For most of 1996, the conventional wisdom was that Nintendo was on the ropes. The video game giant, which had dominated the industry worldwide just a few years earlier with the SNES had fallen behind competitors like Sony and Sega. Both companies had beaten Nintendo to the world of three-dimensional gaming, developing large catalogs along the way. But one game helped Nintendo weather the storm and ride the wave to success when the Nintendo 64 launched by deviating from the developer’s typical cartoonish fare and opting for realism. That game just hit Nintendo Switch Online, so 26 years later is the perfect time to revisit this absolute nostalgia trip.
A New York Times article from August 1996 (just a month before the Nintendo 64 was released) said that Nintendo was “seeking a turnaround.” Interviewing then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Times found that Nintendo believed strongly in quality over quantity. When asked about facing the prospect of the Saturn and Playstation’s libraries, Yamauchi said “those who believe that 'the more games the better' are just ignorant of the actual market situation.”
Nintendo was making a very specific bet with the Nintendo 64: that the bench it had been developing for years in the 2D era would prove irresistible in a new world. The shining jewel of these games was Mario 64, but it didn’t come alone. There was also Wave Race 64, which as of August 19, 2022, is available if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Wave Race 64 is a pretty self-explanatory game. It’s a racing game, taking place mostly amidst sparkling blue oceans on personal watercraft. The game’s cover makes it abundantly you know is most commonly called a “Jet Ski” by its maker, Kawasaki.
Ostensibly, you’re also choosing between different characters when you’re choosing watercraft, but Wave Race 64 isn’t like Mario Kart, which emphasizes putting its characters in unique situations. Wave Race is all about the situation itself, the seemingly very rare chance the random gamer would have to tool around on jet skis.
Wave Race’s vibe, which puts an idealized version of its event forward with minimal changes, would go on to influence games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater and SSX. There are no weapons in Wave Race except for your watercraft itself, which you can — and should — use to ram other racers. But the races are focused on racing, with buoys floating in the water encouraging the racer to move to the left or to the right. The challenges come from making quick turns to keep up with the buoys. If you miss too many, your power will be lowered. (Just like real-life, right? Is that how jet skis work?)
If Wave Race 64 feels like a simple game, then it’s best to think of it as a proof-of-concept. And in many ways, it is a simple game, a form of wish-fulfillment for anyone who might perceive jet skis as a little bit too dangerous to try out for real. The previous Wave Race game had been released four years prior on the GameBoy, with top-down gameplay on a tiny screen. In an interview with IGN, producer Shigeru Miyamoto said that “you can tell that Wave Race 64 is a completely different game from the original GameBoy version.” The interview is mainly dominated by the discussion of Mario and Zelda, with Wave Race meriting two mentions.
A quick glance at the comments on a Wave Race 64 playthrough shows how much proof this concept offered: “I remember being blown away by the graphics,” one commenter wrote. “Oh my god soon as I started watching this I was instantly taken back to easier stress-free days at 14 years old, hanging out with bros skippin’ school,” says another.
“Crazy how most people that watch this now all get the same feeling,” one particularly nostalgic gamer wrote.
This was a game designed for hanging out with a friend during endless sunny days at the dawn of the 3D era of gaming. In 1996, it was a blissful success. And even if the graphics pale in comparison to today’s offering, the nostalgia remains as potent as ever.