Wave Race 64 Review (N64)

This review was originally published in 2016, and we’re updating and republishing it to mark the game’s arrival on Switch as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack.


Wave Race wasn’t a well-known series until it came to the Nintendo 64. In fact, it wasn’t a series at all, but rather a single release: a top-down racer on the Game Boy. With its 64-bit machine offering the possibility of new 3D gaming experiences, Nintendo decided to have another crack at a Jet Ski racer and came up with the very impressive Wave Race 64, a game that still manages to impress all these years later thanks to precise, elegant controls and wave physics that have yet to be bettered.

Championship is the main game. There are four characters to choose from with different abilities (speed, grip, acceleration, etc.); you choose one and then compete against the other three in a series of three-lap races, passing buoys, jumping ramps and avoiding obstacles. Pass a buoy on the right side and the engine power (and thus the speed) increases. Miss a buoy and your engine drops to the lowest setting.

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Points are awarded based on your finishing position, with seven for first, down to a single point for fourth (and zero if you retire). The racer with the most points at the end of the tournament is unsurprisingly declared the winner, although you may not make it that far as a certain number of points are required to proceed to the next race. Of course, since this is a video game, this rule does not apply to your CPU-controlled competition. Git.

Visually, Wave Race 64 chooses a bright, colorful, pleasant thick see. Although not able to throw out as many polygons as later consoles, the solid design gives the game an impressively stylized look and the action on the screen is fast and smooth. That is unless you’re playing the PAL version, which is slower – 50Hz versus NTSC’s 60Hz – and squeezed vertically with thicker black borders top and bottom. There are some nice touches, like birds flying through the sky and the lights and screens that illuminate Twilight City. Banners can be seen around the courses and the skies add some variety to scenes, with some opting for a bright blue, while Marine Fortress goes for a cloudy look, and Sunset Bay has a warm orange glow.

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A particularly good effect is the fog on Drake Lake, which at first appears as a Turok-esque attempt to cover up technical shortcomings until it dissipates as the rounds progress to give you a clear view of your surroundings. Not everything looks good though, with some very flat trees and spectators who appear to be cardboard standees – although you’ll hardly notice while you’re busy wave-racing.

The most impressive visual aspect, however, is a fundamental gameplay element: the water itself. It ripples and bobs away like reflections, and sometimes fish can be seen in it. Waves rise and crash, and the way these affect your jet ski – yes, the big, branded variant of the watercraft thanks to the original release’s Kawasaki tie-in – is remarkable.

The degree of fluid violence exhibited varies between stages and during different points of a course, but no matter where the water hits your jet ski, it’s always felt Right. Sometimes it’s a gentle lurch, in choppier waters you struggle for control, and other times it feels like you’re being thrown violently from your personal watercraft – sometimes you are. A misjudged air movement, an overly ambitious turn or a hard crash can lead to some spectacular crashes as your rider is thrown into the water, flailing around or disappearing off-screen as the machine flies in another direction.

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Complementing the impressive water physics are spot-on controls. Tighter turns are possible by pulling back further while steering, and shifting the center of gravity is useful for tackling difficult landings. There are buttons for more advanced riders to help with the tightest turns and to dampen bounce while riding over waves, but beginners can mostly get away with just using the throttle and control stick. Speeding around a track is a lot of fun, and your rider does exactly what you tell them to, meaning any falls or collisions feel like a misjudgment on your part, except when a chat is just riding into you.

Once you get the hang of the controls, you might feel the urge to throw in some stunt moves as well. Manipulate the stick in certain ways, in certain situations, and you can perform a variety of impressive maneuvers, including barrel rolls, flips, and even a handstand. The tutorial level explains how to do these moves (as well as the basics, of course) and showboating is good for a laugh as you cross the line while jet skiing backwards.

There is a decent amount of music in the game that can be breezy, energetic and sometimes intense, but will mostly go unnoticed during gameplay; the true soundtrack to the game is the engines and crashing waves. These work well to immerse you in the action, and there are others that are also good: thuds and clinks when you clip something, smashes when you hit an object hard, and grunts and shouts when riders collide. The sound effects combine well with the on-screen action to make you feel every bump your rider takes. And if you’re playing the Japanese version (available on Switch for all Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscribers who have set up a Japanese Nintendo Account), you’ll benefit from some Rumble Pak compatibility exclusive to that version of the game.

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Also adding to the atmosphere is the announcer, an exciting chap who will count down to the start of the race, comment (“nice” or “good”) when things are going well and when they aren’t (“don’t sweat” it” or ” no problem”). He’ll also give you updates on your progress (“you’re still first”, “you’ve been overtaken”), shout when your engine is at “maximum power!”, and go BIG DRUGS to shout “BANZAI! ” you must manage a flawless race.

Championship mode is available in Normal, Hard and Expert flavors; removing the last course on a difficulty opens the next one. Normal has six tracks you can drive through and the difficulty level is well rated. The opener, Sunny Beach, is a basic oval circuit, with subsequent courses introducing ramps, obstacles, tighter turns and tougher conditions. Moving on to Hard mode, there’s some disappointment in the fact that you’re racing the same six courses with a seventh thrown in, and Expert adding an eighth. Fortunately, there are some changes to keep things from getting too samey. You will find that the water is choppy, there are several buoys and obstacles around, and there are some alternative routes to be found. There’s a noticeable bump in challenge from Normal to Hard, where mistakes are soon punished and a late crash will ruin your run.

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If you’re struggling on a track, a visit to the Time Trials menu is recommended where you can practice any circuit you’ve reached so far and set times and shave fractions of a second off your lap times without other riders weaving around and messing up with your racing line.

An alternative way to play is provided by Stunt Mode. Available on all tracks, you earn points by riding through the rings and earn even more points from performing stunts you feel like in between. It’s fun, but not as satisfying as 2P VS. mode. While it’s a downgrade in visual detail, it moves fluidly, and the ability to race against a friend adds significant replay value to a game that already gives you good reasons to return.

Conclusion

Wave Race 64 is a game with subtle, simple controls that still feel amazing, and great water physics that combine with effective audio to immerse you in the action as you whiz around on the water. Playing through the championship is great fun, and further excitement and, yes, gameplay can be found in Stunt mode and Time Trials, the latter of which offers plenty of replay value. Throw in the ability to race against a friend in two-player mode, and Wave Race 64 is almost as impressive now as it was in the 90s. Highly recommended.

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