Thursday, September 19, 2013

Game Review: Wave Race 64

Wave Race 64 
  • Publisher: Nintendo 
  • Developer: Nintendo 
  • Release: 
    • Nintendo 64, 1 November 1996 
    • Wii (DLC), 6 August 2007 
  • Genre: Racing 
  • Players: 1-2 
  • Save: Built-in 
  • Rarity/Cost: 
    • N64: Common (US$5-20) 
    • Wii: N/A (US$10) 
Remember back at the start of the summer, when I rather ironically reviewed two snowboarding games at once? Well allow me to make it up to you by reviewing a more summery sports game before the equinox hits. And what better way to follow up 1080 Snowboarding than with Nintendo's other extreme-sports title, Wave Race 64? The sequel to a 1992 Game Boy title called simply Wave Race, its N64 sibling is, as the title suggests, a racing game on waves. Specifically, you and three other competitors are tasked with doing laps around one of eight waterlogged tracks, on stand-up, Kawasaki-model personal watercraft. (Fun Fact: Due to an expired licence, the Wii version replaces the Kawasaki billboards, seen in the picture below, with ads for the Nintendo DS and Wii. In a game originally from 1996. Go figs.)

Most of your time may be spent in the Championship mode, a series of races which lasts for, depending on the difficulty selected, six to eight events. In these events, the position each racer finishes in determines the points they get at the end of each race, and the winner of the series is determined from who has the most points. But at the same time, there's a target score which increases with each round, and if you don't meet or exceed this score, you're kicked out of the series and will have to try again. This lingering threat of failure could discourage some gamers from giving it that other try, but who am I to complain about a game punishing you for your mistakes? And besides it's not as if you'll necessarily fail out just for finishing a race in fourth, not if you've built up a wide enough margin, so what've you got to complain about?
You have to follow slalom buoys, or else get powered down.
But certainly a simple race off of some beach could grow boring quickly, especially if a total of only four racers are involved? Well, that's not all: you have to follow a series of buoys as well, indicating you to pass them on the left or the right, like a slalom course. If you miss enough of these buoys (the default is 5), you lose the race automatically. But there's positive reinforcement for following them, as well: for each buoy you pass, your top speed is increased, up to a maximum of five levels. And then they throw in obstacles, ramps, and of course, the waves themselves, so one thing's for certain: in terms of gameplay, Wave Race 64 is not lacking in variety.

Wave Race 64 is, on the other hand, somewhat lacking in content, with only eight tracks available for play (plus Dolphin Park, which is available only as a practise level or in Stunt mode). But just because the levels are limited in number doesn't mean they lack their own personalities. For example, on Southern Coast, the last level on all difficulties, the tide falls in the middle of the race, forcing you to dodge new obstacles you could run over on the first lap. Apart from this, a number of courses have shortcuts, some of which don't open until the second lap, and some of which are completely blocked off on certain difficulties. Even the tracks that are laid out in a simple oval are spiced up simply by the presence of those slalom buoys I mentioned earlier. Apart from the Championship mode, the game also features 2-player races, a Time Trial mode, and the Stunt mode, where you score points for driving through rings and perform rolls, flips, and other manoeuvers off of ramps. The array of available tricks is not wide, certainly not to the level of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games, and I wish the Stunt Mode runs lasted more than one lap, but it's a fun experience to mess around in.

Speaking of lacking content, the selection of characters consists of only four riders. All of them have different performance statistics; although they are not displayed, which would have been a great help, it's a pretty obvious guess that the one girl (default name A. Stewart) boasts sharper turning and slower speeds than the big guy (D. Mariner). But if you're looking to conquer the Expert (and Reverse) series, you won't need to bother with anybody but the third rider (M.Jeter). He and his watercraft have the cornering acumen of the lady I mentioned earlier, but without the sacrifice in speed. In fact, their steering is a bit too sharp. And this isn't like a 1080 Snowboarding level of uncontrollability, but make too sharp a turn and you'll lose valuable speed fast. Well fret not: that's where the engine customisation feature comes in! No matter which rider you choose to play as, you can adjust his/her machine's handling, grip, and acceleration/top-speed balance. Apart from the last of those criteria I mentioned, the game gives little direction as to what altering these specs will have on your performance, so let me help you a bit. Just stick to M.Jeter and set the Handling spec halfway to the left, to fix some of his understeer.
Considering the time this game was made, the wave physics are impressive.
Before going any further, let me state the fact that Wave Race 64 was released within the first months of the Nintendo 64's life cycle,  well before the console's full potential had been tapped. That said, this game has some really good graphics for its time, especially in the look and feel of the water. The waves in particular, whilst they might be script-generated, are handled rather realistically and are an excellent showcase of the game's water physics. Again, consider the primitive state of 3D graphics at the time, and this becomes an even more amazing feat in hindsight. The soundtrack is primarily light-rock fare that would sound more at home in 1986 than '96, but the title screen does use a nice, somewhat catchy guitar-driven theme which is incorporated into a number of the stages' background music. And of course there's the announcer, prone to stating the obvious and sometimes falling behind in his vocal updates.

All in all, there's not too much content to be found in Wave Race 64, not like today's triple-A title... sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence with a straight face. At any rate, the slalom system, Stunt Mode, and of course the wave physics make this game stand out among its contemporaries in the racing genre. In fact, given that this series only received one additional sequel, Wave Race: Blue Storm (GCN, 2001), that only serves to highlight the special place Wave Race 64 (and presumably, the other two games) holds in the gaming macrocosm. If you can find it for cheap, preferably less than the $10 it goes for on the Wii Shop, then by all means, give it a spin! Or... whatever they say in that regard for personal watercraft.

+ Impressive wave effects and physics.
+ Courses that change in the middle of a race.
+ The buoy slalom system (arguably a negative).

- Disagreeable controls, if you're used to land-based driving games.
- The buoy slalom system (arguably a positive).

Control: 3 buoys out of 5
Design: 4 buoys out of 5
Graphics: 5 buoys out of 5
Audio: 3 buoys out of 5
Value: 3 buoys out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

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