We go hands-on with Nintendo’s classic racer Wave Race 64 today, as it splashes its way onto Nintendo Switch’s Online Expansion Pack.
More than a quarter of a century on from its debut on the Nintendo 64, Wave Race 64 has been released for the Nintendo Switch’s Online Expansion Pack, joining other classic N64 racing titles F-Zero X and Mario Kart 64 on the service.
The announcement of its impending release heralded a deluge of rose-tinted reminisces, but have the years been kind to Nintendo’s splash-em-up, and more crucially, does the game translate well to Ninty’s hybrid console?
This ain’t Cheddar Gorge
Writing as a passionate N64 fan (I still own the original console I received as a Christmas present way back in 1997) I missed the Wave Race 64 (WR64) bandwagon entirely. It was released in Japan in September 1996, arriving as just the third ever N64 game (after Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64).
In November 1997, the game was released in North America, with a European PAL version following in April 1997. The Switch version is a faithful re-creation of the N64 classic, replete with its 4:3 aspect ratio.
To get around the boxy appearance, the screen features thick borders at each side, which doesn’t look great initially but quickly fades into the background as you concentrate on the action front-and-centre.
Fire up WR64 and you’re immediately subjected to some supreme ‘80s cheese. The soundtrack is upbeat and saccharine, with perhaps too much dolphin (not a sentence I thought I’d ever write).
It matches the game’s colourful aesthetic though – it’s meant to be a fun racing game, right? The announcer’s lines and AI character chatter are also delightfully off-the-wall, evoking memories of ‘80s American sports dramas – honestly, I expected a montage to break out at any moment.
And it is indeed fun. The Jet skis (officially licensed by Kawasaki no less) move with a certain weightiness, with players having to manually adjust their avatar’s body position to combat big waves and jumps.
Tricks can also be pulled off with the correct timing and various flicks of the analogue stick, including handstands, barrel rolls, flips and somersaults, and are essential to grabbing high scores in Stunt Mode. It can feel a little monotonous, however – there are literal hoops to jump through, after all.
Speaking of which, the Main Menu features four racing options: Championship, Time Trials, 2P Vs. and Stunt Mode. Time Trials and 2P Vs. are fairly obvious, but the main single-player campaign can be found in Championship mode.
Here, players can race through a maximum of nine courses (although Dolphin Park is used as a warmup space) against three AI opponents. As players progress through the series, they face quicker opponents and a sterner challenge.
Progress far enough and you can unlock reverse directions of all the tracks. There’s not a huge variety on offer, but for a 1996 game WR64 had a fair amount of longevity. I mean, the genre-leading Sega Rally only had eight tracks in 1995 – including reverse options – so it wasn’t an issue.
Water you on about?
The game’s defining feature – water – was, for the time, a technical achievement. It was both see-through and reflective. Impressive (for a 1996 cartridge-based console game). The way the sea throws your jet ski around is also convincing, and makes you feel like the shifting surface is influencing your craft’s movements. It’s still quite pretty to look at today, in fact.
It’s not all good news, however. The framerate is a little choppy (pun intended), with the action suffering as a result. Things aren’t helped by the Switch’s divisive analogue stick. Often, a slight press on the stick will result in my jet ski lurching too far one way, with an overcorrection taking it to the other extreme.
It’s an annoyance as WR64 rewards players who steer successfully around directional buoys with a speed boost. Miss one of those and all that lovely boost disappears. Knot fun. The two-player mode also suffers from the same framerate issues as single-player. Disappointing.
I went to check if it was simply a Switch emulation issue by firing up both Mario Kart 64 and F-Zero X on the console. But, alas, those two games ran buttery smooth in comparison.
I even tried the game via a PC-based emulator with an original N64 controller. Not only did it run much better, but the often-derided N64 M-shaped gamepad offered more precise inputs. I did not expect that!
If you can look past these performance issues, then Wave Race 64 is a charming throwback to the days of fun arcade games. As an emulation of N64 software, it’s not in the same league as F-Zero X and Mario Kart 64, however. But it still has many redeeming features, no doubt multiplied if you’re already onboard (starboard?) as a fan.
Hopefully, this port (!) of WR64 builds enthusiasm for a proper next-gen sequel to 2001’s Wave Race: Blue Storm. It’s clear that many fans are clamouring for fun, arcadey experiences offered by the likes of WR64.
And F-Zero, for that matter…
Over to you, Nintendo.