Despite a couple of minor design issues and a generally tame difficulty, the title shines by taking the concept of a role-playing sports game and expanding it to its furthest reaches
As its name implies, the gameplay of Golf Story revolves around a combination of role-playing elements with the titular sport. To some, that may seem like an outrageous match, the kind of concept that only exists thanks in large part to the augmented creative freedom that is an inherent component of the indie scene. However, to a not very negligible faction of Nintendo Switch users, the blend seen in Golf Story is not odd at all; in fact, it is simultaneously so appealing, familiar, and distant in the past that it rings nostalgic bells that make the creation of such a title the realization of wishes that have long awaited to be fulfilled.
To anyone familiar with the history of the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis franchises, mixing these individual sports with RPG mechanics is not news. In their Game Boy Advance outings, released in 2004 and 2005 respectively, these two series attempted to add single-player value to what were otherwise a couple of multiplayer-focused packages by building solo campaigns where traveling through a small world, collecting items, leveling up, buying new equipment, and performing other tasks were all part and parcel of the experience.
The result of the trial was absolutely positive, generating not just major critical buzz, but also a horde of fans that fell in love with the unique combination and that started hoping future releases by both franchises would only expand upon that type of gameplay. Sadly, in a dumbfounding creative decision, even though Nintendo would go on to pump out many other Mario Golf and Mario Tennis efforts, absolutely none of them repeated the formula; a crime that, mixed with lazy design choices, caused the single-player journeys of those sagas to quickly go from utter greatness to complete vapidness.
Golf Story, therefore, can be seen in two ways. For players who did not have the pleasure of going through Mario Golf: Advance Tour or Mario Tennis: Power Tour, it is a chance to experience, for what is likely the first time ever, the mixture between RPG ethos and sports. Meanwhile, from the perspective of those who tackled those games, it is yet another occasion like those that generated titles such as Yooka-Laylee and Axiom Verge; a moment in which the indie segment of the industry, perhaps as tired of waiting as fans themselves, opts to go ahead and do what Nintendo has – for some reason – refused to execute for over a decade.
Even to that last group, Golf Story ought to come as a breath of fresh air. Because while Mario Golf: Advance Tour certainly dabbled in the combination that is seen here, it did not do so to the same extent. In that Game Boy Advance title, the golfing career of the main character of choice was ultimately a straightforward side-dish to a package that offered much more. In Golf Story, though, despite the presence of a multiplayer mode, not only is the solo journey by all means the star of the show, but the game also develops certain aspects of its RPG gameplay much more thoroughly.
The first one of those items is, of course, the story. The unnamed protagonist loves the sport, a passion he inherited from his father. However, rather than chasing the dream of becoming a pro, his life took other turns and for a lengthy twenty years the young man simply stopped practicing completely. Suddenly feeling like fulfilling what he and his late old man had set out to do, perhaps as a consequence of the fact his marriage fell apart, he decides to pick up his clubs, drop by the local golf course, and see where that will lead him.
As the plot moves forward, Golf Story has plenty of amusing and sometimes even otherworldly situations. There is an army of undead minions, an investigation into a reported murder, a visit to the hideout of snow bandits, a gang of rascals that uses golf courses to play frisbee, and more. Yet, as its synopsis indicates, the heart of its script is as down-to-earth as its central hero. The protagonist has no special features, he lacks self-esteem, his technique is derided by coaches who he seeks out, the press ignores him even when he begins to achieve notable feats, and the world seems to love abusing him. Still, he pushes forward with determination.
In matters of plot, Golf Story excels by matching that mundanity with a whole lot of personality. Through dialogues that are frequent but never overwhelming in quantity, the game reveals both sensitivity and humor. There are moments of beauty broken up by awkward quips; occasions of glory interrupted by mockery; a multitude of eccentric characters with a lot of witty remarks to make; instances of surrealistic jabs that recall games like EarthBound; and, to the delight of those who are truly into the sport, even some satirical comments on quirks of the golfing world. As an interesting touch and a notable highlight, the speech bubbles through which characters communicate are quite dynamic themselves, using visual details like font size, text speed, and even movements or the rumble feature of the controller to replicate the feeling being expressed at the moment.
With its basic but charming pixel art visuals, Golf Story unfolds in a world featuring eight distinct clubs, from the poorly kept Wellworn Grove, where the protagonist starts his journey as he looks for a coach to train him, to the pristine Blue Moon Dunes, where the professional players compete to see who is the best of them all. Reached from an overworld map whose small size makes it easy for gamers to travel between these locations, each club has its own traits and cast of characters, who hang around the grounds to either just make silly comments, hand out sidequests, or take part in the main storyline. As expected, the journey of the title’s everyday hero encompasses both tasks as well as matches in all of those locations, turning the facilities of the golf courses into the scenarios where the plot is developed.
Borrowing from Mario Golf and other established properties in the genre, the title’s golf gameplay – which is seen through a top-down view – turns a complex sport into a simple and accessible affair that retains a good deal of depth. Every shot can essentially be broken into two phases. In the setup step, players select the club they will employ, which in turn determines the distance the ball will travel; make lateral adjustments to control the shot’s direction; optionally press the L or R buttons to, for extra control, trigger a backspin or a topspin once the ball hits the ground; and have access to what the game calls Precision Mode, which is activated by the Y button and lets one further tweak the length of the shot by freely moving the marker that determines the expected landing point.
Once that fine-tuning is done, the shot can be taken via three presses of the A button. The first, which gets the process started, sends a marker traveling to the left in a gauge. The second, which determines the strength of the hit, needs to be timed so the marker is either as further left as possible, which will create a full swing, or close to the custom indicator that is generated if the Precision Mode was used, which will produce a shot with the intended yardage. And the third, which defines the accuracy of the hit, needs to be executed when the marker is in the middle of the purple strike zone, with mistakes to one side or to the other causing the shot to deviate from the ideal path.
It is a tried and true format that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever gone through a golf game; those who have not, however, will be happy to know Golf Story uses its RPG progression to teach these mechanics little by little, making sure players are familiar with most of these details by the time they reach the plot’s first important confrontation.
As far as issues go, the sole problem in this particular area stems from developers’ somewhat puzzling decision not to offer a button that produces a view of the complete hole. Having that visual information is an absolute must to create a strategy to tackle the challenge ahead; after all, determining the target of one hit is often influenced by the types of shots one wants to take next. Sadly, such a perspective is only available in a brief opening cutscene that precedes the action, and since it is almost impossible to memorize the entire setup of the hole based on that five-second overview, coming up with any sort of playing tactic is often impossible. Consequently, especially in the more difficult courses or in the more complex holes, players might inadvertently put themselves in precarious positions – such as having a tree in the next shot’s path – due to how they were unable to visualize the entire hole in order to plan ahead.
Rounds of golf in the game’s eight courses – which contain nine holes each – are certainly the peak moments of the single-player journey; comparatively, they are Golf Story’s equivalent to the dungeons of other RPGs. And much to the benefit of the game, not only are these occasions pretty exciting, but they are also excellently varied. Mostly, these positive traits can be traced to two distinct origins: the quality of the courses themselves and the different ways in which they are used.
When it comes to the first point, Golf Story boasts courses featuring holes whose design goes from pretty common to delightfully wacky; meaning that while some feature challenges that call for a more standard approach to the sport, others demand bolder and more creative thinking. Moreover, their themes and the hazards extracted from them are wonderful, going beyond the traditional bunkers and thick grass that punish players by cutting down on the precision and distance of their shots.
The low budget of Wellworn Grove means it is filled with moles, and if the ball lands within the reach of the creatures, they will pick it up to either place it in a much better or worse position. The tropical setting of the Bermuda Isles leads its holes to be mostly made up of small patches of land separated by vast segments of water. Oak Manor has a Halloween-inspired scenario, and the pumpkins that are scattered around the fairways can either cause balls to dangerously bounce or block the shots of those who do not aim too carefully. Coldwind Waste sports a few icy stretches of terrain that add distance to hits, but that conversely make it especially difficult to stop balls from rolling away. The Blue Moon Dunes is a lengthy course affected by vicious winds. And the list goes on.
Meanwhile, in relation to being used in varied ways, all of the courses will be tackled more than once. Initially, the protagonist will go into them for a simple solo round in order to get familiar with the holes. Eventually, though, the story will pull him into match play affairs, and these can either be straightforward one versus one deals or unusual confrontations of doubles in which players’ partners will take a scripted first shot before the protagonist picks it up from there, usually leading to some very complicated situations. Finally, before it is all said and done, three of the courses also host stroke play championships that need to be won so that the story can move forward.
Just like RPGs are not solely made of dungeons, Golf Story is not exclusively constituted of rounds in golf courses either. That is why between the meat of the gameplay, there are also numerous tasks to be performed, be them mandatory or optional. In presentation, these come in a variety of ways. In the Coldwind Waste, for instance, one of the activities of the main plot is unfreezing a bunch of golfers that got caught in a snowstorm; likewise, part of the Oak Manor quest includes the creation of an undead army. As different as they may be, Golf Story interestingly finds a way to implement these tasks in a way that makes them boil down to the game’s main mechanics; in other words, most of the problems presented in the main quest involve executing golf shots.
Some may say it is repetitive, and to a point it is, but it is really not too different from what happens in most other games, which feature various challenges or puzzles that revolve around a small set of abilities. Furthermore, in a way, Golf Story manages to make the repetition interesting by amusingly integrating, sometimes in ridiculous manners, the act of taking shots with the problems that come up along the way. Those looking for a bit more than that, though, will be happy to know the game also features a few other gameplay twists outside of the golf course, including a couple of trading sequences; a stealth segment; a few running challenges; riddle-solving; item-gathering; frisbee-throwing; and more.
As a golfer that starts out with pretty unpolished skills and basic equipment, it goes without saying that the protagonist needs a whole lot of improvement to reach the pro circuit he so intensely desires to be a part of. Consequently, most of the tasks and golf rounds that are successfully performed will net him not just experience, which leads to leveling up and the opportunity to spend skill points in the character’s stats, but also cash that can be traded in for new clubs in the shops around the world.
Alone, however, the activities of the main quest will not give the hero enough of those to make him prepared for the tougher courses. Thankfully, the game is absolutely brimming with sidequests that bring in some extra experience and cash. Around the facilities of the clubs players visit, there will be numerous characters with visible text bubbles hovering over them, which means that – when spoken to – they will offer some sort of challenge. Even though, as it happens in the central storyline, there are a few tasks here and there that involve exploration or the collection of items, most of those non-mandatory challenges center around performing shots; in their case, via some traditional golfing.
Whether they are driving, approach, or putting challenges, essentially, most of those tasks concern landing a certain amount of shots inside predetermined areas or clearing a number of holes without exceeding a shot threshold. In both cases, they are fun little tasks that feel like golf mini-games and are also a great opportunity for players to hone their skills in specific situations. The only sour note regarding these mini-games is that, in another confusing design decision, they do not offer a reset or quit button. As a consequence, even when they screw up the activity to a point in which success becomes unattainable, players cannot simply restart the task, having to instead play it all the way to failure just so they can have another go. Needless to say, frustration arises from that limitation.
Clocking in at fifteen to twenty hours if all sidequests are included, Golf Story is a delightful adventure whose sole major misstep is the lack of challenge seen in the match and stroke play events that happen in the golf courses, with perhaps the final championship being the sole exception to the norm. Even after the game is done, though, one can get more out of it by using the Quick Play mode to setup single or multiplayer rounds in any of the eight golf courses; and those who like to achieve full completion can even try to acquire medals, which indicate scores under par, in all of the game’s holes, as the title keeps track of those.
With its accessibility, charm, and quality, Golf Story has the capacity to draw in both those who admire the sport and those who do not. Centering a gaming experience around the combination of RPG elements with golf may not be a completely fresh idea, but it is one that was abandoned so distantly in the past that the game ends up feeling either like a major discovery or like the realization of a long-lost dream for gamers who wish Nintendo had continued to explore this very mixture in the Mario Golf games.
Golf Story, however, is more than the picking up of a torch that was once let go. Despite a couple of minor design issues and a generally tame difficulty, the title shines by taking the concept of a role-playing sports game and expanding it to its furthest reaches, pairing the expected tournaments and matches with various sidequests, distinct wacky tasks that are somehow solved by taking golf shots, and the touching simple story of a man who tries to find redemption in the midst of fairways and greens. Golf Story is, therefore, the maturation of an idea that started out quite promising and that, after quite a while, is at last taken to its maximum realization.