Given that Wave Race 64 was a launch title for the N64, and that it has now been over 10 years since that launch, it is all the more baffling to play it today. Comparison with modern games tends to put the graphical and physics achievements of older titles into stark relief, but Wave Race is the exception to the rule. In the years since, little, if anything, has reached or surpassed the dizzying heights of the game's execution. Not only is it frankly beautiful to look at, but this beauty seems not to have been achieved at the expense of gameplay – the water physics were, at the time, so far ahead of anything else that it beggared belief and even with the benefit of hindsight, it's difficult not to be impressed.
The visuals strike a fine balance between art design and reality. One senses the limitations of the hardware may have forced some of the design choices (for example, all of the riders wear helmets), but this does not detriment the overall even-handed nature of the presentation. The first time one rides out onto Dolphin Island, a joyously crafted exhibition area for all the game has to offer, and starts appreciating the effects that even tiny waves have on the movement of the jetski, a sense of liberation is palpable. It becomes clear though the game's racing tours – divided into a number of difficulties with weather and waves increasingly playing a part – that the key to the designers' success is cunningly simple: by setting themselves a focused design brief, and honing each part of the game to perfection, the end result is something dangerously close to being the definitive water-based racer. Perhaps it is telling that, the sequel aside, all attempts at copying the formula (Hydro Thunder et al) failed both critically and financially.
The sound also adheres to this idea. There's little music to speak of during the races, all incidental sounds being directly related to the on-screen action. An announcer between races calls out the choices made and the current standings, but there is surprisingly little to distract from the racing. This in itself is no hindrance to enjoyment, as the races require extreme concentration at all times to ensure one not only rounds the buoys dotted around each track on the correct side (thereby building up top speed) but all the while keeping an eye on other racers. The effusive and unpredictable water physics also lend an organic feel each race, the likes of which tarmac racers would struggle to emulate.
If this were all there were to Wave Race 64, the game would be fondly remembered. But the designers added a trick system which, while simple to learn, requires a tremendous degree of practice to master. Not only can tricks be performed in the separate mode to rack up high scores, but when done over a wave or ramp mid-race, will more quickly build up that vital top-speed meter.
All-in-all, Wave Race must not only be considered a near-certain classic, it holds up astonishingly well even now; most people would opine it betters its more complicated successor. It's a testament not only to the choices made by the developers, but also shows it can never hurt to have Shigeru Miyamoto on-hand for advice.