Some of my fondest memories from my formative years have the Nintendo 64 as their focal point.
Whether it was indulging in loud-mouthed, profanity-laden four-player GoldenEye, Perfect Dark and Duke Nukem 64 deathmatches or just me and my similarly non-sporty school friends desperately trying to understand the appeal of the World Cup through the use of EA’s imaginatively titled World Cup 98, this console holds a special place in my heart.
And yet somehow up until now I’d never played one of its most well-respected games: Wave Race 64. And now I am kicking myself for not checking it out sooner.
Wave Race 64 came out in 1997. It’s actually the second game in the Wave Race series, following a largely forgotten Game Boy release from 1992, and is a natural evolution of its predecessor’s format from top-down 8-bit monochrome 2D to full-colour 3D polygonal graphics.
In Wave Race 64, you race jet-skis around a series of different environments. The single-player component comprises several difficulties of championship and a stunt mode, and there’s also a training mode, a time trial mode and a two-player versus mode. There are eight different courses in total, plus a freeform arena to train in, and reverse-direction versions of all the courses once you beat the championship mode on Normal, Hard and Expert difficulty.
Wave Race 64 was originally designed with the intention of creating “F-Zero on the water” using high-speed boats that could transform between different forms. Eventually this idea was scrapped on the grounds that it wouldn’t do enough to distinguish itself from similar games on other platforms, and so it returned to the jet-skis of the Game Boy original.
Probably the most iconic feature of Wave Race 64 is its water physics; indeed, the story goes that the game exists primarily because of a Nintendo EAD programmer experimenting with the then-new Nintendo 64’s Silicon Graphics hardware and discovering the fact that it was feasible to realistically model water, complete with waves and currents. Supposedly the tech demo the programmer put together caught the attention of Nintendo’s legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, who promptly decided that the team should create “something fun” using this impressive technology.
That water is for more than just show, too; the dynamic nature of the surface on which you are racing affects the gameplay in numerous ways. You can use tall waves as impromptu ramps to perform stunts from or leap over obstacles, for example, and the changing tides as each race progresses means that the course layout changes subtly (or, in a couple of cases, not so subtly) with each lap. Once you complete a game mode, you can also customise the conditions in which you race for that mode, including how “wild” the water is and the number of laps you need to complete.
The fact you’re racing on water gives a distinctly different feel to road and track-based racing, too. You have a lot more space to play with, for example; while a couple of Wave Race 64’s courses have some narrow gaps to negotiate, for the most part it’s up to you to plot the most efficient route through the open water.
To an extent, anyway; to add a bit of challenge and variety to the mix, Wave Race 64’s races incorporate an element of slaloming, requiring you to wave in and out of coloured buoys that dot the track. Successfully passing these buoys on the correct side — right for red, left for yellow — gradually increases your jet-ski’s “power” and maximum speed, while missing one causes your power to drop back down to a minimum, putting you at a disadvantage against your opponents until you build it back up again.
One of the nice things that Wave Race 64 does with its different difficulty levels is that although it uses the same courses for the early stages of the harder tiers — Hard and Expert add a couple of extra courses towards the end of the run — it makes the arrangements of buoys significantly more challenging to negotiate. And you can’t just ignore them, either; five “misses” and you’re disqualified from the race. In this way, while Normal difficulty is deceptively easy and can probably be beaten by pretty much anyone on their first attempt, Hard ratchets things up noticeably and it only gets more difficult from there.
It’s fortunate, then, that Wave Race 64 has wonderfully tight controls that make it a joy to play, even today. And it’s interesting to note in this era of people obsessing over frame rate and resolution that, despite running well under 30fps at the best of times and being subject to plenty of the N64’s iconic low-res blurriness, the game manages to provide a highly enjoyable white-knuckle ride in which you always feel like you’re in total control of your vehicle. The N64’s rather stiff 3D Stick — an acquired taste for those unfamiliar — is used to excellent effect, allowing you to gently turn or wrench your jet-ski around a sharp bend as required; the use of “flourishes” on the stick to perform stunts is also immensely satisfying, though takes a bit of practice to become accustomed to!
Probably one of the most refreshing things about Wave Race 64 from a modern perspective is that it doesn’t overcomplicate things — no weapons, no boosts, no powerups, no upgrades. It’s customisable to a certain degree through your choice of rider — each of whom can be renamed, in a rather pleasing little extra — and through tweaking three different aspects of your jet-ski’s performance, but aside from that it’s a pretty no-frills affair, and I love it for that.
It’s a simple arcade racer and isn’t trying to be anything more. If you’re moderately skilled, you can probably breeze through the whole championship mode in a couple of hours, but once you’re done with that you can continue playing and tinkering with the experience as much as you like. Try doing a Reverse Expert course with 9-lap races on Wild seas and see if you still rate your own skills — or just jump into the Time Trial mode and see how much you can improve on your best times. Then, of course, there’s the two player mode, which is always good for some fun, assuming you take on someone of a similar skill level. Or just giving all the rival racers offensive names and then having a bit of immature fun racing against “Cockwaft” and “Bellcheese”. For example.
Wave Race 64 is a delight, and is a fondly regarded part of the Nintendo 64’s library for good reason. It’s simple, accessible, enjoyable and rewarding fun — and, from a modern perspective, has aged surprisingly well, too. If you’ve slept on this one as long as I have, I urge you to correct that situation at your earliest convenience!
More about Wave Race 64
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