The Waves of My Youth
Just off the shores of the beach near my childhood home is a small island that I’ve longed to visit. As a child, I was too scared to swim the kilometer to get there due to the strong currents and large waves. I was taught to respect the sea’s power in the Caribbean. Water is the closes thing to a God in my mind. On a faithful day, I saw a group of adults jet ski to the island. I was transfixed. “They are riding cool machines to get to my dream island!” I enthusiastically told my grandmother. Even after seeing it done, riding a jet ski to get to that Island was a ludicrous proposition that I did not raise to my worrywart guardians. Besides, we didn’t have a jet ski. Needless to say, I never got to visit that island.
Thus began my infatuation with media, specifically video games that presented the possibility to travel across water to any “dream island”. In 2001 the release of Wave Race: Blue Storm offered the possibility of fulfilling my fantasy, though ironically there is no getting off a jet ski in the game unless you input a cheat code and ride a dolphin. Blue Storm, with its great water graphics, creative use of physics, and weather effects courtesy of Nintendo Software Technology Corporation (NST), is the first video game that elicited in me a longing for the sea and the waves of my youth.
A Non-Comprehensive Look at Water Before Blue Storm
The Wave Race series began in 1992 on Nintendo’s successful Game Boy handheld system. The first game in the series, Wave Race (1992) is a simple racing game with a top-down view. The game visualized water by manipulating the Game Boy’s limited color palette. Consequently, the series’ claim to fame is its state-of-the-art water graphics and effects. The release of the next game in the series four years later, Wave Race 64 (1996) was a landmark in how water graphics were presented on a home console. It rendered and simulated water movement with buoyance and it showed the effect of waves in a three-dimensional space. This wasn’t just for show, as the wave affects impacted player movement. Wave Race 64 was a technical showcase for the Nintendo 64.
For a large chunk of the history of video games water was simplistically rendered, through the use of varying color palettes, and modification of controls to simulate moving in water. Digital Foundry’s John Linneman took an insightful deep dive into water simulation across 15 years of gaming in the video series “DF Retro: The History of Water Rendering in Classic Games”. In this series Linneman identifies three elements that compose how water has been displayed in video games:
- Visual elements of the water surface. This includes its animation and surface-reflecting lighting.
- Wave patterns that are often interactive. This is seen in Wave Race: Blue Storm (more on this later).
- Rendering underwater segments in levels and environments.
Many games in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, focused on just displaying one of these three elements, though mainly elements 1 and 3, partly due to expenses and technological constraints. The more realistic the graphics the more expensive the development of a game. This is a major reason water was rendered so austerely due to fluid simulation being computationally and financially expensive. During these eras, developers would manipulate hardware registers by changing the colors displayed when frames of animation were refreshed on the screen. More often than not though, the visible environment would simply be split into two parts: above and below water.
During the 16-bit era, according to Linneman the introduction of color math on the Super Nintendo “allowed developers to utilize bespoke foreground layers specifically for water. With the right values, you could create the illusion of true transparency”. This transparency allowed for water effects such as ripples and depth. This is seen in games like Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, and Secret of Mana. For more on the Super Nintendo’s use of ‘color math’ see nesdoug’s excellent color math programming tutorial.
A console generation later, the limited processing power of the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to many three-dimensional games simulating water surfaces via a simple planar (a two-dimensional plane). To obfuscate this artists generated and applied textures on the water’s surface to make the visualization look more appealing. Not all games followed this however as the advent of three-dimensional games sowed many innovations in how water was displayed. Panzer Dragoon, released on the Saturn in 1995, a game that I covered for PopMatters, awed those who first played it upon release. The game’s action-packed first level took place over an endless pool of water with a reflective surface and waves that created an immersive experience.
Three years later, Midway’s Hydro Thunder (1998) greatly improved the visual fidelity of water present in console games. Yet it did not improve on the water physics utilized in Wave Race 64. In Linneman’s words “no game made waves in this space quite like Nintendo’s Wave Race 64 – one of the very first titles to build a full 3D water simulation using [graphical processing unit] GPU hardware acceleration.” The developers of Wave Race 64 utilized various equations to undulate the triangular polygons to simulate water waves. This gave every wave in the game a dynamic feel. To add to this experience, the jet skis collide with this surface creating a feeling of buoyancy. According to Linneman this “…was perhaps the first game of its kind to properly simulate the effect of waves in a 3D space on player movement.”
Since the release of Blue Storm simulation of water in video games has improved dramatically. Jos Stam’s (aka Wavefront) presented a paper at the Game Developers Conference titled “Real-Time Fluid Dynamics for Games” detailing how mathematical equations for fluids are helpful “when thinking about fluids in general” but stressing that “in practice we need to a finite representation” of them. To acknowledge this reality the approach taken is “to dice up a finite region of space into identical cells and sample the fluid at each cell’s center.” This impressive breakthrough was presented in 2003, twenty years ago.
Playing that Beautiful Blue Storm
Like its predecessor before it, Wave Race: Blue Storm was a technical showcase when it was released on the GameCube. This was at the time when Nintendo still focused on cutting-edge graphics. The GameCube was home to several games that pushed the boundaries of water visualization: Super Mario Sunshine (2002), The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), Metroid Prime (2002), and Rare’s Star Fox Adventures (2002), and Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil (2003).
Blue Storm improved on its predecessor’s interactive water simulation. Its developer NTS added full-scene reflections of the environment on the vast water surfaces in each of the various racing tracks. This is similar to many render targets techniques used in video games today. The wave simulation in Blue Storm has a noticeable increase in polygon count which is facilitated by the GameCube’s impressive visual hardware specs. Furthermore, NST made a point to cleverly visualize the water’s increased density. The wave simulation in Blue Storm is something to behold – dense water and realism, created by textures rendered on each frame.
As previously stated, the water effects are the main draw of the game. Nintendo was aware and evidently proud of what NTS accomplished on the GameCube’s hardware. Before every race, there is a loading screen where players can control a cursor that causes ripples on the water’s surface as it is moved. Be prepared as this is the only relaxing part of Blue Storm.
How does Blue Storm play? Players choose between eight racers, each with different skill sets. The game gives several options for players to test their metal: a Championship mode (essentially a Grand Prix where the player needs to have good finishes or they are eliminated), a Stunt mode, Time Attack, a Multi-player mode that allows up to four players to race against one another, a Free Roam mode where players can explore and learn the layouts of each track, and a tutorial mode which tries to impart the player with a sense of what button inputs to press at the right time.
There are many nuances within the game. Blue Storm is not intuitive, and for a Nintendo game, it is among the least accessible in terms of mechanics. The precision required and the different control inputs to perform stunts, a major part of the game, are frustrating. Even basic movement requires a surgeon’s touch. To play at a high skill level requires dedication. When playing Blue Storm players are presented with three main challenges: water physics, obstacles on the tracks, and buoys that must be passed in specific directions. This makes Blue Storm an extremely restrictive racing game. Gone is the pure arcade racing joy of Wave Race 64.
The game’s water physics create externalities and are the main obstacle to finishing a race. These same water effects add to the difficulty of maneuvering the jet skis. The game’s randomized weather feature allows for strategic choices. While playing in Championship mode it is advantageous to select a track that has sunny weather. Bad weather (heavy rain, etc.) makes playing tracks more difficult as this increases the height and frequency of waves. There is a myriad of obstacles on the track that must be avoided. Be prepared to be knocked off course and re-directed. Now back to the buoys. The game tasks players with pacing red buoys on the right and yellow buoys on the left. If you miss five buoys in a course, you retire – meaning that you lose the circuit and have to restart from the beginning. The buoys offer an infuriating challenge and selectively deciding which buoys to skip is a key strategy to winning difficult races.
For a more detailed, expert, and positive overview of the game see Pearstrike’s 2018 Games Done Quick normal circuit run of the game.
A Quelled Storm
Players returning to Wave Race: Blue Storm will have to contest with the water physics, though visually impressive, they make for unpredictable maneuvering of the skis. I often found myself feeling as if I was playing a game riddled with glitches and invisible walls. The controls add to the frustration. They require precision on the fly and different inputs depending on specific situations.
The different tracks are varied, yet similar to those found in Wave Race 64. They require memorization. The buoy system in the game makes this difficult as knowing the track only goes so far when one has to follow a specific path. There is a strategy for avoiding specific buoys to achieve shortcuts. But this is not something that can be abused. As you can’t miss passing more than five buoys or you are automatically disqualified from the race—and thus the circuit.
A long-standing frustration of mine in racing games is the automatic elimination in a circuit or Grand Prix after only one track. In difficult-to-master racing games, like Blue Storm, this can be counterintuitive and lead to players deciding not to play the game after just a few tries. How are you supposed to get good if the game penalizes you by ending your play session? The frustration is heightened when one can be several races into the circuit and doing pretty well, but due to a freak accident or just encountering a difficult situation on a track, such as being knocked off course by waves or NPCs, one is disqualified. All progress becomes for not. Instead of elimination, racing games should allow the player to finish the circuit with their cumulative ranking taking into account their good races and their bad ones. Blue Storm,and the otherwise superb F-Zero GX, are guilty of this design sin.
Revisiting Wave Race: Blue Storm was a conflicting experience. Maybe, I’m just not infatuated by water simulation in games anymore. Graphics and technical wizardry, though impressive at the time of a game’s release, don’t have staying power. Both in the real and virtual world, I still haven’t traversed the waters that lead to my “dream island”. Unfortunately, Blue Storm has yet to take me there, but to be fair no video game has ushered me to those shores.
Wave Race: Blue Storm is a sleek racing game bogged down by complexity and added systems. It has all the trappings that come with technically demanding gameplay and, for the time, state-of-the-art water simulation. However, many aspects of the game’s graphics have not aged well, such as the character models. Dilettantes beware, Blue Storm is hard to master and is in many ways inaccessible for Nintendo’s core fanbase. Yet those looking to put in the time and effort will be rewarded by finding a storm well-worth braving. Wave Race: Blue Storm’s main legacy is as a milestone in water simulation in video games.