Wave Race 64 review – how does it play today?

by Martin Watts, 8 March 2020

Ryota Hayami zooms along on his jet-ski in Wave Race 64.

Wave Race 64 made a huge splash when it launched in 1996.

It proved what a powerful piece of kit the N64 was for its time. And it also gave us an early indication of just how advanced gaming could – and would – become.

The title screen for Wave Rave 64, which includes a Kawasaki Jet-Ski logo for authenticity.

But surely there’s no way that Wave Race 64 still impresses today? After all, it’s now over 20 years old and a lot has changed in gaming since then.

The short answer is that it does. Wave Race 64 is not only still very technically competent, it’s also great fun to play.

What’s Wave Race 64 about?

Wave Race 64 is a jet-ski racing game with a heavy focus on realistic water physics.

And it’s truly astounding just how well the game pulls this off despite its age.

M. Jeter jumps over a killer wave in Wave Race 64's Southern Island

There are nine courses for you to zoom around on your personal watercraft, including sunny beaches, vast lakes, and industrial docks. And in all of these, the water behaves differently.

The single-player Championship mode is where you spend most of your time. It features three difficulty classes for you to beat (and an extra reverse mode).

The N64 logo as it appears in Wave Race 64's Southern Island course

The goal is to get more points than the other racers. However, they’re the least of your worries compared to the actual waves you have to tackle.

Otherwise, there’s a two-player mode, where you can go head-to-head against a friend on all the courses you have unlocked.

Wave Race 64's Twilight City course

And if you like high-score challenges then you may enjoy the time trial and stunt modes. In fact, Wave Race 64 still has a pretty active speedrun community.

Wave Race 64 features Kawasaki jet-ski branding, adding an extra element of realism to the game.

Feel the waves

The wave physics are the crowning achievement of this game. Even today, the way the water behaves is remarkably realistic, despite Wave Race 64’s dated graphics.

They’re also what make the game a deep and rewarding challenge.

Each course comes with its own wave patterns. For example, Drake Lake features calm and still water, whereas Marine Fortress has incredibly rocky waves.

D. Mariner swerves to narrowly miss a floating crate in Wave Race 64's Marine Fortress course.

At the same time, the water will change over the duration of the race. For example, the tide will come in and the water depth will decrease. In some instances this drastically alters a course’s layout, opening up new routes.

The water physics are impressive to the point that they’re almost tangible. You can “feel” the waves as you crash into them and they affect your trajectory.

Racing around buoys in Wave Race 64's Sunset Bay course.

It’s remarkably complex and is by far the most convincing example of water in an N64 game.

Unfortunately, the international version of Wave Race 64 doesn’t support the Rumble Pak. It’s a shame given it would be a perfect match.

However, the Japanese-only Shindou Edition does, and it’s easily the best way to experience this game.

Oh buoy

Wave Race 64 isn’t just about tackling the water. You also have to navigate a set of buoys across each course.

You have to pass each one on the correct side. Every time you do, your jet-ski’s engine power will increase by one (up to maximum of five).

Driving to the right side of a red buoy in Wave Race 64.

Miss a buoy and you will lose any power you have built up. Miss five in a single race and you will be disqualified.

How these buoys are arranged depends on the difficulty level. On expert, they can be incredibly tight, meaning a good knowledge of the course and some forward planning is important.

Wave Race 64's characters wait for the green light at the start of a race

Learning the intricacies of each course’s layout and water behaviour is the key to winning. You can ram opponents or cut them up, but without tight jet-skiing skills it won’t help much.

Wave Race 64’s expert mode is especially gruelling. You need to come first in nearly every race, regardless of how well your opponents do.

Port Blue course summary

That’s because the game has a minimum qualifying score for each round of a cup. Even if you perform better than the other racers, you’re not guaranteed a place in the next race.

You’re up against killer waves, awkward buoys and other racers who love getting in the way. And so it’s very easy for something to quickly go wrong and ruin a race.

R. Hayami gets disqualified from the Wave Race 64 Championship

This wouldn’t be so bad if you could just restart the race. But if you retire, you have to start all over from the very beginning of the championship.

Nevertheless, the game’s upbeat nature means you’ll want to get back on your watercraft again each time.

The in-game commentator is especially encouraging, and the warm and catchy soundtrack certainly has the power to put you in a good mood.

Ayumi Stewart jet-skis through a ring in Stunt mode

Pull a stunt

Wave Race 64’s stunt mode is a nice diversion from the main game.

Here, you have to pull off as many tricks as you can while jet-skiing your way through rings for extra points.

Performing a handstand in Wave Race 64

There are a load of tricks you can do, giving you plenty of options as you try for a high score.

In fact, if you do a wide enough range of tricks, you may just unlock a hidden secret.

Multiplayer

Sadly, Wave Race 64’s multiplayer only supports up to two players. It isn’t surprising given how much this game pushes the N64.

You and another player can compete across all of the courses you have unlocked in the single-player mode.

The same difficulty settings are available, and you can turn on a handicap if you’re after a closer racing experience.

Given how technical Wave Race 64 is, the multiplayer is very much a test of skill. That said, you can always just ram your opponent if that is more your style.

Wave Race 64’s technical performance

Despite everything the game is trying to do with its water physics, Wave Race 64 runs remarkably well. The frame rate remains consistent throughout the game.

It’s a colourful and vibrant experience, and this helps to make Wave Race 64 feel less old than it actually is.

The lens flare effect in Wave Race 64 - a popular visual feature in many late '90s 3D video games.

There’s a wealth of detail to be found in each course. Neat little touches like dolphins swimming in the background or ducks flying overhead add an air of realism.

The course Drake Lake is a real highlight. At first, you’re racing in a heavy fog – you can’t help but think it must be due to the N64’s technical limitations.

But as you make your way round, the fog starts to dissipate. The sunshine pierces through and, by the third lap, the weather is completely clear. The water even has reflections of the surrounding scenery (although, sadly not of your racer). It’s absolutely stunning.

Wave Race 64’s performance also holds up in splitscreen multiplayer. To achieve this, the game does away with much of its superfluous detail (like the reflections) and advanced lighting.

Glacier Coast course from Wave Race 64

However, it’s worth it, as it ensures the frame rate remains consistent and relatively high across all courses.

As impressive as the waves may look, the water isn’t as convincing as it once was.

If you stop to really look at it, you’ll notice it has a gloopy quality to it. But as those waves hit you in the heat of the race, you really won’t care.

Port Blue's choppy waves make for difficult jet-ski racing

The colourful visuals also help when playing the game on a modern TV setup.

On a standard N64, Wave Race 64 looks a bit duller and fuzzy on an LCD/LED TV. Nevertheless, it’s clean enough for you to still enjoy the game.

As per always, the best experience is on a CRT TV. It also looks superb on an UltraHDMI N64.

Ayumi Stewart, one of four playable characters in Wave Race 64.

PAL is not your pal

Wave Race 64 wasn’t optimised for the PAL format. As a result, European and Australian versions of the game run at 5/6 of the speed of North American and Japanese copies (NTSC/NTSC-J).

Due to the difference in screen resolutions, the PAL version of Wave Race 64 also has huge black borders around the image.

PAL and Shindou editions of Wave Race 64.

This doesn’t stop Wave Race 64 from being a good game. But it does tarnish the experience by making the gameplay feel sluggish.

So play the NTSC version if you can. Remember, you’ll need a Japanese or North American N64 console for this.

(Note: Japanese cartridges won’t fit a North American N64 – and vice versa – due to a physical region lock. It’s possible to remove this with an internal console modification.)

David Mariner, Wave Race 64 character

Summary

Wave Race 64 is just as fun to play today as it was back in 1996. In fact, it’s one of the very best games in the N64’s library.

This is largely due to the game’s incredible water physics, which still look and feel realistic today.

And while the graphics are understandably dated, there are plenty of little touches and details that help make this an immersive experience.

Never mind that there aren’t that many courses. Each one features its own water behaviour and hazards, meaning they all feel truly unique from one another.

M. Jeter stands atop the winners' podium in Wave Race 64.

The game delivers this admirably, maintaining a consistent frame rate throughout.

Even the two-player mode runs smoothly, all the while keeping the water physics intact. That said, some of the graphical detail and lighting is reduced or removed in the process.

Wave Race 64’s single-player mode is challenging and, at times, a tad unforgiving. Having to restart an entire Championship can be frustrating. But it’s a minor criticism at best.

Otherwise, avoid the PAL version of the game if you can. It’s still playable, but the slower speed and thick black borders don’t do it justice.

Verdict

great

  • Superb water physics
  • Good range of courses, each with their own water behaviour and hazards
  • Rewarding gameplay experience that demands skill and course memorisation
  • Upbeat, catchy soundtrack
  • Runs smoothly
  • Championship scoring and retry system is unforgiving
  • Terrible PAL version – play NTSC if you can
  • Wish it offered a four-player mode (but with two players it's still great!)

To learn more about how review N64 games see our review scoring system page. Because we focus on whether a game is still enjoyable to play today, we try to avoid discussing a game’s development history, impact or legacy in our reviews.