.
Diddy Kong Racing DS is a retooling of the original game that appeared on the Nintendo 64 back in 1997. Although major parts of the game are the same as they were 10 years ago, so much more of it is different that it wouldn't be hard to consider the DS version a new game altogether.
If you liked the original, you'll be glad to know the racing action on the track is largely unchanged. Races can be contested with a car, an airplane or a hovercraft, with zipper arrows and booster rings placed around most tracks. Weapons are collected by running into colored balloons and can be upgraded into more powerful versions by hitting the same type of balloon with a weapon already in the bank. (Hitting a different color balloon won't change your weapon, which is different from the N64 version.) A new power-up icon can instantly upgrade any weapon to a super-powered version that's even more powerful than what you can get by hitting three balloons in a row. After collecting one of the special pickups, it can be activated at any time. Some of these super-weapons are very useful, like the autopilot booster or the three missiles that rotate around your vehicle and automatically take out anything that gets close to you.
Another new addition to the DS version can be seen at the start of every race. Getting a boost start is important if you want to be competitive during races, but the way the game makes you do it is baffling. On the touch screen, a car wheel or a plane propeller will appear. To get a good start, you need to either repeatedly drag your finger down the screen to spin the car wheel or rotate the plane prop up to fill a boost meter that determines how quickly your vehicle gets off the line. Doing this requires one of your hands, meaning you won't be able to either accelerate or steer immediately off the start line. If you botch the boost start with your right hand, your thumb won't be on the gas and you'll get away very slowly. If you hit the boost start using your left hand, you'll have no way of steering away from obstacles or negotiating tight turns that are near the start line. The hovercraft doesn't have this problem, since its boost start is done by blowing into the DS microphone… not that that's any better of an alternative. Why can't we just rev the engine like a normal racing game?
You'll be spending most of your time with the game in Adventure mode. Unlike in your run-of-the-mill racing game, your character will start off in the middle of an explorable hub world, from where you can drive (or fly or hover) to a themed world where races are being held. You need to win the races at tracks in the different worlds, which will give you the golden balloons needed to access other areas of the main hub. After winning all the races in a world, a boss race becomes available. If you beat the boss in a special one-on-one challenge, a second set of challenge races are opened up to you within that world.
In the N64 game, the second run through the tracks was the Silver Coin Challenge, a mode wherein you needed to collect eight silver coins littered around the track and then finish the race in first. In the DS game, the mode is replaced with an on-rails balloon-popping touch screen challenge. You just fly around on Taj's magic carpet, using the stylus to pop 50 balloons in one lap around the track. It has no competitive element at all, and it's really not very challenging. The touch screen challenge needs to be done for all 20 of the tracks in Adventure mode, meaning you'll be doing a lot of not-racing in a game called Diddy Kong Racing. Even though the mode may eventually become somewhat entertaining, it has absolutely no business being in a racing game.
Thankfully, Rare didn't cut the Silver Coin Challenge out of the game completely. It's a separate single player game mode, but it needs to be unlocked first. Some things can be unlocked through normal game progression, but to get the good stuff, you'll need to pay for it. The Adventure mode tracks have coins scattered about them, and collecting them during the course of a race (you can usually bag 5-10 at a time) will add to your coin total. Coins can be spent on new tracks, multiplayer modes, game features and car upgrades. That's right, also new to the DS version of DKR is the ability to customize vehicles. You can change the color of your vehicles, which is free. If you want to improve the performance of your rides, however, it'll cost you.
Vehicle upgrades create some big issues throughout the entire game. First of all, a lot of the good multiplayer stuff needs to be purchased with coins. So do the upgrades. If you spend 50 coins for better hovercraft acceleration, then you won't be able to buy one of the multiplayer tracks or game modes with that money. If you spend the 50 coins on something for multiplayer, your vehicle may not be fast enough to keep up in Adventure mode. Until you get enough coins to unlock everything (and that'll take a while), there's always going to be something you want to play in multiplayer mode that you won't have immediate access to.
Rare must have realized this, since there's a way to get a lot of coins at once. After completing all the touch screen challenges, beating a boss a second time and winning the world's Trophy Race (a four-race series), a third boss race will become available. Winning this optional boss races in will net you a major payday of 100 coins, which is a big help towards unlocking all of the essential multiplayer modes.
But just when you thought it was going to be that easy, Rare decided to screw it up: These third boss races force you to use the touch screen exclusively. One race requires you to “draw" the path you want your car to take while you spin a wheel on the screen to keep your speed up. Another has you take control of an airplane using touch screen controls to steer, which is a lot more clunky than it sounds. These touch screen races are the most disgusting example of forced touch screen usage I have ever seen on the DS. I kid you not. I must have tried to complete these challenges a dozen times between the four types, and every single time I became so frustrated with it that I turned off my DS. I felt they were that bad.
So of course, the mode that was implemented to help alleviate the burden of coin collecting turns out to be worthless garbage and only compounds the problem of unlocking content. However, by the time you complete Adventure Mode the first time around, you will have probably collected enough coins to get a decent amount of stuff for multiplayer. Though it's unfair to need to play through a lot of the single player modes to make the multiplayer more viable, the trouble is worth it, to some extent.
Multiplayer modes include single races, trophy races, and battle mode from the original game, and two modes new to the DS, Token Tussle and T.T.'s Wish Race. Token Tussle is similar to the Silver Coin Challenge, only it's an eight player race to see who can get the coins first. Wish Race is the draw-your-own track mode, where players take turns drawing a track, and then racing on it. The track editor is rather simple, and it's not very easy to draw exactly where you want. The only option you have is to determine how flat or hilly the final track design is. During a race, the custom track itself looks very bland and generic. However, racing on your own crazy creations is quite fun, especially if you crank the elevation changes to the maximum. If you draw something twisty, it's like racing on a roller coaster. Wish Race works best in multiplayer (after you buy it), since there will always be a full field of eight racers no matter how many humans are connected. (In single player, you only race against one opponent, and he's painfully slow.) You can also save tracks you or someone else draws onto your DS card, which is good in case one of your friends creates a masterpiece.
Far and away, the best part of DKR DS is the online multiplayer. The game supports six player races on all 24 tracks and four player battles on the battle mode tracks (provided you've purchased them). You can also play Wish Race mode online with four friends, which is very easy to do thanks to the friends lobby. After you input someone's friend code, you'll be able to see exactly what they are doing if they're online. If your bud is in the middle of an online race, it'll say “racing" next to his name. If he's matchmaking, it'll say that, too. Most importantly, if it says your friend is hosting a game, you can easily join him without relying on the luck of the matchmaking draw. Although you'll still need to organize online matches offline, once everyone connects it's quick and easy to start playing against each other.
In my online playtime with the game, I didn't encounter lag or any other network-related gameplay issues. However, there's an oversight that may render a lot of online races undesirable: Upgraded vehicles can be taken online. The consequence is that there will be times when you have an upgraded car and your opponents do not, or vice versa. This happened to me in just about all of my races, so it was pretty boring. Though most people will be able to upgrade their cars rather quickly, it's not good that there will probably be a lot of online games that are over before they start because of the performance gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Assuming everyone in the race has the same level of car, be it an offline race or an online one, the racing action is fantastic with a full slate of human players. Though it's a slower game than Mario Kart DS, there's a larger emphasis on item usage and strategy. With weapons flying all over the place, no lead is ever safe until the end of the race. As a multiplayer racing game, Diddy Kong Racing is very good.
Despite all of the negative points to the game, the charm that made the original a favorite to many still shines through. As long as you don't start up the game expecting Mario Kart DS, you'll get lots of fun out of Diddy Kong Racing DS. It's a different game than Mario Kart, so it should be treated as such. If you want something different in your diet of racing games, then DKR is a pretty good one to look at. Just be prepared to put up with some annoyances.