Mario Golf: Advance Tour review
Nice Game!

The good:

Great RPG elements
Strong gameplay interface
Lots to do

The bad:

Story mode has no proper story
Moronic doubles partner
A lack of a 'Mario' feeling


The Mario Golf series has been going for a while now, and while it hasn't enjoyed the runaway success the Kart series has there is no denying that it has become a solid spinoff series. So, now here I am, GBA at the ready to take to the holes once again, but this round of golf has a different flavour than what I'm used to.

But first, let's address a more aesthetic issue. When I first got into the game something seemed strangely familiar. This isn't a game I've played before, and yet the looks and sounds lingered in my mind. Developed by Camerlot it seems that, on the visual and audio fronts, Mario Golf Advance Tour borrows heavily from the Golden Sun games.

However, this isn't a bad thing. Anyone who has read either of my Golden Sun reviews will know what a marvel those games are, and nothing has been lost in the transition to the golfing scene. The game's story mode takes place in an overworld when not playing golf, where you speak to people and travel around the different courses and locations.

The character sprites still have a rather cute charm, done in somewhat of a chibi style while being nicely detailed and animated. Indeed, everyone is pretty lively, with clear nodding heads, running motions and even jumps of surprise or annoyance. Emotions are put across in the form of thought bubbles in addition to these actions that really helps to bring the cast to life.

The gaming world itself certainly looks nice as well. Some areas make use of the scaling system in Golden Sun, where terrain changes in size to simulate distance. It's not perfect but it does its job nicely. Other areas, such as the routes between courses, offer a more static view that is probably easier on the eyes.

The medley of music tracks on offer work wonders to enhance the experience as well. Some bear a resemblance to Golden Sun, with the whole 'legendary adventure' concept going on, while many instead bring about fond memories of Mario's past, with a classic sense to the tracks.

The usual collection of sound effects ingame also work a treat. The thwack of club hitting ball, the clunk as the ball bounces off the flagpole and the bounce when your character is surprised. Like GS, there is no real talking in the game (aside from the announcer sometimes blurting out what you got on a hole) but rather a form of 'chatter' to simulate talking. It's not quite the same thing but it's nice.

The one sound thing that might grate is the clicking noise that signifies that you've changed a club or shifting the distance marker. When you have to make a lot of alterations this noise can be rather irritating.

Throughout the game there's one thing particularly odd - the general lack of a 'Mario' feeling. In quick play you start with four Mario stars and only unlock a few more. Similarly, only one of the courses really has the Mario feeling. I can't help but feel that the Mario theme pretty much takes a backseat here.

Golfing is one of those precise sports where careful judgement of the conditions and layout is more important than reflexes, and that's the experience this game delivers in a format more accessible than you'd first imagine.

The idea is to sink the ball into the pin hole on the green, but you've generally got to reach the green first. Each 'hole' you play on has a set number of strokes that is par (basically average; in stroke play you score will neither increase nor decrease if you score par) based on the length of the hole. Reaching the green requires careful planning, as there are a number of factors that go into play here, and a straight shot to the green may not be an option.

Fortunately, Mario Golf Advance is very accommodating to this. Much of the playtime on the holes is done via a top-down map view. An icon shows where your golfer is standing and a dashed line showing the general arc of the currently-set shot if hit at full power (although this doesn't take into account mis-timings or wind). The map itself is generally detailed enough to give a good view of the course

However, while good, the map system has its limitations. Firstly, there is no option to zoom while aiming. Yes, there is a camera mode that lets you move around and zoom in and out, but when you go back to aiming the shot the camera zoom resets, which sometimes makes judging shots difficult. Elevation is a hard thing to judge as well. How high are the trees? What kind of angle is that slope at? Impossible to tell from above.

When lining up a shot you have a variety of clubs to choose from. As you move down the list of clubs you lose power and gain height. You can also adjust the power marker with any club by using the shoulder buttons, which helps with timing the shot.

All golfers also have access to a number of power shots on each course (the actual number depends on the game mode being played). You can toggle power shots with the B button for some extra distance. If you happen to pull off a 'nice shot' the power shot counter won't decrease, meaning that if you have very good timing then you effectively have infinite power shots. A nice way to reward strong gameplay.

Judging distance isn't the only thing to worry about though. The hole's environment is a concern of its own. Only so much of the hole is clean fairway or green, giving you the next clean shot. You have to try and avoid the less desirable spots on the hole. Stuff like rough and bunkers will reduce the distance you can cover with your next shot, and even make hitting the ball cleanly at all a challenge. Some areas, like water or out of bounds areas, will cut into your score badly.

Trees and slopes play a part too. Obviously, if your ball hits a solid object it won't go much further, so it's important to try and avoid slamming the ball through these trees that litter the course. Slopes usually only cause the ball to roll, although sometimes your next shot can be screwed up if the ball is left resting awkwardly on a slope.

Wind plays a factor as well. You have an onscreen arrow and number indicating wind direction and speed. When your ball is airbourne it will be affected by this wind. As well as affected distance it can also blow the ball sideways, and the aiming line doesn't account for this, so manual adjustments become necessary.

It's also possible to alter where you will hit the ball. Holding B allows you to move the red dot on the golf ball, which indicated the impact point. The ball can be chipped high to go over obstacles, struck low to minimize wind effects or even curved around.

Once a shot is lined up it is time to take it. Pressing A brings the camera to behind your golfer. Pressing A begins the hit. The power gauge at the bottom of the screen has the marker move up to the left. The idea is to press A or B to determine the power. Pressing A does an auto-shot, where the rest of the hit is done automatically. Pressing B is a more manual effort, where the slider comes back down to the right and must be stopped within the red zone of the gauge. Missing the red zone causes the ball to go wild, and missing the sweetspot will cause slight alterations in the angle of the shot (although rarely actually noticeable).

Doing things manually also allows for the application of spin to the ball, which depends on a two-button combo done when stopping the slider in the red zone. Topspin (A+A or A+B) causes the ball to travel further when it hits the ground. Backspin (B+B or B+A) causes the ball to not travel as far when it hits the ground. This allows for a great degree of control.

Mario Golf: Advance Tour in action.

While getting to the green counts for most of the action there is importance placed on what the player does on the green. Assuming you don't get a lucky chip-in (which will be most of the time) then your golfer switches to a putter club on the green. Pressing B alternates between three power gauges with different length maximums (short, medium and long). L and R still adjusts the distance marker, but unlike normal shots you don't have to sweetspot these. Once the gauge goes up you just press A or B once more to take the putt.

Sloping terrain plays a more important role here, as it will affect the roll of the ball. Naturally, sinking long shots will be difficult, but it's not terribly bad. Closer shots should be simple enough as the sloping doesn't get to the point of being silly. That said, judging the slopes is rather difficult when the view is merely top-down, as the arrow indicators really only give you the direction of the slopes and not really the angle.

Naturally, all this amounts to a rather slow-paced game that will appeal to those people that prefer to take their time making decisions, but still requires some good reflexes when determining power. Although long, playthroughs can be interrupted almost anytime and resumed at a later date, as the save option is accessible anytime you have control. A must for a handheld game.

The courses on offer are great too. They start off fairly simple in design to break the player in gently but then progress to more challenging holes later. Some of the designs are all-out wacky too. Even better is that it is possible to unlock star variants of these holes, which add in some oddball obstacles and aids more in keeping with the Mario theme (like floating Boos and boost pads). There is a lot of holes to play through too, which should keep players occupied for some time.

MG:AT offers a variety of game modes, but out of these the biggest draw is naturally the Story mode. Unlike its Gamecube counterpart, Advance Tour offers a form of an RPG element. You get to control either Neil or Ella and take them through the various championships the game has to offer.

For a game that touts itself as a story mode, there is surprisingly little story actually happening. You're a student of a former legendary golfer and you're there to play golfer. That really is pretty much it. There's supposed to be a sense of rivalry out there, but you never actually get that at all.

Anyway, you start off at the Marion Golfing Lodge. You can go chat to the other visitors and golfers if you want to get the inside scoop. Out back is the training grounds. Here you can practice everything from driving down the range, pulling off approach shots and putting the ball in the hole. Completing these tasks not only gets you experience but can also unlock some of the star holes for free play.

The real reason to be here though is to tackle the tournaments. Here you can go for singles or doubles tournaments (in doubles your partner will be the character you didn't pick). The goal is to work your way through all 18 holes of the given course and aim for the lowest score possible. Hit first place and you gain access to the tournament of the next course.

The Marion Club Lodge, where your rivals are surprisingly laid-back.

Doubles play manages to drive home one of the game's biggest faults - your partner is stupid. Throughout my time playing as Ella I found my partner Neil consistently messing up shots, such as undershooting for the green, rolling into the rough, landing us behind a tree etc. If there was a mistake possible there was Neil to demonstrate it. Well, except when putting on the green, where he seemed quite talented. However, that aside he was pretty lame. I may not be the best golfer at the game but I was pretty good and I would certainly expect my partner to be working as well as I was, but that simply wasn't the case, so my doubles scores always came in notably lower than my singles scores.

In addition to the tournaments and training grounds are various other golfing challenges to work through, unlocked as you go. Some of these are simply single player versions of the games you find under quick play while others are specialised challenges, such as trying to score par on a nightmare course with very little solid fairway.

The major difference between the story mode and the quick play options is the experience system. Ella and Neil both start off pretty weak but easy to use. Doing pretty much any challenge in the game earns you experience points, which can be distributed to either character. When a golfer gains a level you can then choose a stat to boost. Drive distance is the obvious one, but you can also affect shot height, trajectory, control and spin. In addition, increasing one stat can affect other stats (like drive distance can affect control), although this isn't an equivalent exchange so spreading out the boosts helps keep stats from dropping.

During the game you will also come across a guy that will create custom clubs for you, when you give a special ticket (which can be found or earned in certain places). These vary from a bigger sweetspot to more power.

If the single player story mode isn't for you then there are a number of quick play game options for you to play through. Interestingly, playing as Ella or Neil still earns experience points even in quick play. If those two aren't to your liking then there are some other golfers on offer. A lot of these are unlockable by beating them in match play in story mode, and there's even a few Mario stars here. I wish that a game labelled as Mario Golf would have more Mario golfers usable though.

Stroke play is the points based game. You can choose the course and number of holes to go through, such as all 18, front 9, back 9, random 9, random 6 and random 3. Character match involves going head-to-head against the computer to win medals from each hole of a selected course. Doubles is basically stroke play in doubles. Speed golf is for timed playthroughs for the fastest time. There's also the training options for practicing golf with.

There are a few gold modes that are notably different and interesting. Near the Pin involves getting the ball as close to the pin as possible on the green on a number of holes.

Club Slots involves playing a slot machine before each hole. The left reel determines which driving wood you get, the middle reel determines the long range iron and the right reel determines the short range iron. The putter is always available though. Scoring three stars gives you all clubs for that hole, but miss one star and the other stars count as no club at all from that reel (imagine only having a short iron to complete a hole with). The idea is to make use of the clubs you're landed with, which puts more demand on effective use of target markers.

Go-Go Gates seems to be this game's version of Ring Shot, but just in case you're not familiar with other Mario sports titles then here's the gist. Every hole you play has one or more gates (marked by two poles with a star atop each) that you are required to shoot the ball through, but you must also score at least par to succeed. This requires an even better idea on where to shoot the ball and where it's going to land.

Aim for the star gates.

Overall I'm pretty impressed with the title. Doubles play is hurt by a moronic partner but singles play should offer a lot of fun and the game offers a solid challenge. Only for those with an interest in golf games though, as MGAT has no intention of trying to convert anyone.

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