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.
The main mode of play in the game is "Championship". There are four characters to chose from with differing abilities (speed, grip, acceleration et cetera); you pick one and then compete against the other three in a series of 3-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 7 points for first, down to 1 point for fourth (0 if you retire). The person with the most points at the end is unsurprisingly declared the winner - you might not make it to the end, however, 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 is not applied to your CPU controlled competition.
Visually Wave Race 64 opts for a bright and colourful look. Whilst not being able to throw out as many polygons as later games machines, good designs give the game an impressive stylised look and the on-screen action is fast and smooth. There are some good details such as birds flying through the sky or the lights and LED screens that illuminate "Twilight City". Banners can be seen around the courses and unlike previous re-releases these include Kawasaki ones. The skies offer some variety to the 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, it clears up as the laps progress to give you a clear view of your surroundings. Not everything looks good, however, with some very flat looking trees and spectators who appear to be cardboard standees – although they're not the kind of things you notice when you're busy racing.
The most impressive visual aspect is the water itself. It ripples and bobs away as reflections and sometimes fish can be seen in it. Waves rise up then come crashing down and the way these affect your Jet Ski is remarkable. The degree of violence exhibited by the water varies between stages and during different points of a course, but however the water is buffeting your Jet Ski about 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 off their Jet Ski, flailing about or disappearing off-screen as the machine flies off in a different direction.
Complementing the impressive water physics are the spot on controls. You use the control stick for movement and a button for your throttle (A or ZL is the default on Wii U controllers). Tight turns are possible by pulling back as you make the movement, and shifting your centre of gravity is useful for dealing with difficult landings. There are buttons to help with tight turns and to soften the bouncing as you ride over waves, but you 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. Manipulate the stick in certain ways, in certain situations, and you will be able to 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) and it can provide a small chuckle as you cross the line riding your Jet Ski backwards.
There's a variety of good music in the game that can be breezy, energetic, sometimes intense and 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. This eShop release may not be the (Japanese exclusive) Rumble Pak version of the game, but the sounds combine well with the onscreen action to make you feel every bump your rider takes. 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 "don't sweat it" or "no problem" when they're not. 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 too (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 difficulty from Normal to Hard, where mistakes are soon punished and a crash late on will ruin your race.
If you are struggling on a couse a visit to the Time Trials menu is recommended where you can practice on any course you've reached so far. Of course the main reason to visit the Time Trials menu is to set quick times. With no other riders weaving about it's all about doing the best you can and then replaying the courses repeatedly as you attempt to shave fractions from your best times.
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 fun 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.
As a final note, the European release on Wii U is the 60Hz US version of the game, which is a welcome improvement for the region.
It's a game with simple controls that work well, combining with effective sound effects and great water physics to immerse you in the action as you speed around the various courses. It's highly enjoyable to play through the Championship and further entertainment can be found in the Stunt mode and Time Trials - the latter offering plenty of replay value as you try to improve on the best times. Throw in the ability to race a friend in the two-player mode and Wave Race 64 is a game that comes highly recommended.