Originally touted as the successor to F-Zero, Wave Race 64 had a lot to live up to. While visually they are completely different from each other, they do have more in common than you’d think: high speeds, high difficulty, both awesome. Arcade racing at its finest.
You take control of one of four characters as you compete against the remaining three in a high-octane Jet Ski championship. While your goal is obviously to finish as high as possible in each race, there’s much more to think about than just being as fast as possible around the track.
As you make your way through the 3 laps of each of the fairly short tracks, you must slalom past red and yellows buoys that are scattered around. Yellow buoys mean that you have to pass to the left of them, reds you must pass on the right. Doing this correctly grants you a power boost that can be increased up to 5 times, however if you miss then your power gauge drops backs to zero, letting you build it again from scratch. If that wasn’t punishing enough, if you miss five buoys in one race then you are disqualified.
The buoys are often so close together (especially on the higher difficulties) that if you miss one, the likelihood is that you can miss the next one too, and the next one after that. They are easy to miss too, thanks to the learning curve of the controls mixed with the unpredictability of the ocean waves.
It’s a difficult and unforgiving game. The controls will take some time to master as they are unusual for a racing game, dare I say almost realistic? I like to think of the control stick as a representation of the person aboard the jet-ski, as you lean side to side, forward and backwards, trying to dominate the beastly machine below you. Holding it right will allow your ride to turn in that direction, but if you lean back a little by holding right and down then you’ll do a much sharper turn. It has very nuanced controls that at first seem impossible and unwieldy, but once you begin to get a feel for them, you’ll realise the power is in your hands.
That power also comes from the knowledge of the tracks. There are only eight stages in total (a disappointing amount this day in age), but it will take you a long time to truly master each one. As you’ll be playing the same stages over and over again (I mentioned it’s difficult, right?) you will begin to memorise each and every buoy and know full well when to lean your man forward in anticipation of a wave that would normally send you sky high.
The sea is an opponent as much as the other racers are. You’re constantly fighting against it; turn too sharply, fail to spot some perilous flotsam or ride a wave too abnormally and you’ll be wiped out. On the standard difficulty setting, you can probably get away with it. On Hard, Expert and the Reverse mode, it’s probably game over, at least for that race as the competition rarely makes mistakes themselves.
Finishing last is not the end of the world for your chances at the title, but it is certain to make things difficult for you. In order to progress to the next round of a competition you must have amassed a certain amount of points, failure to reach that point goal will result in a game over and going back to the first race to start over again.
Did I mention the difficulty? Slaloming buoys, merciless water conditions, nuanced controls and a demanding progression system leaves Wave Race 64 one of the most challenging racers around on Hard and Expert mode at least, even more so than the recently reviewed Fast Racing Neo. I love it. It’s a classic arcade racer.
The whole feel, presentation and gameplay make it feel like a classic Sega arcade game. Had I not known it was made by Nintendo I would have slapped a heavy wedge on it being Sega making this game, right down to the cheesy announcer.
Graphically it obviously hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s a Nintendo 64 title and an early one at that. Even the water effect, that was probably mind-blowing at the time, look really off these days. But that’s not an issue considering it still plays exceedingly well once you get a hang of the controls.
Personally I found playing through Normal and Hard mode a delight. They were difficult but I managed them eventually, and I’d be happy to go and play again at any time. Expert is where things got way too difficult for me and although I did manage it once (to unlock reverse mode) it’s probably not something I’d play again.
Outside of championship mode you have the standard time trials if that’s your bag and even a stunt mode. While riding you can perform stunts or tricks using flicks of the analogue sticks, although pretty useless in championship mode, are very useful in Stunt mode. In this mode you rack up points by driving through rings and performing stunts. It’s a fun mode but I personally much preferred to stick with the standard racing.
There’s also a 2-player mode to enjoy. Two players can race against each other in a track of their choosing, sadly you are the only two racers on the track. I think processing the water effects for 2 players is almost too much for the original hardware, probably why 4 players is also out of the question. More players available could have made this a brilliant group game (as long as they could all grasp the controls).
Overall, Wave Race 64 is a classic Nintendo 64 title, that I’m glad I’ve played. Despite having a 64 at the time and plenty of classic titles, this is one that passed me by. It’s a brilliant arcade racer by a high learning curve that may put people off. But if you give it enough time to get to grips with it, it’s one of the best titles on the system.