Has it really been 18 years since Mario Golf on the Game Boy Color, where Nintendo stumbled up on layering an RPG on top of arcade-y golf? Nintendo's released plenty of golf games since, most recently Mario Golf: World Tour on 3DS, but it's been a long time since someone, Nintendo or otherwise, picked up where it left off. The last Mario Golf in that same vein was Advance Tour on the GBA—in 2004. That's where Golf Story, a game I hadn't heard of until Nintendo announced it was a Switch exclusive last month, comes in. Though lacking the Mushroom Kingdom, it's basically a new Mario Golf RPG.
The game opens with players shooting a short round of golf with their dad, functioning as a tutorial and the emotional motivation for why, as an adult, you'd move out of your girlfriend's place, return home, and start playing golf again. (The game, sadly, doesn't have a character creator.) It's unclear, at least in the opening hours, why this was the time to pick up the clubs again, but the game makes some telling allusions to an "incident" involving your father. In any case, it's a justification for heading to a series of bizarre courses to whack some balls.
As with Sony's Everybody's Golf series (formerly Hot Shots Golf), Golf Story does not aim for pinpoint accuracy. It's over the top, with all manner of odd hazards littering the fairways and greens, hoping to get in your way. In an early course, animals await an errant bounce. They'll grab it and drop it elsewhere, often into a sand trap. Later, you can skip whole sections of a hole by timing shots to hit some friendly turtles, who'll let you use their shells for a bounce. These are not ordinary courses, but ones designed to surprise (and infuriate), growing in complexity over time.
Golf Story tries to crystallize the feeling of playing golf—setting up a swing, watching as random acts of nature and physics do their best to thwart you—into something accessible. Folks with knowledge of the sport might have an advantage (pay attention to slopes!), but anyone interested in a golf RPG, but has never swung a club, should be fine to jump in.
The "RPG" part of the game is basic, but serves as more than just aesthetic wrapping. In order to unlock new courses, you often need to complete a series of quests. Though a few are mindless (find "x" number of items in random spots), most require you to pull off bizarre golf tricks that force you to play the game in a different way. You might have to complete a hole by only shooting into bunkers (sand), another could require hitting the cart path before landing on the green. Or, uh, a character might ask you to hit them in the face as hard as possible, which is actually a smart way for players to realize hitting a swing at full power gives you an extra oomph beyond what your normal drive should be capable of pulling off.
You can also buy equipment for unique stat bonuses (i.e. 10% more distance out of sand). Most of the RPG elements—story included—feel basic. I'm hopeful there's more depth as it goes on.
The story that's there is damn funny, and Golf Story has some unique ways of depicting dialogue, clever tricks to provide a varied amount of expression. For example, when a dialogue window is transparent, it's an inner monologue. If someone's yelling, the text might get enormous, to underscore the emotion. If someone is being sarcastic, the bubble might turn diagonal and fall away.
The mechanics of hitting balls will be familiar to anyone who's played any golf game, with players tapping a meter at the bottom to designate how much power, while another tap designates accuracy. The closer you are on the latter, the better chance a ball will actually land where you hoped. Unlike other games, Golf Story doesn't ask you to calculate yardage when lining up shots, though you can switch clubs. Instead, you simply mark where you would like to hit, prompting the game to leave a shadowed icon on where you should time your button press.
Here's what that looks like in practice:
It's also possible to adjust the draw/hook of a shot, aka its mid-air curve, and by tapping the shoulder buttons, you can shrink the potential yardage of any given club, allowing you to more easily pull off more precise shots. If it all feels a little complicated at first, that's both because it is, and because of Golf Story's poor tutorializtion, which often hints at the more advanced mechanics to the player, without actually guiding them through how it works. It's easy to imagine people blowing past some of the text boxes, and never realizing the other options at their disposal. Even still, knowledge of a mechanic doesn't mean you'll use it well.
When your character levels up, they can upgrade a few different stats: power (drive distance), purity (draw), strike (accuracy), ability (degree control), spin (self-explanatory). As you add more power to a drive, the other stats might regress, forcing you to balance a desire for distance with a desire for control. As with the mechanics of play, however, Golf Story does little to explain what impact those stats will meaningfully have while you're swinging. In Golf Story, what's the difference between accuracy and control? Does spin really matter when you can't purposely choose backspin or bite? Maybe this becomes clear by spending more time with the game, but it would have benefited from more precisely explaining itself.
(Update: A reader tells me the game does have backspin, but it's only briefly explained by the game? I stand by my critique!)
More importantly, though, it feels good to hit shots. The physics are spot-on, and I can't help but admit it's plain adorable to be playing a fully simulated golf game in 2D. It would help if the game was putting me in more challenging situations, but I'm still early, so here's hoping the later courses begin making sharper demands of my skills. (Right now, things like slopes, shot count, distance to the pin, and wind haven't been much of a factor.) Two courses in, I'm coasting through.
The whole thing feels a bit like someone fell in love with Earthbound and swapped JRPG fights for golf swings. (There aren't any aliens yet, but there are, for whatever reason, cavemen running a very crappy golf course.) It's a charming game, one that overcomes its same-y pixel aesthetic with fun mechanics, genuinely humorous dialogue, and a sense that no one else was making a game like this, so heck, why not Golf Story? Hey, works for me.