This review originally went live in 2016, and we're updating and republishing it to mark the game's arrival on Switch as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack.
Wave Race was not a well-known series prior to its arrival on the Nintendo 64. Actually, it wasn't a series at all, but rather a single release: a top-down racer on the Game Boy. With its 64-bit machine offering the opportunity for new 3D gaming experiences, Nintendo decided to have another crack at a Jet Ski racer and came up with the very impressive Wave Race 64, a game which still manages to wow all these years later thanks to precise, elegant controls and wave physics that are yet to be bettered.
Championship is the main mode of play. There are four characters to choose from with differing abilities (speed, grip, acceleration, etc); you pick one and then compete against the other three in a series of three-lap races, passing buoys, jumping ramps and avoiding obstacles. Pass a buoy on the correct side and your engine power (and thus your speed) increases. Miss a buoy and your engine drops to its lowest setting.
Points are awarded based on your finishing position, with seven for first, down to a single point for fourth (and zero if you retire). The racer with the most points at tournament's end is unsurprisingly declared the victor, although you might not make it that far as a certain amount of points are required for you to proceed to the next race. Of course, this being a video game, this rule doesn't apply to your CPU-controlled competition. The gits.
Visually, Wave Race 64 opts for a bright, colourful, pleasantly chunky look. Whilst not being able to throw out as many polygons as later consoles, solid designs give the game an impressive stylised look and the on-screen action is fast and smooth. That is unless you're playing the PAL version, which is slower — 50Hz versus NTSC's 60Hz — and squashed vertically with thicker black borders top and bottom. There are some fine details, such as birds flying through the sky and the lights and screens that illuminate Twilight City. Banners can be seen around the courses and the skies bring some variety to stages, with some opting for a bright blue whilst Marine Fortress goes for a murky look, and Sunset Bay has a warm orange glow.
One particularly good effect is the mist on Drake Lake, at first appearing like a Turok-type attempt to cover up technical shortcomings until it clears as the laps progress to give you a clear view of your surroundings. Not everything looks great, however, with some very flat-looking trees and spectators who appear to be cardboard standees — although you're unlikely to notice while you're busy wave-racing.
The most impressive visual aspect, though, is a fundamental gameplay element: the water itself. It ripples and bobs away as reflections and sometimes fish can be seen in it. Waves rise up and come crashing down and the way these affect your Jet Ski — yes the capitalised, branded variant of the water vehicle thanks to the original release's Kawasaki tie-in — is remarkable.
The degree of fluidic violence exhibited varies between stages and during different points of a course, but however the water is buffeting your Jet Ski, it always feels right. Sometimes there's a gentle wobble, in choppier waters you fight for control, and other times it feels like you'll be thrown violently from your watercraft – sometimes you are. A misjudged aerial movement, an overly ambitious turn, or a hard impact can lead to some spectacular-looking crashes as your rider is thrown into the water, flailing about or disappearing off-screen as the machine flies off in a different direction.
Complementing the impressive water physics are spot-on controls. Tighter turns are possible by pulling back further as you steer, and shifting your centre of gravity is useful for dealing with difficult landings. There are buttons for more advanced racers to help with the tightest turns and to soften the bouncing as you ride over waves, but novices can mostly get away with just using the throttle and control stick. Speeding around a course is a lot of fun and your rider does exactly what you ask of them, meaning any falls or collisions feel like a misjudgement on your part, apart from when some prat just rides into you.
Once you've got the hang of the controls you may feel the urge to throw in some stunt moves, too. Manipulate the stick in certain ways, in certain situations, and you can perform a variety of impressive manoeuvres, including barrel rolls, flips, and even a handstand. The tutorial level explains how to perform these moves (as well as the basics, of course) and showboating is good for a chuckle as you cross the line riding your Jet Ski backwards.
There's a variety of decent music in the game that can be breezy, energetic, and sometimes intense, but which will largely go unnoticed during gameplay; the true soundtrack to the game is the revving engines and the crashing waves. These work well at immersing you in the action and there are others that are good, too: thuds and clanks as you clip something, smashes as you hit an object hard, and grunts and yells when riders collide. The audio effects combine well with the onscreen action to make you feel every bump your rider takes. And if you're playing the Japanese version (available on Switch to any Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscribers who have set up a Japanese Nintendo Account), you'll benefit from some Rumble Pak compatibility exclusive to that version of the game.
Also adding to the atmosphere is the announcer, an excitable chap who will count down to the start of the race, comment ("nice" or "good") when things are going well and when they're not ("don't sweat it" or "no problem"). He'll also give you updates on your progress ("you're still in first", "you've been overtaken"), shout when your engine is at "maximum power!", and go ALL CAPS to yell "BANZAI!" should you manage a fault-free race.
Championship mode is available in Normal, Hard and Expert flavours; clearing the final course on one difficulty setting opens the next. Normal has six courses for you to race through and the difficulty is well judged. The opener, Sunny Beach, is a basic oval circuit, with subsequent courses introducing ramps, obstacles, tighter turns and rougher conditions. Moving on to the Hard mode, there is some disappointment in the fact that you race on the same six courses with a seventh thrown in, and Expert adds an eighth. Thankfully there are some changes to stop things being too similar. You'll find the water is choppier, there are more buoys and obstacles about, and there are some alternate routes to be found. There is a noticeable bump in challenge from Normal to Hard, where mistakes are soon punished and a late crash will ruin your race.
If you are struggling on a course, a visit to the Time Trials menu is recommended where you can practice on any circuit you've reached so far, and set times and shave fractions of a second off your lap times with no other riders weaving about and messing with your racing line.
An alternative way of playing is provided by Stunt Mode. Available on all courses you earn points by riding through rings and earn yet more points from performing any stunts that you feel like in-between. It's fun, but not as satisfying as the 2P VS. mode. Although there is a downgrade in visual detail, it moves along fluidly and the ability to race a friend adds considerable replay value to a game that already offers you good reasons to return.
Wave Race 64 is a game with subtle, simple controls that still feels fantastic, and great water physics that combine with effective audio to immerse you in the action as you speed around on the water. It's thoroughly enjoyable to play through the Championship and further thrills and, yes, spills, can be found in the Stunt mode and Time Trials, the latter offering plenty of replay value. Throw in the ability to race a friend in two-player mode and Wave Race 64 is almost as impressive now as it was in the '90s. Highly recommended.