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Wave Race 64

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Reviewed by Kent Frechette The releases to date for the Nintendo 64 have been, for me, quite a mixed bag. Mario 64 was greeted with such high praise that to disagree with such assessments was to automatically be labeled with the epitaph 'loony'. My contention is that Mario 64 was, and is, a magnificent gaming engine, but nevertheless bores me to no end. Then there was Pilot Wings, a game met with more apathy than praise. I enjoyed it for about a week, more so than I did Mario 64, but it wore thin rather quickly too. The third release was Wave Race, which I'll get to soon, followed by the horrendous port of Mortal Kombat Trilogy, a game that should have been retired and put out of its own misery two sequels ago. Shortly after MKT came Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey, another sub-par hockey title, joining the pathetic ranks of NHL 97 and Faceoff 97, both for the PS. The best hockey games can still be found on 16 bit machines, sad to say. Glitz and glitter do not an instant classic make. So, in the middle of the initial crop of Nintendo 64 titles, we have Wave Race 64, a racing game. Not to beat around the bush, WR64 is the second best racer of the year behind Wipeout XL, and my third favorite non-sports title of the year. The only other title I've played on a console system this year that I've enjoyed more is Tomb Raider for the PS, a game Mario 64 wishes it could have been. Racers, by their general nature, are rather short lived bits of enjoyment. It's tough to find a racer that gamers will unanimously agree upon that they've played year after year, to which a sequel isn't constantly clamored for. You race the tracks, you beat them all on the game's most difficult settings, and you move on to another game. If the game has an excellent two player option, the game survives that much longer. The characteristic that keeps one coming back to a game, the challenge, eventually dies away as the gamer gets so good at the game he can pull over to the side of the road, take a wizz, get back in the car, and still win the race. Short lived as they may be, racers are still one of the most popular genres of video games going today. As if the nearly 20+ new racers this year alone isn't proof enough of that. We've seen hovercraft racing, racing on dirt, snow, rain-slicked roadways, concrete, but very few titles that take place on the water. Wave Race, as indicated by its name, is such a game. Growing up in South Florida, we learned rather quickly that surfing, unless there was a hurricane brewing, was rather pointless. You can find more waves in Waterbed Showroom. That left wind surfing, water-skiing, and eventually Wave Runners came along. Fast, fun, and dangerous, they left all of us drooling. WR64 is most likely going to leave a lot of kids with the same feelings this Christmas. As an avid wave runner myself, I can attest to the realism presented within WR64. The vehicles, the waves, and the racers all react as I would expect them to given the environment the race is taking place in. There are nine tracks (well, really only 8. There is a practice track that you may use once or twice, but is rather pointless) on which you'll race. Sure, they're all wet, but that's where the similarities between the tracks end. All the tracks have sickeningly cute names, something we've come to expect from Nintendo, but I'll allow you to gag on them at your own leisure when you acquire the game. Here's a rundown on the tracks: (1) A simple oval. The day is bright and sunny, and the race takes place around a small island. Since the race is so close to the beach, you must also take the chop into consideration, mild as it may be. This track is a good way to kick things off. You have some waves to contend with while you attempt to maneuver around the race buoys, but nothing too difficult. You'll find yourself coming in first on all difficulty settings rather quickly. The Hard and Expert settings add a few mines (of the non-explosive variety) and the buoy placements are a tad bit more difficult. (2) Another track that takes place around an island. I imagine the time of day is sundown, because the tide changes with each lap. Because of the sun's low height, the water has an amazing reddish hue. It's positively stunning. This track also exhibits what is known as "lens flare". That's where you look into the sun and it actually impairs your vision of what's ahead. It shouldn't hinder your racing at all, unless of course you sit there staring at it. On this track, you'll find your first ramp. Again, nothing too difficult, but you will need to have honed your turning skills greatly to do well on this track at all difficulty settings. The only level at which this track poses a problem is on Expert, but if you learn the one buoy to miss, you'll never have a problem coming in first place. I'll let you figure out which buoy. There's also a whale that swims and dives in the distance. Try not to stare too long at him either. (3) At first glance, this track looks like it's misplaced. With hardly no chop, this track appears at first to be a much easier ride than the previous track. But what the track lacks in wave action, it makes up for in nasty obstacles. The first being a heavy fog lying over the track. The fog begins to burn off after your first lap, and is completely gone by the time you finish the final lap, and what it reveals is a beautiful mirroring effect of the trackside in the water. The fog is only a problem your first few times around. Soon it won't pose a problem, but the wooden poles near the end of the track sure will. On the Normal setting, you can avoid the poles, and the race is a no-brainer, but on the Hard and Expert settings, the buoys are placed within the poles, making it nearly impossible to navigate properly without ever getting knocked off your WaveRunner. You'll hear your competitors around you also plowing into the poles. The racer that hit's the fewest poles will win the race on the Expert setting. I've found myself in last place coming into the final lap on the Expert setting, but have finished in second or first because I've managed to avoid the poles and the bodies of the other racers. (4) This track was the bane of my existence the first couple of days I played the game. Again, it's another island, but this one has some major chop. Lose control of your vehicle just for a second on any one of the tight turns on this track, and you'll find yourself floating outside of the racing border with the threat of elimination looming if you don't right yourself rather quickly. You'll find boxes and debris floating in the water that you'll need to traverse, but the greatest obstacle are the waves themselves. If you allow a Wave Runner to catch the crest of every wave and still expect to turn on a dime, you're in for a shock. You need to time your turns for moments when you're between waves, than turn sharply either through the wave, or come off the top of the wave. You do it correctly, and you'll find yourself in first place. Do it incorrectly, and you'll get a nice view of the rear ends of your fellow competitors. On the Hard and Expert settings, a causeway opens up in the middle of the second lap. It is a shortcut, but not an easy one. The waves in the narrow causeway constantly threaten to smash you against the walls, and on the Expert setting, you'll find more debris floating in the causeway. A difficult track, but one of my favorites. (5) A gloomy day in the shipyard. Rather than taking place around an island, this race takes you through a shipyard, and ends around the bulk and side of a huge tanker vessel. The buoy placement near the end forces you to ride alongside the massive tanker, fighting the waves and the competitors at the same time. One wrong move and you're headed face first into the side of the ship. Other than the end of the race, the wave action on this track isn't too much of a problem, but like on the previous track, this one has a lot of debris floating in the water. On the final turn, you'll find more ramps that, if taken incorrectly, will send you out of bounds, or out of the way of the buoys, causing you to lose precious time. This track also features a helicopter that flies about much in the same way one does in Ridge Racer. This one, however, is more impressive. The Hard and Expert Settings add more ramps at the end, and also open up a shortcut within the shipyard. If you can get through this narrow and winding passageway unscathed, you're guaranteed first place, but this will rarely happen. On the Hard setting, this shortcut is an alternate path, but on Expert, it is the only route you can take. This is the only part of any track I found to be annoying. It's more bothersome than it is treacherous, making first place on the Expert level a rarity. All in all, a beautiful track. Note: Track 6 on the Normal setting is actually track 8, and is always the last track on all three difficulty settings. So I'll write about that track last. (6) This track is only available on the Hard and Expert settings. The race takes place within a watery city at night. It is filled with ramps, and more of those mines. Initially, I found it a little difficult, but around the fifth time around, I was coming in first place easily on the Hard setting, and with a little more perseverance, first on the Expert setting as well. The track features a lot of tight turns, but the waves don't play much of a role until the Expert setting, and then only in one spot do the waves pose a problem. The Expert setting adds more mines, makes the ramps narrower, and adds a wall right after the first huge ramp, which is too high to go over, but if you time your jump correctly, you can immediately put your Wave Runner into a nose dive and go underneath the wall. It's a lot of fun to do, and very painful to do incorrectly. Miss this wall, and your race is pretty much over. (7) Put on a scarf, this track takes you up north. You'll find yourself racing around a glacier of sorts, with blocks of ice scattered all over the track, some in the shape of big snowballs that split when you hit them and slow you down, other pieces of ice act as jumps, or merely make you slide uncontrollably until you finally hit the water again. This track is only present in the Expert Setting. The atmosphere, and the color of the water, convey an incredible feeling of coldness. You just want to finish this track and move on to the warm, sunny confines of the final track. Watch as your competitors smash into the pieces of ice, clearing a path for you and them on subsequent laps. The sounds of racers hitting the ice is comical, and one of the few disappointments in the audio department of the game. The other audio disappointment being the music, which I urge you to turn off immediately. It's absolutely terrible, and doesn't go well with any of the tracks. There has yet to be a Nintendo 64 game with even passable music, which is odd considering some of the great music present in Atari Jaguar carts... anyone remember the Tempest 2000 soundtrack? (8) Each difficulty level has one more track than the last. Normal 6, Hard 7, and Expert 8. This track is the last on each. Again, it's a sunny, warm day, and the race is taking place around an island. Except this island has a boardwalk, some boats, some jumps, and a few docks, all strewn within the confines of your buoy settings. The difficulty settings are distinguished by the placement and number of buoys. Your first time around this track takes place during high tide. The height of the water makes available a large ramp that is placed just before the boardwalk, but a little too far away from it for you to jump over the boardwalk. Fear not, if you hit the ramp properly and nose dive at the right time, you can dive underneath the boardwalk and save some time. Do it correctly, and you'll have a nice lead over the other racers, make a tiny mistake, and you'll find yourself with a huge deficit to overcome. The tide goes out further on your second and third laps, making this ramp inaccessible but does make it possible to now drive underneath the boardwalk. Be careful though, because the waves can easily knock you into one of the pylons holding up the boardwalk. This is one of the most difficult, yet most satisfying tracks of the bunch. The ninth track, as I mentioned, is only really playable in stunt mode. As mentioned above, the game can be played over three different difficulty settings. Beat the game on Normal, and your reward is the chance to beat Hard. Beat Hard, and you're allowed to play Expert. Beat Expert and you've proven yourself to be one hell of a racer for sure. Beating the game on Expert reveals one of the games secrets: the reverse tracks. Although it's fun to race them backwards, and they provide a new challenge, it's really just a nice addition to an already fine racing game. Other modes of play include Time Trial, which is basically just tackling the tracks without any competitors to get in your way. Then there is Stunt Mode. Again, you race alone, but this time only one lap around. The buoys are gone, but now you have more ramps and some bonus rings. Going through the rings earns you points, doing maneuvers off the ramps, and on your Runner will earn you more points. Basically, get a lot of points and impress your friends. I found it fun for a little while, but it lost its luster rather quickly. The real fun is in the racing against the competition. In Time Trial and Stunt Mode alike, you can only race on tracks you've already raced on in Competition mode. Meaning, you won't have access to the Ice or City tracks until you've actually raced on them on the Hard or Expert settings. This is nice in that it forces the gamer to actually work a little harder if he wants to see everything the game holds. Of course, there is probably a code that will allow wimpy gamers to forgo playing the actual game. Finally, there is a two-player splitscreen mode. Here we have another one of my complaints about the game. You can only race against your friend, not against your friend and the computer at the same time. Why it was done this way is beyond me, but it makes the depth of the 2 player game all that more shallow, and diminishes a little from what is already a fantastic game. A better two-player game would have made the 'lastability' of the game more viable, but as it stands now, once you beat the game, there is very little reason to go back and play it some more. But this is true with most racing games. One other option worthy of note is the ability to change the wave action. You can set it to calm, very choppy, or random. Keep in mind though that changing these settings also nullifies any best times you may accomplish during your races. Best times, both lap and race, are only recorded when the game is set to its default settings. All in all, Wave Race 64 is the most impressive Nintendo 64 title to date, and one of the most impressive games to ever come out for any console system... ever. But don't trust me, go out and rent it, and make up your own mind. If you can't live without a numerical score, I'd give Wave Race 64 a 93 out of 100. Better music and a better 2-player game would have earned this game a higher mark. Unlike some reviewers, I believe a game's final grade is a sum of all its parts. Enjoy.

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