Wave Race on Game Boy – not great, and five years late

Nintendo’s first-party titles currently tend to release worldwide simultaneously. There is the occasional exception – RPGs, for instance, can take a long time to translate – but simultaneous releases are generally expected, especially between Europe and the US.  

Nintendo had a wildly difference stance during the N64 era, closely scrutinizing their release schedules, and holding back games to give other titles breathing space. A few choice examples spring to mind, such as 1080 Snowboarding being delayed in Europe as Nintendo believed a snow-based sports game wouldn’t sell during summer. Crusin’ USA didn’t make it to Europe until two years after its US release, plugging a gap in the schedule. Tetrisphere and Super Smash Bros. also faced six-month delays between Europe and the US.

Turns out Nintendo was choosey with release dates long before the N64. Wave Race on Game Boy debuted in the US in July 1992, packaged in a box beaming with quintessentially ‘90s fluorescent colours. Game Boy owners in Europe had to wait another five years to get their hands on it – June 24th 1997, to be exact. A five-year delay between regions is pretty extreme, even for Nintendo.

Developed by Pax Softnica (Radar Mission, Balloon Kid, Mole Mania), this first entry in the Wave Race series wasn’t exactly thrilling. It took the form of a top-down racer that played similarly to Micro Machines’ boat races. The jet skis had appropriate physics, giving the feeling of racing on water rather than tarmac, and the general presentation is par for 1992 – including battery back-up for lap times. But at the same time, it lacked ingenuity – it’s just another top-down racer. Some reviewers took a shine to it, but the majority found it to be borderline average.

As such, it’s reasonable to suggest Nintendo Europe wasn’t too keen on publishing it upon release in 1992 due to its quality. Why did it finally wash up on our shores in 1997? A few educated guesses spring to mind. The Game Boy Pocket had just been released, so it’s very much likely Nintendo had a rummage down the back of the sofa to find ‘new’ games to sell alongside it.

It was also a budget release in the UK (and presumably the rest of Europe, too) with the Official Nintendo Magazine – who also gave it a middling review score – reporting a £9.99 price point. It was often packaged with the Game Boy Pocket itself, becoming a ‘pack in’ freebie – a title Nintendo could throw in. It had that newfound purpose to serve.

The most likely reason for its tardiness was that a second Wave Race game was imminent – Wave Race 64 was revealed for Nintendo 64 in 1995 and released in the US and Japan in 1996, with a European launch due in 1997. Now part of a series, it made sense to get the first game out there, if only to raise awareness of the franchise.

There’s just one minor defect in this logic – Wave Race 64 launched April 29th 1997 in Europe, while Wave Race on Game Boy made it out in June. That’s a bit like having a meal in a restaurant, only for the main course to arrive before the starter.

It’s interesting to note that Pax Softnica went on to create Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer for Game Boy Color, which featured the same top-down perspective as Wave Race, meaning it likely reused the game engine. More interesting still is that when Wave Race was first revealed for N64, it featured futuristic-looking motorboats instead of jet skis. Had it continued that course, it would have been a sequel in name only – a name vastly unheard of in Europe, if it wasn’t for Nintendo’s micromanaging.

Images via MobyGames