Wave Race 64 launched September 1996 in Japan and remains king of the waves, even to this day…
Article by Ben Bulbeck
Was it always going to be jet skis? An interview with legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto in the February 1996 edition of Edge magazine revealed that he had high hopes for Wave Race, a game that it seemed was going to tap into the design and racing action of F-Zero, but with water-based vehicles rather than futuristic spacecraft. Indeed, a screenshot of the game printed in Edge magazine at the time revealed a vehicle that wouldn’t have looked out of place on F-Zero, rather than the jet skis that the game ended up with, but Mr Miyamoto was right to express his excitement for the forthcoming game, in anticipation of the Nintendo 64's UK release.
Wave Race 64 surfed in September 1996 launching in Japan, bringing with it a dynamic and action-packed racing game featuring water effects that - even to this day - look realistic enough to drench you. Here was a game from Nintendo that was offering a new and unique spin on the racing genre. Where a road-based game may have been limited to the grip of the tarmac, Wave Race 64 offered its players colourful buoys to weave between, and ramps to launch you in the air for a flip or barrel-roll, before crashing back on to the water's surface. Even the training level required you to follow the route of a guiding dolphin. You didn't need to be a jet ski fan to appreciate the fun that was on offer here.
Besides offering different jet skis to ride on, the game also contains nine different courses, including sun-drenched beaches, serene lakes, and choppy ocean waters. It isn't just the vehicle that you're battling to master; it's the water too. There are moments on each course when you can risk a shortcut: a leap on the crest of a wave to avoid an obstacle in the water, but of course the erratic nature of the sea means that you could end up taking an impromptu dip, with the narrator offering an "Ouch!" to really kick you while you’re down.
The good news is that Wave Race 64 still plays magnificently today. Time has been kind, especially in the two-player mode, which can be a tense duel in which one dodgy jump on the crest of a wave can deduce the winner. Races can often be decided in a split-second, but there's always an urge to get back on the jet ski and try again, either in two-player, in the single player tournament or indeed in a time trial when which you're trying to shave seconds off your best time.
Wave Race 64 is a blast. It's hard not to have fun when the in-game narrator is congratulating you on a smooth manoeuvre ("Nice!", "Great!") or indeed berating you for not being in first-place ("You're about... twenty seconds behind!"). Nintendo EAD (the game developers) are blatantly wanting you to have fun, and that's without the benefit of the red shells and banana skins of a Mario Kart game.
Wave Race 64 was both a critical and commercial success for Nintendo, universally acknowledged as one of the greatest racing games on the N64 (and let's not forget that the console isn't short of great racing games... Mario Kart 64, F-Zero 64, Diddy Kong Racing to name a few). I'm still a regular Nintendo 64 player, and Wave Race 64 is one of the cartridges I will most often slot into the console. There are the obvious solid-gold hits on the machine, such as Goldeneye, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Mario 64, but I would suggest that Wave Race 64 is just as valid in that collection of must-play classics.
There was a sequel on GameCube – Wave Race: Blue Storm - but I would argue that some of the game's charm had been lost in this follow-up. If there's a game that's crying out for a revisit on Nintendo Switch, it's this one. Come on Nintendo, let's ride those waves again.
Article by Ben Bulbeck