Diddy Kong Racing
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

As part of our end-of-year celebrations, we're digging into the archives to pick out some of the best Time Extension content from the past year. You can check out our other republished content here. Enjoy!

Kev Bayliss is famous for working on Rare titles like Battletoads and Killer Instinct and is currently working at Playtonic Games, home of Yooka-Laylee and friends. Today marks the 25th birthday of Diddy Kong Racing, another of Bayliss' titles, so now is the perfect time for him to recount the development of the N64 classic that gave Mario Kart a run for its money.

It might surprise you to learn that I hold such affection for Diddy Kong Racing, given that I'm the person who designed the Battletoads and Fulgore from Killer Instinct! But it's true, and it all started a little something like this. Shortly after completing work on Killer Instinct II, I started creating a character for a platform game on the N64 with Chris Tilston, the lead designer for the Killer Instinct series.

The character was a Tiger cub who walked around on all fours, and we had some tests of him climbing around on a level. I then created a ‘Mouse’ character wearing a space suit and rendered a few shots of him; I nicknamed him ‘Astro Mouse’, and I had high hopes for him being the main character and the Tiger cub being his sidekick. However, as things began to change in development, Chris was earmarked for another project, so I was at a bit of a loose end.

Rare HQ
Rare' Manor Farm HQ, where Diddy Kong Racing was created. The converted 'Dutch barn' at the top of the photo is where Bayliss and the rest of the team were based — Image: Time Extension

Meanwhile, Rare co-founder Chris Stamper had started putting together a small team to create a racing-themed adventure game over on the top floor of one of the newly-converted barns at Rare's Manor Farm HQ. It was all very secretive, and Chris wanted to keep it under wraps. After discussing with Tim Stamper which project I should now work on, he thought I should get involved in this new racing project. However, Chris was reluctant to have me on the team because I’d only recently created "Nasty" (his words, not mine) characters in Killer Instinct 1 and 2, and he wanted the racing game to be ultra-cute, not ultra-violent. I was a bit annoyed by this, as I loved racing games – but to be fair, he had just seen my picture of ‘Astro Mouse’ flipping the bird, and I remember him saying, "I hate that mouse!"

Diddy Kong Racing
The mouse that offended Chris Stamper — Image: Kev Bayliss / Rare

Anyway, Tim eventually convinced Chris to have me on the team, and actually told me that he had said to his brother, ‘I would be banging on the door to get Kev involved in developing the racing game characters’. I’ll always remember that, and I was touched by the compliment – so I was really happy when I moved over to the team shortly afterwards. Then there was a bit of a re-shuffle, and Chris went on to take on an overseeing role of the various games at the company, rather than work on one directly.

I was appointed as the new character developer, and there were the two 'Lees' - Lee Schuneman on design and artist Lee Musgrave, who had previously been working on character designs. Soon, Richard Gale, Rob Harrison, Martin Penny, John Pegg, Paul Mountain, David Wise, Keith Rabette, Dean Smith, Johnni Christensen and more amazing devs joined what was originally a team of two or three people to form a great family who all had a similar interest in racing games. We all got on extremely well, and it was a fun place to be.

One of the first things I remember doing was designing the car vehicle. I had a yellow sports car at around that time, which was eventually destroyed in a car accident – and as I missed it so much, I wanted to create a similar car for the game to race around in. It went through a few different shapes and designs, but eventually, the design was settled upon, and we ended up with the ‘kiddies ride’ style mini formula one ‘kart’ design. I decided to give it red tyres rather than black to make it look more like a kid's toy, as I knew that Chris Stamper would like it when he came to see the game’s development from time to time. He really wanted it to be super cute, so I thought this would help.

Diddy Kong Racing
Image: Kev Bayliss / Rare

As far as I remember, we had no plans initially to have an aeroplane or hovercraft, as we didn’t want to mess around perfecting the dynamics and controls of other vehicles – but I came in one day, and Rob had a crude aeroplane flying around which felt great to fly around in. So I created a proper plane, and then eventually, the hovercraft was added.

Rob Harrison had the fantastic idea of using sprites to reduce the need for a large number of polygons to create wheels for the car and came up with some code to reuse the animated sprites on each vehicle. This mixing of 2D sprites and 3D polygons was something we knew would work because we had previously mixed them together in Killer Instinct, and when we tried it in Diddy Kong Racing, the results were amazing.

Diddy Kong Racing
Image: Kev Bayliss / Rare

So, the wheels, propellors and fans on the vehicles were all sprites, saving us a lot of polygons which helped with the game’s frame rate. If you can imagine, several polygonal cars all on a screen – multiplied x4 if you played in multiplayer, and then generating the background 4 times too – this was a lot to ask of the N64. So, this idea was a lifesaver and actually improved the look of the cars, avoiding ‘boxy’ faceted wheels.

It wasn’t long before the story and design progressed, and there was a need for support characters, such as Taj, and of course, the main villain. Lee Schuneman and I decided to use a nasty ‘wild boar’ as the big bad boss, but he 'read' better with a brighter colour, so I just created a pig. We called him ‘Wizpig’ because he was a ‘fast’ (Whizz!) evil wizard. (And a pig.)

As the story developed, we needed to create sequences which helped pull everything together. So, Rob Harrison asked me what I needed to create animations. We worked together on making a cut-down animation event editor, which worked in a similar way to how I’d do things in Maya, but it allowed me to directly put things down on the N64 and instantly see the results. I could trigger events, move characters along a path, cut the camera and do almost anything I wanted to do.

At this stage, the game had moved on from being called Adventure Racers and had adopted the RC Pro-AM 64 title. I rendered out a logo of my tiger (from the experimental project), and eventually, I created more characters (cute and colourful!) to race against, including a revised version of ‘Astro Mouse’, which eventually became ‘Pipsy’.

Using Rob’s editor, I started playing with it to make animations with accompanying music, I created a short sequence showing Timber (The tiger) in a car racing around a Nintendo logo on the floor. As the camera panned round and zoomed out, it revealed that a much larger Timber was operating a radio control unit, running around the track excitedly, so he was operating a small ‘RC’ car with a mini Tiger inside.

It looked great, and I will always remember on that particular day, Chris Stamper just happened to be passing the barn; he walked past my monitor as it was playing, and he stopped, turned around, and came back. He started laughing and said it looked fantastic. He then made the comment to Tim, ‘Rob has done this one thing, and Kev is just doing his thing, and it’s just coming together and looks wonderful'. I knew that when Chris used the word ‘wonderful’, he was happy, as it was his favourite ‘kudos’ word.

I then put together an idea I had for the character select, which was so easy to do using the editor. No more drawing mugshots and so on – just use the existing assets! So I lined them all up on two tiers of grassy polygons holding numbers, and it worked out really well. Chris Stamper loved it, and from that point onwards, I felt reassured knowing that I’d got the approval of Chris and that the game wasn’t going to get canned or go through any dramatic changes. Or so I thought!

After months of development, we created ‘wonderful’ looking tracks, sequences (with dialogue - which I also really enjoyed creating voices for, too) and even VS mini-game modes. We had all fallen in love with our own game, which doesn’t happen that often. But we often sat playing it, trying to beat each other’s Time Trial scores. It was addictive and fun, and we were all very proud of it.

Diddy Kong Racing
Image: Kev Bayliss / Rare

Very close to the end of development, we had a visit from Nintendo, and they were short of a product to release for the end of the year (as far as I remember), so they looked at the possibility of releasing our racing game because it was nearing completion. All I remember was Tim Stamper coming up into the barn and sitting down next to me, saying something like: ‘We can release this Kev, but you have to take the tiger out as the main character. It needs to be called something else because if Nintendo are going to shell out a huge marketing budget on it, they have to be sure people will know what it is’.

Well, at first, I was a bit deflated because I thought everything looked great, and to myself and the team, it had already become 'established' as an IP. And also, Tim said there was some concern about it being a 'Kart' game which would perhaps be bad for Mario Kart. So he wanted me to change the main vehicle and try a different one for each character. We got as far as giving Pipsy a 3-wheeled ‘Trike’ kind of thing, but it just didn’t feel right, so instead we focused on the IP itself.

Nintendo asked us to try using Diddy Kong but not Donkey Kong, because he already appeared in Mario Kart, and this would have been confusing to have him appear in what could be seen as a competing racing game. They told us if we just call it 'Diddy Kong Racing' and placed him in as the main character, people would know what it was!

Diddy Kong Racing
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

I quickly began to feel less deflated after putting the new logo together and very quickly adding Diddy as a character, and creating the new initial start sequence. It all kind of fell into place. The decision to make the change – from a marketing point of view – was a very sensible and clever idea. But then, I guess Nintendo kind of had plenty of experience with this. I was also really happy because one of my character designs had made it to the point of having his very own game, and although it wasn’t Timber the tiger, it was all good.

Kev Bayliss
Kev Bayliss — Image: Playtonic Games

Diddy Kong Racing was the most enjoyable game I’d ever worked on. I loved Killer Instinct as I was such a martial arts enthusiast and loved fighting games. Creating motion capture and being in control of a set of fighting characters was like a dream for me. But after taking a break from two ‘pretty gory’ and dark games, Diddy Kong Racing was like a breath of fresh air and happiness.

The team worked so hard to get it all complete before the Christmas release, and we had an amazing time travelling to Japan to the Spaceworld show when it was released, too. The whole development process was fun from beginning to end – just like the game. I’m very proud to have helped create it, and also want to say again a big thank you to everyone else who helped put out together. (You know who you all are!)

Let’s hope we see a port to Switch one day, but for now, I’ll play my N64 version for the first time in 25 years on my Twitch channel and re-live the memories over and over! I can’t wait. And what a great time to play it, too; it feels like a Christmas game because of some of the graphics and music on some of the levels.

For me, it’s the ultimate Christmas present!