Wave Race 64: Let’s get ready to rhumble!

Nintendo ushered in rumble-tastic gaming with the wonderful Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars, as we used to call it over here) in 1997 with Sony’s PlayStation introducing the new all-in-one DualShock controller just a few months later, offering not only built-in battery-free vibrations but also two – two! – analogue sticks as standard, unknowingly defining the basic features and layout of almost every mainstream joypad that followed in the process. As exciting as this step forward was the technology wasn’t quite as new as the marketing material suggested, and in fact many of us had already experienced games utilising various forms of physical sensation in arcades across the globe; deluxe crowd-drawing cabinets flipping us upside-down, using force feedback steering wheels, and asking us to lean to the sides on motorbike shaped lumps of plastic. Console magazines had carried adverts for wearable rumble peripherals years before this point, promising to help us “feel” the action like never before. But this push marked the first time it had been rolled out as a mainstream home feature, as something official and directly supported by the console manufacturers themselves.

Unlike some of the other forward-looking innovations floating around half-realised at the time – it took until the Wii for motion controlled gaming to (briefly) find its feet even though everyone and their dog had insisted on having a go decades before either the technology or game designers were ready for it (the road to hell is no doubt paved with U-Forces and Activators), and we’ve had stereoscopic titles for so long both the Famicom and Sega’s Master System had 3D glasses made for them – rumble was different. Rumble was the perfect mix of futuristic tech and accessibility, released at exactly the right time. Developers knew what to do with it, the then-current crop of consoles were powerful enough to make those ideas a reality, and players could not only afford these accessories but also see why they’d want them. And so, as you know, games big and small were made from that point on with rumble in mind – explosions, crashes, gunfire, and Psycho Mantis’ special tricks playing out right in the palms of our hands – and a few others, like Resident Evil: Director’s Cut and the special Japanese re-release of Wave Race 64 shown here, were re-released later with rumble added in. It seems excessive in this day and age to buy a specific version of a game just for something as basic as a bit of controller shaking – it’s not that special, is it? Games either have it or they don’t – most of them do, and those that don’t are more than likely the sort of game that wouldn’t benefit from it anyway. Even more so in Wave Race’s case, when it’s just plain regular rumble delivered via a relatively heavy battery powered accessory, a superficial novelty that’s easily outdone by almost every modern phone. It’s not “HD” rumble or any fancy form of tactile feedback, just a controller shaking a bit in your hands – and you already know what that feels like without having to pay extra for an uncommon version of a common game.

This recent revisit to a new(er) version of an old favourite soon made it clear why Nintendo had picked this as the other game to get the shindou treatment alongside Super Mario 64. Wave Race 64 may not be quite as legendary as a certain plumber’s first 3D adventure, nor as cinematic and exciting as Fox McCloud’s interplanetary 3D escapades, but it is absolutely good enough to be deserving of a high-quality re-release like this: That wave effect is still nothing short of jaw-dropping even all these years later and although it’s not strictly “realistic” whether the surface is choppy or smooth it always moves and reacts to your jet ski in way that never feels anything less than completely believable. It’s also a title that definitely benefits from this new accessory in a way that goes above and beyond the simple novelty of experiencing something new in an old and otherwise familiar game; the added rumble giving you a more direct connection to the action playing out on-screen, a tangible little bridge between the waves and yourself. The sound and the motion was already fantastic, your jet ski behaving like a heavy lump of engine and a lithe shape capable of cutting through the water at any moment and somehow without contradiction, but with rumble it all feels just that little bit more raw and unscripted.

Isn’t that great? But what surprised me was how finely-tuned and quietly confident Wave Race’s use of rumble felt: You’d think as the re-releases biggest (and bar a few minor changes, only) selling point Nintendo would’ve felt pressured to make the controller shake at its strongest for absolutely every little thing – every buoy passed, every slight knock, and confirmed action prompting a whirr of activity to remind players of the great value they’re getting from double-dipping for a rumble-enabled version of an old game they probably already own – but instead of trying to shake the controller out of your hands at every opportunity to justify its existence Wave Race holds back instead, only bringing the pak to life when it really wants you feel something. It’s this reluctance that makes the (re)purchase so worthwhile, the reserved rumble preserving a direct link and logic between what you can see and what you can now feel. And so as you (hopefully) glide across the pristine mirror-like surface of Milky Lake you’ll barely feel anything at all, but as you cut through the huge waves of Southern Island or smack the sides in Port Pirates at speed it kicks into life with a precision and strength I honestly didn’t remember the N64’s rumble having – and while the noise coming from the back of the controller is a little distracting (I personally find rumble paks get a little buzzy compared to their PlayStation and Dreamcast equivalents) that shock of being able to “feel” the waves is just as exciting and joyful on the hundredth race as it is the first.

(For anyone wondering about that “h” in the title… my apologies)

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One thought on “Wave Race 64: Let’s get ready to rhumble!

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