If like me you grew up with the Nintendo 64, you remember a zany variety of racing games. You’ve got go-carts (Mario Kart 64), pod racers (Star Wars Episode 1 Racer), anti-gravity machines (F-Zero X), and even snowboards (1080° Snowboarding). What else could you need?
Watercraft. You need watercraft because Wave Race 64 is an amazing experience.
The N64 can’t render a lot of polygons, but Wave Race 64 does its best with vivid colors and rollicking waves. I’d even argue they look better than the sequel Wave Race: Blue Storm. Not more realistic, but better. More, uh, gamey.
Couple these graphics with unmatched water physics and tight controls, you can feel the wind in your hair as you weave between buoys and crash through waves.
Core Gameplay Issues
It’s not all sun and tanning lotion. The water physics (and the control of the watercraft in general) can take some serious adjustment time. Even tinkering with your watercraft’s settings can throw you back down to the bottom of the learning curve.
But that’s the core challenge of the game. The courses are simple loops, but the need to go left of yellow buoys and right of red buoys keeps things interesting. And as the waves vary in size, strength, and frequency, you’ll need to keep on your toes to stay in the lead.
The best way to get—and keep—that lead is to time your accelerator press at the beginning of each race. Unfortunately, this is more of a benefit than it should be. Wave Race 64 doesn’t have temporary boosts like F-Zero X or consumable items like Mario Kart 64. Instead, each buoy counts like a Mario Kart coin pickup, boosting your machine stats ever so slightly.
So, when you time that first acceleration right, you can jump ahead to maximum power. This can make it almost too easy to keep the lead through the entire race. Everyone loves winning, but never being challenged? That sucks all the fun out of it.
Championship is great, but…
The point system in the campaign mode is too extreme. The point values from first to last are 7-4-2-1. That puts you at least six points ahead after winning two races, so you can flub the next one and be fine.
I prefer the one-point difference system of F-Zero X because it makes every race count. You need several wins to be guaranteed victory. The only redemption in Wave Race 64 is that you still need to “beat” the race to guarantee victory, since missing five buoys cuts you from the race.
Championship provides wonderful replayability, though, with an extra course at each higher difficulty level. You’ll want to work your way up from Normal to Expert. And once you’ve done that, you’ll unlock a reverse mode to double the number of available courses in time attack.
Even the individual races have a ton of variety. Each lap might raise or lower the water level, or even change the weather. One course features fog that clears by the final lap.
The racers, on the other hand, have almost no variety. They’re almost identical with slightly tweaked stats. You can customize these stats, but that only makes them more difficult to differentiate.
Music and Sound
The music is fantastic and driving, perfectly fitting the watery vibe of each stage. Plus, the announcer adds extra audio flair, with small touches like sometimes saying “No misses, beautiful!” when you finish a lap without missing a buoy.
The success and failure sounds when you pass a buoy make sure you know what’s happening, even if they’re off-screen. And other noises from the vroom of the machines to the splash of waves build solid immersion.
Stunt Mode – A Serious Misstep
I’d forgive anyone who completely misses that the game has Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater style tricks like spins, handstands, and even riding backwards on the watercraft. Unlike THPS, these are weird stick movements more like Street Fighter II special attacks, with finicky stick rotations.
Even worse, these tricks only work when you release the accelerator. Who would think to do that? And to top it all off, there’s a special “Stunt Mode” high score attack, but with the Superman 64 style rings giving you points for passing through them, the average player might think that’s all there is to it.
If I’m allowed one final complaint, I think the massive arrows pointing to the buoys and their bold coloration are a touch too extreme. It’s easy to abstract the game to a simple “left, right, left, left, right” and miss the beautiful courses entirely. Then again, this would be an unfamiliar mechanic to most players, so they wanted to make sure it was clear.
Overall, Wave Race 64 is super fun racing with good course variety and interesting wave physics. Though it doesn’t find any use for special tricks and its racers are indistinguishable, it’s an impressive early N64 title and (in my opinion) superior to its GameCube sequel.
If you’ve got a Nintendo Switch Expansion Pak and enjoy racing games—especially on the water—check it out!