Some say Wave Race: Blue Storm was the best of the Japanese launch titles. If you spent a large sum of money on importing the Cube and its three major releases, you will certainly feel that way. The N64 version of Wave Race, chaperoned through development by Shigeru Miyamoto, whose name is so synonymous with high quality releases that even our word processor recognises it, was heralded as a breakthrough in aquatic visuals and the first truly impressive jet-ski game.
Blue Storm does wonders with its legacy, even if the game is effectively an update, comprising the N64 version's four original courses, as well as a peculiarly named addition, Ethnic Lagoon and a few unlockables. The original courses have been reworked slightly, and new weather effects add variation and depth to the experience.
The single player game consists of a single Exhibition (qualification) round, followed by a series of three circuits, which I am happy to describe as intermediate, hard and impossible. Players take up the mantle of one of eight characters, each with their own coach and unique character attributes, and race in these circuits, unlocking the next challenge if successful. The idea is to amass points by placing respectably, and thanks to the weather system there is a degree of strategy to consider. Each circuit is a certain number of days long, with a race set on each, and weather forecasts are offered for up to three days in advance. The trick is to choose the tough ones to complete on the clear days, saving the easier races for tough conditions.
In terms of visuals, Blue Storm lives up to its ancestry. Like the N64 version, the rolling waves and bobbing riders will have your jaw firmly glued to the floor, and although the PAL version of the game runs at 50Hz, the virtually borderless display and optimisation has rescued the game from its predecessor's fate, and load times are mercifully short. In clear conditions it's often possible to see right the way to the bottom of the lake, ocean or lagoon upon which you race, and choppy conditions mist the water over, while rain creates a fancy speckled effect on the lens of the third person camera following your rider, rather as though you were driving through a storm.
Even in the grip of a Tsunami (which can happen), the GameCube copes admirably with the framerate and detail including rider reflections, hand gestures and multiple jet-skis. Killer whales and dolphins, citizens of the oceanic kingdom, race along beneath you, occasionally surfacing to produce an obstacle, all the while your coach is yelling instructions and encouragement in your ear and alerting you to their activities.
However there are a few problems, visually. For a start, the backgrounds are noticeably low resolution. Huts and vegetation looks quite shoddy racing around an island, and rocks, icepacks and floating wooden crates in the harbour level look a bit blocky. Admittedly, often you are far too busy racing to concentrate on problems like these. However on some tracks, notably the new Ethnic Lagoon, if you race through the finish line too close to the left side of the track, the cameraman, who pans round to capture your celebration or frustration from the side, often clips through scenery.
The control system is, like the N64 version, fairly simple and intuitive, with a degree of depth for those who like to showboat. The left analogue stick will not only turn you, but moving the stick forwards or backwards changes your rider's position, useful if you need to affect a tight turn or you don't want to drop too much speed to perform a simple adjustment. Acceleration is handled by the A button, but you won't want to be holding that the whole time, and the B button provides a useful crouching facility, improving aerodynamics and thus, providing a useful augmentation of your rider's speed racing down straights. A new addition - the Turbo boost, accumulated by passing a number of buoys correctly - is activated by Y or Z, and a tug on the left or right pressure-sensitive triggers will see your rider lean in that direction. Turning too sharply while leaning can unseat him. Or her.
Tricks are possible, and the manual dedicates a generous four pages to listing them. These can all be learnt in the helpful in-game tutorial mode, which will take you through the basics, then the hard stuff, then the impossible stuff, with useful pre-recorded videos to illustrate techniques. Putting the tricks to use in the single payer game may be a bridge too far for some, but fortunately a dedicated Stunt mode is included, giving you a lap on each of the courses with added jumps and hoops to manoeuvre through instead of buoys to slalom. Learning lots of tricks will help you to rewrite the high score leaderboard, allowing you to demonstrate to any upstarts who question your Stormy crown with overwhelming authority that you are, in fact, the man.
Further to the single player tasks, up to four players can take part in a split-screen multiplayer race, and while the game does sacrifice some detail to achieve this, it remains an object of visual splendour. Splashback on the PlayStation 2 has difficulty looking this good, for instance.
Wacky Water Weasel
The overall feel of the game is extremely tight. You do seem to be racing a jet-ski across a body of water, and the water is teeming with life, sometimes froth and often your unseated rider. Apart from coming unstuck regularly, you can also look forward to losing speed and Turbos if you miss a buoy. The physics can be extremely unforgiving as well, and the game doesn't make any effort to point your rider in the right direction as he clambers back aboard after a spill, which often helps to convert a five second lead into a two second deficit, but the game is meant, at least in part, to be a simulation.
The occasional frustration of an undignified exit from the top three is waylaid, if you ask me, by the game's unparalleled depth. It's true, N64 fans will be disappointed to see rehashes of old courses instead of new environments to explore, and the number of possible shortcuts in each track is quite small, with harsh penalties in store for those who deviate and fail to make them properly. But the dynamic nature of a lot of the courses, with new obstacles popping up throughout the races thanks to the tide, weather conditions and wildlife, more than make up for this. And supplementing this diet of salt water and wipe-outs is a replay system which spits out videos almost as impressive as those seen in Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, particularly after stunt sessions.
The difficulty, from the average gamer's perspective, is that (along some might say with Rogue Leader) Blue Storm is disproportionately hard when placed next to the likes of Luigi's Mansion, Super Monkey Ball and Pikmin. And racing on water can be extremely frustrating. It certainly had me swearing profusely on more than one occasion, as my elderly neighbour will probably be able to testify. She's a bit hard of hearing, too. But even I had difficulty discerning the soundtrack music from the roar of engines and the incessant nagging about buoy orientation from the coach in my ear. The fairly boring techno beats do little to complement the action, although do offer some faintly perceptible background noise besides the lapping of the waves…
Blue Storm provides a nice challenge for those of you who have been waiting since the 64-bit version to take it for a burn, but casual racing fans may want to steer clear. The controls, physics and visuals are all of the utmost high quality, and the engine noises and audio accompaniment, both from your coach and the track announcer are crystal clear. There's even a chap with a British accent, so bonus points there. There are a lot of extras to uncover apart from the tricky single player circuits, and overall it's an accomplished release. If jet-ski racing tickles your fancy, buy this.