Every new console has one or two titles designed to showcase the new hardware. The NES had Super Mario Brothers, the PlayStation 2 had Tekken Tag Tournament and the GameCube had Rogue Squadron 2. Even Altered Beast, as much as we balk at it now, showed the Genesis’ grunt. For many Super Mario 64 was that game for the N64, and rightfully so. But in my opinion Wave Race 64 was more impressive as its water technology and physics were literally a generation ahead of its time. Wave Race 64 is not only one of the Nintendo 64’s best games but one of the greatest games of all time.
I’m sure I was not alone wondering why Nintendo would create a sequel to a little known Gameboy game. I’m pretty sure most aren’t even aware the series started on that system. When Wave Race 64 debuted at Shoshinkai 1995 it was very different from what would eventually release. The futuristic speedboats would give way to riders on jet skis. In the end it probably turned out better as jet skis sold the wave physics better. Even today the game still impresses and makes for an enjoyable way to kill a few days.
What is immediately apparent is the game’s graphics. The character models are bit chunky but you’re not looking at them anyway. The water in Wave Race was out of this world, with incredible lighting and transparency effects that made it look real. Different tracks took place at various times of day, showcasing the lighting effects and how they highlighted the water. They also set a mood, such as the orange tone of Sunset Bay and the sky lights of Port City. To this day there are moments from this game that are etched in my memory such as the fog parting on lap three of Drake Lake to reveal the perfect reflections on the surface of the water. It would take an entire generation for the game’s water to be surpassed which is mind boggling.
The graphics are more than just for show however. The waves affect handling in a number of ways depending on how you approach them. Cutting into waves at an angle, launching off ramps, even the way they make your jet ski bounce, no game prior had ever felt like this. Weather conditions also play a factor. Heavy rain will cause the water to rise while the tide coming in causes i.t to recede, revealing obstacles and even creating shortcuts. All of these factors make the already strong track design more dynamic.
It sounds like a lot to take in however the handling is incredibly tight. Each of the four riders have their individual characteristics but you can tweak them further. You can alter handling to be light or heavy, grip, or focus on acceleration or higher top speed. These alterations aren’t absolute; they affect each rider only to an extent. You won’t suddenly turn Dave Mariner into a cornering beast.
There are a variety of play modes that add to the game’s longevity. Championship is your standard single player campaign. The competition is limited to just four competitors which is small. What adds to the tension is a minimum point requirement needed to progress. With each successive track that number gets higher, and suddenly falling into third or fourth place becomes nerve wracking. Playing on higher difficulty levels not only makes the AI more aggressive, it also adds one more course, giving you something to look forward to. Ultimately there are nine tracks in total, which is nearly triple the amount most racing games of that era offered.
Normally I don’t bother with Time Trials in most games but here I looked forward to it. Between the varying waves and weather most runs are not the same. In addition tweaking stats can help shed seconds off your times with the right setup. I spent a solid month straight competing against myself back in 1997 and enjoyed every moment of it. Stunt Mode is an entirely separate part of the game. There are many tricks you can perform and the game does a good job teaching each one in the optional warm up area. Many factors affect your score, such as class of trick, how many times performed, and the number of hoops passed. I freely acknowledge any skill I once had in this mode has long since disappeared. But I’ve still had fun relearning all of this mode’s intricacies.
I’ve been playing Wave Race 64 on and off for the last twenty years and am still impressed by it. Its many elements may have been met or surpassed by similar titles now but as a total package few can match up. This is an incredible game and a watershed moment for racing games. Wave Race 64 Is a classic in my opinion and a must buy.