Over the course of its history, Nintendo has relied on a handful of racing franchises. In recent years, the first-party racing conversation has started and ended with Mario Kart. Prior to that, there have been a few other racing series that Nintendo would occasionally revisit, including the F-Zero and Cruis'n games. Outside of that, newer generations may be unaware of some of Nintendo's other racers, including one that we're here to celebrate on the day of its 25th anniversary. In 1996, Nintendo took players out into the sunny beaches and the vast oceans to board their jet skis and race to the finish line in Wave Race 64.
Nintendo's first ever j-- wait, there was one before this?
Before diving into Wave Race 64 itself, let's jump into a fun fact. This was actually a sequel! In 1992, Nintendo (including Producer Shigeru Miyamoto) put together a new racing game for its handheld Game Boy system called Wave Race. This game centered around the idea of jet ski racers competing against each other across dozens of watery tracks.
Like other racing games of its era, Wave Race operated with a top-down perspective. Competitors had a limited time to race through each checkpoint before ultimately hitting the finish line. Unlike other racers, the watery setting made cornering and maneuvering feel noticeably different than traditional racing games.
Whether it was the solo mode or four-player multiplayer, which was a rarity for the Game Boy, there were enough players who enjoyed this bold experiment that Nintendo got to work on a sequel. It's the sequel that we're here to talk about today.
The Nintendo 64 goes jet skiing
In 1996, the Nintendo 64 released in North America and its launch lineup was... paltry, to say the least. There was all-time classic Super Mario 64 and significantly-less-classic Pilotwings 64. The list ended there for the console's first month. Finally, the third game in the Nintendo 64's North American library released in the form of Wave Race 64, the sequel to the aforementioned Game Boy sleeper hit. Once again assembled by Nintendo, including Miyamoto returning to the producer role, Wave Race 64 was the N64's first major racing game and, like the Game Boy title before it, it would prove to be another under-the-radar hit. More than that, though, it would prove to be a technological step forward for Nintendo.
The first major difference between Wave Race 64 and its predecessor is that it operates in full 3D. The camera is now placed behind the player's racer, similar to F-Zero and Super Mario Kart. Unlike those games, the physics are noticeably different. Approaching it like a traditional racing game is not an option here. The object here is to race around tracks while making sure to pass colored buoys from a certain side. Along the way, racers have to navigate the ocean waves and compensate for their effect on speed and turns. The manner in which players would have to navigate the waves, adjust their turns, avoid various obstacles, and make sure to hit the buoys made this feel like an atypical arcade racer.
Of course, one can't discuss Wave Race 64 without talking about the water itself. Water physics hadn't really been too much of a thing in Nintendo's previous titles, certainly not water physics in a 3D setting. On top of that, Wave Race 64 made weather effects every bit as important as individual track design. Would players race along a peaceful lake, where they only needed to concern themselves with their opponents? Or would they race under a hazardous storm, which had adverse effects on the tides? This is a novel concept that hasn't really been seen in too many Nintendo racers since.
Wave Race 64 is one of those games that can be considered a product of its time. Jet skiing was a hobby that largely thrived in the late 90s. It's part of the reason that the stunt element of Wave Race 64 resonated with its player base. And, though many people still enjoy jet skiing for fun, its popularity isn't what it was when Wave Race 64 first came out.
However, good racing is timeless and the folks at Nintendo are well aware of that. It's why rumors have persisted that Wave Race will one day return. Original Wave Race producer Shinya Takahashi told Fandom back in 2018, "You may see that game again. We have been trying to make many games and that may be one of them. I personally love Wave Race!" Of course, Takahashi has been one of the busiest men at Nintendo, acting as producer for the company's full first-party lineup, but the fact that he hasn't forgotten Wave Race should leave fans feeling encouraged.
Wave Race's influence has not been lost on the generations that grew up with the Nintendo 64 launch lineup 25 years ago. While Mario Kart 64, F-Zero X, and Diddy Kong Racing would eventually become the go-to racers for N64 owners, Wave Race 64 remains one of Nintendo's most overlooked and underrated gems of all-time. Today, we celebrate its 25th anniversary and anxiously await its potential release in the next round of titles for the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Jet ski jamboree: 25 years of Wave Race 64
Great article. Lots of great memories playing WR64. I never played the GB version but remember seeing it on the store shelf as a kid. That brought back a lot of feels.