Sunday, January 17, 2010

Videogame Classics - Wave Race 64

And so we come to one of the signature games from the Nintendo 64 library. Wave Race 64 was one of the first launch games for the console, sharing the space alongside Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. Yep, Nintendo thought they were really being clever with the names. Well, lemmie tell ya. Throwing "64" at the end of every game wasn't clever; it was annoying as hell. Worse than the "super" prefix for every other Super NES title.

Ahem. It's easy to get sidetracked here. Almost too easy, in fact. This isn't an indictment against the game proper. No, something deeper. I think Wave Race 64 came to symbolize, and embody, all the highs and lows of Nintendo 64. Mario 64 was perfect. The greatest videogame ever made. You couldn't find a pair of eyes in 1996 to disagree,not even the NiGHTS junkies clinging tightly to their Sega Saturns.

So Mario was perfect, and Wave Race was, and is, a great videogame. But it's the true mascot for the console. Here lies the true archetype. I stumbling into a running theme? Blame the collective digital unconscious.

Wave Race 64 was as much a standout for the new Nintendo console was Mario. Those water effects made a tremendous impression. This was a fantastic achievement. Revolutionary, even. This was something that was clearly far ahead of anything seen on Saturn or Sony Playstation. Nintendo was staking the high ground on the graphics war.

And the way the water felt, really, was just as important to that feeling of immersion. The flow of the waves, from serene calm to stormy turrent, moved with an expressionist zeal. The movement of your jetskis across the surface was precise, intuitive, perfect. It's still perfect, which is slightly unsettling. Haven't there been any better water racing games since then? Actually, um, there haven't been any such games in a long time. I remember Hydro Thunder on the Dreamcast. Even that game couldn't carry you through quite like Wave Race.

The jetskis that you control maneuver perfectly, allowing you to steer, cut, swerve, and spin quickly and easily. This was a crucial test for Nintendo's new analog control, and you can clearly see the results. Analog control became standard almost overnight. The last console to use such controllers was the Atari 5200. And that was a train wreck.

Oh, and you can perform some stunts on your ski as well, but I can't remember any of them beyond the barrel roll. It's purely for show, but this has always been a stalwart of the Nintendo design. Makes the games fun and immersive above all else. Create a daydream that you want to frolic in. You shouldn't be surprised to learn that Shigeru Miyamoto, yes, was in command of the design team. His fingerprints are once again on display, demonstrating just why he is videogames' greatest wizard.

Remember what I said earlier about this game being the true mascot for the Nintendo 64. We've gone over the good parts. Now for the downside.

Nintendo's stubborn refusal to give up the cartridge medium would almost prove their undoing, and it damn near sank the N64. The early games were judged intently to see how you could fit everything into that tiny space. The truth? They couldn't. Nintendo really couldn't. They couldn't fit the size and scope of the ever-widening Playstation and Saturn worlds into those carts, not without compromises. Those compromises would only become more and more glaring as the years dragged on.

I think, because of this, poor N64 wasn't allowed to really stretch as far as it could have. The polygon models were always blockier, simpler than the rivals. True, the console relied more heavily on visual effects over pure polygons. It was one of Nintendo's signature gambles. Didn't really pay off.

I remember noticing some limitations in Wave Race 64, and it wasn't pretty. Things like the character models. Your racers are really, really blocky. Chunky, even. It's like they were assembled in the cubist style. Backgrounds, likewise, were simpler, utilizing easier geometry. And those backdrops? The fuzzy textures? Yeah, that was pretty obvious even in '96. Clearly, that water took up most of the space.

I feel a bit guilty for pointing that out. Game reviewers are notorious for behaving like spoiled children on Santa's lap. But I feel no guilt in protesting about the game's biggest weakness - the level design. The race courses are simple. Far too simple. Simple, as in giant circles. Just when racing games on the rival consoles were becoming sophisticated, challenging, and loaded with surprises, Wave Race can feel like a ride at the kiddie park.

There are a large number of tracks, especially when most racers only had two or three courses. But I always had a problem with this. This has always been a thorn in my side where Wave Race 64 is concerned; I wanted some really inventive level designs, like Sega Rally on the Saturn, or Wipeout on Playstation. Instead, we get big ovals and simplistic circles. No doubt this was the inspiration for the game's use of buoys, in which you slalom through in order to build up your jetski's speed. I really like that idea; it's refreshingly original, adds a layer of depth to the races, and maintains a crucial balance in the gameplay. Miss too many buoys and you're out of the race.

Another check in Miyamoto's column. And another highlight of the challenges of working with those damned cartridges.

The game options allow you to change the water, from calm waves to heavy torrents. I've found it necessary to play in a storm in order to keep things interesting, especially for the two-player games (oh, what a shame this couldn't have been four-player). I do wish there were more options for customizing the races, ideas like random placements of the buoys and other objects. The final racetrack is novel for its receeding tides, which drains the water away with each lap. That option should have been available for all the courses. Now that would have added some challenge.

In the end, I have to admit that I remain torn about Wave Race's strengths and weaknesses. Heck, I like the drama. And it's still eminently playable and fun. I've yet to sit down and play the Gamecube sequel, Wave Race: Blue Storm; to date that remains the only addition to the series (which began as a humble Gameboy racer). A bit of a puzzlement, actually. Perhaps that only adds to the game's mystique. Sequel overkill has turned many a videogame into rust. I'd prefer this one fresh, thank you very much.

One final note: you may be wondering about those screenshots posted above (well, they should be there, if this computer cooperates), and why they appear a bit patchy. Nearly all screenshots come with the aid of emulators on my computer. The best Nintendo 64 emulator is one called Project 64. Games consoles become increasingly difficult to emulate properly, and while Project 64 is the best and most comprehensive of N64 emulators, many games remain glitchy and imperfect. Wave Race 64 can be very patchy in play; it's kinda like drunk driving at times. Which explains the glitches in the photos. I've no doubt that everything plays perfectly on Wii, so no worries.

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