How Diddy Kong Racing influenced Kingdom Hearts

Diddy Kong Racing was the first domino that fell in the chain of events that made the first Kingdom Hearts game the way it is today.

Diddy Kong Racing and Kingdom Hearts stars, Diddy Kong and Sora, face each other in battle in a screenshot from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Diddy Kong Racing and Kingdom Hearts – aside from both being videogames (and Diddy and Sora both being in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate), most people aren’t going to think that the two games have any connection with one another at all. However, while Kingdom Hearts games might feel far removed from anything Donkey Kong-related, you may be surprised to hear that the development of Diddy Kong Racing influenced the development of Kingdom Hearts, even though they happened a few years apart.

So, let’s start at the beginning – Rare released Diddy Kong Racing in 1997. The game went through various forms throughout development and was almost going to become Pro Am 64, before Shigeru Miyamoto suggested to Rare that Diddy Kong should be in the game. The final version was put together under incredibly rushed conditions, but it became a huge success as the Nintendo 64’s big holiday game of the year. (We’re still waiting for it to be added among the Nintendo Switch Online N64 games though.)

Diddy Kong Racing screenshot showing Wizpig chasing Diddy Kong, who is piloting a plane.

As most people will already know, Rare also included Banjo and Conker as playable characters in this game. The two of them would later debut as stars of their own games (Banjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Pocket Tales) – although these games weren’t planned as Diddy Kong Racing spin-offs. It was very much a case of making early use of characters from games that were already in development.

So why was there no direct follow-up to Diddy Kong Racing? Rare tried (and failed) to get a successor off the ground in the form of Donkey Kong Racing (later reworked into Sabreman Stampede, then canceled), and also with Diddy Kong Pilot (which was reworked into Banjo-Pilot), but these were years later. Why was there no attempt to capitalize on the game with a sequel sooner?

Diddy Kong Racing DMG seen on E3 1998 internal paperwork.

Turns out there was. Ed Bryan, a former Rare employee, recently shared some internal paperwork from E3 1998, that makes reference to several games that were in development at the time. One of these is “Conker DMG” which was the Game Boy Color game, Conker’s Pocket Tales, and another was “D. K. R. DMG” and though not explicitly written out, it’s fair to assume that stands for “Diddy Kong Racing” and that this was a handheld tie-in, in the same vein as Donkey Kong Land being a handheld tie-in to Donkey Kong Country.

So what became of this Game Boy Color game? It was never even officially announced, let alone released. While we don’t have a definitive answer at the time, we can figure it out with a bit of logical deduction (and don’t worry Kingdom Hearts fans, you’re about to see how this could be relevant to your favorite series).

Around this same time, Nintendo had been making deals with Disney, with Rare doing the brunt of the work to deliver on these arrangements. This is why the game Mickey’s Speedway USA was created (by Rare) for the Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color… and it’s also the reason that Mickey’s Racing Adventure was released.

Mickey’s Racing Adventure is a game that has a lot in common with Diddy Kong Racing. You race on both land and water (although not in planes), there’s a storyline to it, rather than just regular old Mario Kart-style racing, and there’s even an overworld where you walk around and talk to characters… again, much like Diddy Kong Racing.

Diddy Kong Racing successor, Mickey's Racing Adventure for the Game Boy Color. Image shows the game box.

The Game Boy Color version of Diddy Kong Racing was in active development in mid-1998, to the extent that it was almost shown at E3. It never saw the light of day, but a year and a half later, Mickey’s Racing Adventure came out and is a game that feels very similar to Diddy Kong Racing. Could it be that Rare reworked the Diddy Kong Racing sequel into Mickey’s Racing Adventure to fulfill the contractual obligations to Disney that Nintendo dropped on its plate? I think so.

As reported in the Kongversation podcast, Rare employees were not happy with the ‘opportunity’ Nintendo gave them to develop Disney games. They wanted to cultivate their own IPs like Banjo-Kazooie, Conker, and Dinosaur Planet, not work on Mickey Mouse games. The attitude was just to get it done as quickly as possible, and reworking an existing, unannounced game, seems like a quick way to get one of the games done.

In 2002, Rare would be bought out by Microsoft and would no longer develop home console games for Nintendo. Nintendo was actually given the chance to buy Rare outright, but it refused. As the relationship had generally worsened throughout the 1990s for various reasons (like the Disney situation), it’s no surprise that the owners approached other publishers instead, and ultimately settled with one of Nintendo’s competitors.

Kingdom Hearts contemporary, Disney's Magical Mirror Starring Mickey Mouse. Image shows the title screen.

This left Nintendo in a bit of a pickle because part of the deal with Disney meant that they had to publish a Mickey Mouse adventure game, and so far they’d only done racing games. What would have originally probably been a Nintendo 64 platformer in a sort of Banjo-Kazooie style, instead ended up being a GameCube point-and-click adventure game with Capcom at the helm instead of Rare – this game was Disney’s Magical Mirror starring Mickey Mouse, which came out in 2002.

Do you know what other Disney game came out in 2002? Kingdom Hearts. Here’s where we come to another little bit of deduction, but it’s a deduction based on facts. Mickey Mouse only makes one appearance in Kingdom Hearts, and his role is notably smaller than that of the other Disney characters. It’s essentially just a cameo, albeit an important one, which seems a bit odd considering his iconic status.

Kingdom Hearts screenshot showing Mickey's single appearance in the game.

Well, we got the answer in Kingdom Hearts 3 Ultimania, a reference book filled with behind-the-scenes information about the development of the series. In it, the explanation for Mickey’s minor appearance in Kingdom Hearts is “contractual obligations” and it seems likely that Nintendo’s own contract, which required it to deliver several Disney games, would include small print to prevent other publishers from doing similarly at the same time. Nintendo would want the Mickey Mouse game of the year, not Mickey Mouse game.

So to summarize:

  1. Rare makes Diddy Kong Racing and it’s a success
  2. Rare starts making a Diddy Kong Racing sequel on Game Boy Color
  3. Ninteno’s deal with Disney requires Rare to develop Mickey Mouse games
  4. Diddy Kong Racing GBC becomes Mickey’s Racing Adventure
  5. Rare becomes unhappy with Nintendo, Microsoft buys it out
  6. Rare cannot fulfill the final part of the Disney contract
  7. Nintendo brings in Capcom to make Disney’s Magical Mirror
  8. As it’s off schedule, this ends up happening at the same time as Kingdom Hearts
  9. Mickey’s role in Magical Mirror means he only makes a small appearance in Kingdom Hearts

It’s a row of dominos that fell and gave us the outcome we know today. Somewhere out there, there’s a world where Rare made a Diddy Kong Racing sequel on Game Boy Color, and the first Kingdom Hearts game has Mickey Mouse playing a major role.

For the closest thing we currently have to Diddy Kong Racing on Switch, read our Mario Kart 8 Deluxe + Booster Course review, and read our Kingdom Hearts Missing-Link release date guide for more Kingdom Hearts excitement.