This review was originally published in 2016, and we are 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 before it came to the Nintendo 64. It wasn’t really a series at all, but rather a single release: a top-down racer on the Game Boy. With its 64-bit machine offering the opportunity for new 3D gaming experiences, Nintendo decided to take another shot at a Jet Ski Racer and created the impressive Wave Race 64, a game that still manages to amaze all these years later thanks to precise controls. and elegant and wave physics that have not yet been improved.
The championship is the main game mode. There are four characters to choose from with different abilities (speed, grip, acceleration, etc.); you pick one and then race against the other three in a series of three-lap races, passing buoys, jumping ramps and avoiding obstacles. Pass a buoy on the correct side and your engine power (and thus your speed) will increase. You miss a buoy and your engine drops to its lowest setting.
Points are awarded based on your finishing position, with seven for first, down to a single point for fourth (and zero if you drop out). As expected, the rider with the most points at the end of the tournament is declared the winner, although he may not go that far, as a certain amount of points is required to proceed to the next race. Of course, this being a video game, this rule doesn’t apply to its CPU-controlled competition. The gits.
Visually, Wave Race 64 opts for a bright, colorful, pleasing color well-built Look. While you can’t throw as many polygons as later consoles, the solid layouts give the game an impressively stylized look and the on-screen action is fast and fluid. That is unless you’re playing the PAL version, which is slower (50Hz compared to NTSC’s 60Hz) and vertically squashed with thicker black borders at the top and bottom. There are some fine details, like birds flying through the sky and the lights and screens that illuminate Twilight City. Banners can be seen around the fields and the skies add some variety to the settings, with some opting for a bright blue, while Marine Fortress has a murky look and Sunset Bay has a warm orange glow.
One particularly cool effect is the mist on Drake Lake, which at first looks like a Turok-like attempt to cover up technical shortcomings until it clears up as the laps progress to give you a clear view of your surroundings. It doesn’t all look great though, with some very flat looking trees and spectators who appear to be cardboard standing people, though you’re unlikely to notice while you’re busy racing waves.
The most impressive visual aspect, however, is a fundamental element of the game: the water itself. It ripples and sways like reflections and sometimes fish can be seen in it. The waves surge and crash, and the way they affect your Jet Ski (yes, the all-caps brand variant of the watercraft thanks to the Kawasaki tie-in in the original release) is remarkable.
The degree of fluidic violence exhibited varies between stages and during different points in a ride, but no matter what water your Jet Ski is hitting, it always feels Correct. Sometimes there’s a gentle sway, in rougher waters you struggle for control, and other times it feels like you’re going to be violently thrown from your boat, sometimes you are. A poorly timed aerial move, overly ambitious turn, or hard impact can lead to some spectacular looking crashes as your rider is thrown into the water, flailing or disappearing off screen as the machine flies in a different direction.
Precise controls complement the impressive water physics. Tighter turns are possible by pulling back further while driving, and shifting your center of gravity is helpful in dealing with hard landings. There are buttons for more advanced racers to help with tighter turns and to smooth out the bounce as you ride the waves, but most novices can get away with simply using the throttle and control stick. Sprinting through a course is a lot of fun and your rider does exactly what you ask, meaning any fall or collision feels like a misjudgment on your part, other than when some jerk just bumps into you.
Once you get the hang of the controls, you might also feel the need to throw in some stunt moves. Manipulate the stick in certain ways, in certain situations, and you’ll be able to pull off a variety of impressive maneuvers, including barrel rolls, flips, and even a handstand. The tutorial level explains how to perform these moves (as well as the basics of course) and the show is good for a laugh as you cross the line riding your Jet Ski backwards.
There is a variety of decent music in the game that can be upbeat, energetic, and sometimes intense, but will go unnoticed during gameplay; the true soundtrack of the game is revving engines and crashing waves. These work well for immersing you in the action and there are others that are good too: thuds and clanks when you hit something, they break when you hit an object hard, and they growl and scream when riders collide. The audio effects blend well with the on-screen action to make you feel every hit your rider takes. And if you’re playing the Japanese version (available on Switch to any Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscriber who has set up a Japanese Nintendo Account), you’ll benefit from some Rumble Pak support exclusive to that version of the game.
Also adding to the atmosphere is the announcer, an excitable guy who counts down to the start of the race, comments (“nice” or “good”) when things are going well and when they’re not (“don’t worry it’s” or “it’s not.” there is a problem”). It will also give you updates on your progress (“you’re still in first place”, “they’ve overtaken you”), yell when your engine is at “full power”, and say ALL CAPS to yell “BANZAI!” should you manage a flawless run.
Championship mode is available in Normal, Hard, and Expert flavors; Clearing the final course on one difficulty level unlocks the next. Normal has six courses for you to run and the difficulty is well calculated. The opener, Sunny Beach, is a basic oval, with later courses featuring ramps, obstacles, tighter corners and more difficult conditions. Moving on to Hard mode, there’s some disappointment in the fact that you race the same six courses with a seventh added, and Expert adds an eighth. Fortunately, there are some changes to keep things from being too similar. You’ll find that the water is choppier, there are more buoys and obstacles around, and there are a few alternate routes to find. There is a noticeable increase in challenge from Normal to Hard, where mistakes are soon punished and a late crash will ruin your run.
If you’re struggling on a course, it’s recommended to visit the Time Trial menu, where you can practice on any circuit you’ve ridden so far, and set times and shave fractions of a second off your lap times without other riders drifting. and playing with your racing line.
Stunt Mode provides an alternative way to play. Available on all courses, earn points by traversing rings and earn even more points by pulling off any stunt you fancy in between. It’s fun, but not as satisfying as 2P VS. mode. Although there is a reduction in visual detail, it progresses smoothly and the ability to compete with a friend adds considerable replay value to a game that already gives you good reasons to return.
Wave Race 64 is a game with simple and subtle controls that still feel fantastic, and excellent water physics that are combined with effective audio to immerse you in the action as you speed through the water. The championship is a lot of fun to play and more thrills and, yes, spills, can be found in Stunt mode and Time Trials, the latter offering plenty of replay value. Add the ability to race a friend in two player mode and Wave Race 64 is almost as impressive now as it was in the 90’s. Highly recommended.