Mario Golf review
A Swing And A Hit
Mario has done many things in his career and turned his hand to many sports. Bored of butt-stomping yet another goomba or zipping past his brother to take the win on the track, Mario Golf marks the N64's take on golf, done in the usual Mario style. Prepare to take to the courses where fireballs, giant rings and dinosaurs are commonplace. This is not your traditional golf sim.
Well, despite the fantasy nature of the game the core basics are not any different from the usual rounds of golf. You use a bunch of metal sticks to whack a small ball across various courses to try and sink the ball into a small hole on the green in as few shots as possible. Doing this requires more than brute force, as players have to take into account various different factors for every shot.
That is the key aspect about the game. Trying to power your way through doesn't really work out that well, as failing to think each shot through is likely to land the ball in the rough or even behind a tree. Each 'hole' of the game is filled with different types of terrain that affects the movement of the ball, as well as altering the amount of power that can be transferred with the shot. Fairways and the green is what players need to aim for, but other things like rough and bunkers will provide obstacles. Even worse are the ones like water hazards and the out of bounds areas that will really screw over your score if you land in them. Hitting the ball as far as possible is not always the most ideal choice, so you'll find yourself constantly checking and adjusting shots to maximize on the landing.
It's not just the terrain type that will cause this. Elevation will also affect where the ball can land, and the end of any given hole will require a short approach to the green ready for the final hit towards the hole itself. Thankfully, the game is very user friendly in this regard, as a touch of a button will switch the view to an overhead map view. Not only does this offer an ideal view of the current hole but a targeting grid and line is also present, which shows where you are currently aiming to, as well as the current curve applied to the ball. This setup assumes you'll hit the ball at full power with the currently selected club.
Well, the one natural thing this grid won't account for is wind. Most of the time there will be wind blowing that will affect ball flight. A Boo is displayed onscreen to represent wind direction and speed. Since the grid doesn't account for wind this requires some estimation on the part of the player and really adds to the level of challenge. The easy winds to manage are the ones blowing straight towards or away from you, as these just alter the distance, but try tackling winds when they are heavily blowing to the sides.
Taking a shot is surprisingly easy to do. Aiming is a combination of turning (left or right on the analogue stick) and changing clubs (up and down on the stick). Different clubs have different ranges and heights for the shots. Once the shot is lined up you can change the shot type with the B button. Normal is the most common one, and the default. Power shots will boost the shot range, but unless you get a 'nice shot' (where your timing is perfect) then you lose one of the limited supply of them. When within 60 yards of the green you can also switch to the approach shot, where your max range is limited to 60 yards regardless of the club in use. At this point you can hold the trigger and move the red target dot on the ball display, which alters shot height and can add curve to the shot, which is handy for slipping past obstacles (imagine going from an awkward spot to curving around a mountain and rolling to near the hole).
Alright, so your target is set, power is selected and you've even determined the angle. At this point your attention diverts to the bar at the bottom of the screen, which is your power gauge. Pressing A starts the marker moving from right to left. Pressing A sets the power and starts the marker moving back the other way. Hitting A again in the safe zone will perform a successful strike. Here you can also apply topspin and backspin with combinations of A and B pressed at the final part of the shot, with topspin adding extra distance and backspin reducing forward rolling. It's a simple system to grasp but it requires a lot of practice to master. Get the timing perfect and you'll get a 'nice shot' confirmation (complete with a special ball effect for power shots).
It's not exactly perfect though, and that is to do with characters that naturally have a heavy fade/draw (where the ball curves). Unless you perfectly sweet-spot their shots then they have a tendency to shoot some way off the mark anyway. The consequences aren't as bad as missing the safe zone entirely, but careful planning can still go out the window. It's not game-breaking but it is annoying.
Once you've blasted your way up the fairway and made the approach onto the green it's time ti sink the ball into the hole. Here you're limited to a single club - the putter - and things are slightly different. There's no differing terrain types or wind to account for here, but instead your have the sloping land and distance to work out. The green is covering in a faint grid that gives an idea of how it is sloping. Aim by turning and alter the shot type with B between short, medium and long, which basically affects the max distance. Once you're ready you start the hit gauge moving with A and then press A again to set the power. Unlike normal shots there is no need to land the moving marker back in the safe zone, so taking these hits is easier.
By now you might have guessed the most obvious flaw of the game - it's rather slow paced. As each golfer has to line up their shots, adjust for the conditions and then finally set the power this can take some time for each hole. The situation worsens as you add more players, because even though facing off against human opponents is easily more fun it drastically lengthens the time taken. Well, in mutli-golfer rounds you can have some fun by pushing out some compliments or taunts while they take their shots. These comments are preset and assigned to the D-Pad and C-Buttons respectively, and can be amusing when someone is taking their sweet time for their shot.
You start off with a mere four characters, none of which are even Mario stars. Most of the cast are unlocked by beating them in the Character Match mode, which can be rather challenging as each golfer normally has a longer driving range than you. There are also a few golfers unlocked through achievements in other modes. There's a healthy spread of Mario and original characters to pick as, although there's no real sense of balance. Bowser and DK may suffer the curving ball flaw, but their driving ranges still heavily outclass the earlier golfers. Even so, Plum's still my favourite, and things aren't rendered impossible by using a lower character.
There are a variety of game modes on offer to test your skills on. Tournament comprises the main single player mode, where you pick a course and then play through all 18 holes in order for the best overall score. After each hole you're listed on a scoreboard competing with other golfers. You can also earn birdie badges in this mode by scoring at least one below par on a hole. Stroke play lets you get into a regular round of golf against up to three opponents in alternating play. with choices of what holes you tackle in a course and handicaps. Character match is for two golfers to face off to win mushroom medals for each hole they win. Since this mode does not take an overall score for the match then screwing up one hole badly isn't as damaging as in other modes. Speed golf puts you against the clock as you try to clear a course in the fastest time without compromising your score too badly. Single players can unlock characters here, or two players can take each other on. There's a training option too that lets you practice your skills.
So far so normal for the game modes, but then we start getting the more unusual ones. Ring Shot plants a number of giant floating rings on every hole, and the goal is to shoot the ball through every ring and still sink the ball within par. This is a neat twist on the normal game as you can no longer go straight for the green but also must plan your moves to get every ring, which are not always on the same path as the green itself is, especially on the later holes.
Club slots introduces a random chance element into proceedings, as each hole begins with a slots machine which chooses your available clubs. The first reel picks your wood, the second your long iron and the third your short iron. Imagine trying to approach the green when none of your clubs reach it precisely and having to use a strong club and undershoot it.
Mini Golf is perhaps the most different, although not quite as entertaining as the main game. Restricted to a putter and put on courses with the same terrain, you find yourself bashing the ball around, trying to bounce off the walls to reach the hole at the end. Every hole here is a par 3 hole, and some of the shapes require some clever rebounds to score a birdie. The fact that stuff like terrain types and wind doesn't come into this means less thought is required, but it will still challenge the grey matter.
The game looks quite nice for an N64 title. The characters are quite well designed, boasting colourful shades and overstated bold features, and all of them have nice swinging animations for when they go to strike the ball. That said there is a little blandness to them, but it's a step up from first generation titles. The courses have a lot of detail to them and have some solid variety in their designs. The final course is especially wonderful since the layouts are based on Mario themes, like several fairways in the shape of Boos, or a par 3 hole where the terrain resembles Toad from above.
The music is your typical Mario collection. Many of them are suitably cheerful and help to drive the theme of the game, but only a fraction of the selection has the addictive quality to stick in the mind, but regardless it's a rather pleasant selection. The sound effects are pretty solid, with the assortment of thwacks and thumps you'd expect of a golf game but mixed with fiery explosions and light beams you'd find in Mario games. Each character also comes with a number of voice clips for compliments, taunts, winning shouts and tearful losses, which is nice to hear.
Mario Golf will not appeal to anyone with a dislike for the sport. Despite the fantasy Mario themes this still relies heavily on standard golfing conventions. For anyone else this is a wonderful take on the sport. It's not without its issues, but a lot of fun is waiting on the fairways.
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