When it comes to the apes of Nintendo's Kong family, evolution took a strange turn. While their counterparts were learning about hitting each other over the head with animal bones or banging rocks together to make sparks, Donkey, Diddy and friends casually spent their time building Copa Cabana-style beach cafés out of coconut trees and riding mine carts.
At the time, it seemed like advanced behaviour, but as the other simians learnt their lessons well, becoming upright if very hairy men, the Kongs remained stuck in an evolutionary niche. They're destined to a lifetime of endlessly racing around tracks in a variety of vehicles, collecting coins and power-up items as they go. And so it is with the DS version of Diddy Kong Racing.
Lifted from the old N64 game, Diddy and the other Kongs are back on their multi-tracked desert island, together with chums like Timber and Krunch who made the copyright transition from Nintendo to Microsoft ownership (the developer Rare swapped hands in 2002).
First impressions are good. The graphics are bright and colourful, with the island hub displaying one of the nicest 3D environments yet on DS. You can create your own player icon thanks to the neat design option, there are several new tracks, and the audio's been overhauled too.
The game's not complex either, with the basic mechanic remaining the one beloved of all cartoon racers. You have to win races against your fellow computer controlled competitors, using a combination of driving skill and cunningly deployed weapons (you gain these by driving over the balloons dotted around) and hence explore the island by unlocking more tracks.
At first, you'll find yourself karting around on four wheels, but as you open up more tracks and worlds (your typical snow, volcano, dinosaur, and beach themes are present and correct), you'll get your hands on a little plane, and soon after find yourself skidding around in a hovercraft. Neatly, you can chop and change between these, so if you get stuck on one track, you can have a break and try another, or try a different vehicle on the same track.
Unfortunately, the vehicles are also where the game starts to come off the rails. The plane is surprisingly hard to control with the DS D-pad (especially in terms of going up and down), but it handles like a dream compared to the hovercraft, which turns with all the control and finesse of an oiled banana skin. Even the basic karting isn't as solid as Mario Kart DS, and the track design, which has to work for all three types, also compares badly.
Of course, you can eventually get used to such issues with lots of practice. But then you'll come across the boss battles. Spread out, with one on each of the four worlds, they involve plenty of high speed twisting paths. If you keep winning, you'll find really weird top-down touchscreen challenge boss races where you have to draw where you want to drive, as well as spinning a tyre to pick up speed. They're not half as clever as they sound, more frustrating.
Rare has clearly tried hard to squeeze as much as possible into Diddy Kong Racing DS, but the results are decidedly mixed. For example, each vehicle has its own special touchscreen boost mini-game at the start of each race. For the kart, you have to spin a tyre, for the plane it's a propeller, while you have to blow into the mic to get a perfect start in your hovercraft. It's fun for the first couple of goes, but it quickly becomes novelty for its own sake.
Frankly there are almost too many extras, although others are more convincing. By picking up the coins scattered around the tracks you can buy new tracks, upgrades and other innovative features. For example, you can replace the in-game sound effects with your own recordings via the DS microphone, and there's an entertaining, if limited, track creator. Other unlockables, such as circuits and battle modes, are essential for the multiplayer.
As is the case with most karting racers, multiplayer is a key element of Diddy Kong Racing. We'd even say it's the best thing about the game.
There's an eight-way local mode that lets you play with any DS owners, even if only one of you has a copy of the game. And the four modes, from a straight head-to-head race to the frenetic battles, are all easy to pick up. They're also supported via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection system. Very impressively it supports six players, which is 50 per cent more than Mario Kart DS, although the mid-game dropout problem still hasn't been solved.
But a great multiplayer mode and loads of extras are no good if the fundamentals aren't, well, sufficiently fun. At Pocket Gamer we're not as convinced as some by Mario Kart DS, but it's a certainly a better racer when it comes to the basics. With all its hit-and-miss innovations, Diddy Kong Racing is best left to karting completists.