Golf. The gentleman’s game. The place of wacky dress and hitting balls with sticks.
I grew up with the game and regularly used to play with my father, until his health stopped him from playing. I got pretty good, too. It’s been the only real-world sport I ever enjoyed (apart from pool, but that’s a different story altogether), probably because it was so low impact.
But this is a games website. And I am a gamer (whatever that means these days)
Golf has been on my mind recently, what with the newest entries Everybody’s Golf (Hot Shots Golf for our American cousins) and the wonderful Switch exclusive, Golf Story. As with most sports games, I much prefer games on the more unrealistic side. Golf is no exception, however it wasn’t always this way.
My first memory of a golf video game was Leaderboard Golf on the ZX spectrum. Considering when this came out — and the system it was on — it was a rather spectacular achievement. The classic three-tap swing system ushered in by NES Golf was not standard yet, but used a rather nice click-and-hold system. It also sported a pseudo-3D effect, although each screen took a few seconds to render. But overall, it hooked me, and started me on my journey.
Moving into the 16-bit era, on the Amiga: as well as having an updated version of Leaderboard Golf (now in full colour!), I found a fun little mini-golf game called Zany Golf. This game was a lot more fun than it had any right to be and actually only included nine holes, but they went out of their way to include things that would not be possible in real life. One hole included a giant burger over the hole — you had to click it to make it bounce so you could make the putt. Others had fans you had to click and wiggle to activate and blow your ball around. One hole was even a pinball machine with working flippers. It was also really hard, despite only having a few holes. I don’t think I ever managed to finish the last hole (lasers, teleporters and lightning? Oh my!)
There was also Jack Nicklaus’ Unlimited Golf. As well as being a much better game of golf overall, it had one feature that would shape my view of golf going forward. The clue is in the name — unlimited.
The game had a course designer, and rather comprehensive it was, too. You could use a spline like tool to create the basic layout, then use a MS-Paint-like interface, with different colours representing different terrains. Then you could use a stamp tool for trees and flowers etc., then create contours and hills using a fourth interface. You could even use a sprite editor to create your own decorations.
Thing is, there were no checks and balances involved. Putting the ground at height 0, directly next to ground at height 200, would result in a sheer cliff; water could be placed higher than the ground; and bunkers could plummet to the centre of the earth. Both myself and my father loved this system, and created countless courses. His, Practically professionally designed courses, mine were rather more fantastical. Using the sprite editor and sheer cliff paths, I created buildings, plus whatever else my imagination and the tools would allow me. This changed everything.
Going forward, ‘normal’ golf games could not hold my attention anymore and my interest waned somewhat. I tried the likes of PGA Tour Golf and the later Tiger Woods games, but these just felt too real compared the fantastical courses I had created. The games were dull, stuffy and no longer fun. Luckily, Good ol’ Nintendo was right there to save the day. I’m not saying that Nintendo was the first, but it was the first I was aware of. The internet was in its early days, so I had to rely on magazines for my information and had not been aware of any other games of its type.
So Mario and his chums took a break from platforming, and the karting season was over, so they took to the Mushroom Kingdom courses for a nice round of golf. Now, this game was a fairly close representation of normal golf, just set in the Mushroom Kingdom, and had that typical Nintendo charm. Bowser and Donkey Kong swinging with just one arm due to their size, the various voice-overs and chants from different characters and the putting-only/mini-golf courses made this a great start to the series. It could also connect to the GameBoy Color version of the same game if you had both and the transfer pack.
It was a great start to the series, but it did not get particularly wacky until the GameCube sequel. This began to include a much bigger variety of courses, including ones set up in the Donkey Kong jungle tree tops and ones surrounded by lava around Bowser’s castle. The Mario Kingdom courses even included things like pipes — if you hit the ball into them, it would appear elsewhere on the course. It was a wonderful game.
The previously mentioned GameBoy Color game (Mario Golf) and the GameBoy Advance game (Advance Tour) took the Mario series in a more RPG direction. You played as a more generic character, could level up your characters, get upgraded clubs and even explore the environment a bit, too. Obviously, you got a much more simplistic game of golf, but these additions added a lot to the overall experience, a trend which would continue in the handheld versions.
Outside of the Mario Golf series, other companies were taking golf in various directions. One such company was Sensible Software. Now I am going to assume that most people have heard of Sensible Soccer, one of the greatest football games of the 16-bit era (more like all time), but not many people realise that they also released Sensible Golf. This game — while rather fun in quick bursts — was hampered by the fact that it was built on the same game engine as Sensible Soccer and therefore had to be more arcade-like, rather than a sim. Although it boasted twenty-five courses, these were all made up from the same pool of seventy-two holes.
Legendary developer Sid Meier also threw his glove into the ring with Sim Golf. Now, whereas you can play the courses in this game — and indeed one way to make money is to play in tournaments — the Sim Golf’s main focus is the creation of courses, in a very simulation-like manner. You gradually create your course, hole by hole, and gradually, as more people play and like your course, make more simoleons, which can help expand and improve your course. You unlock different ‘buildings’ as you go along too, such as putting greens and driving ranges to keep your sims happy. Great little game.
I already mentioned Everybody’s Golf, but this is a favourite series of mine. Starting out on the PS1, and with entries on every Sony system since, it has always been a mainstay of my collection. Not over-the-top wacky like some of the others on this list, but all the characters are overly cute, in that typical Japanese way. It has always had some odd additions, such as Sackboy and Kratos being in the PS3 version, or being able to unlock clubs based on a popular soft drink in the PSP one. It can be a little grindy to unlock further courses, but as it’s fun to play anyway, it’s not too much of a chore.
Outlaw Golf was another fun one, and the only one on the list marketed toward adults and mature teens. With some strange courses, like a course in the middle of a city, and stranger golfers, including bikers and strippers, the gameplay is narrated by a commentator spouting a risqué play-by-play, with specific jokes for each character. It’s also full of crude early 2000s humour.
An interesting element with Outlaw Golf was the composure meter. It would go to the positive side when you were playing well and to the negative side when playing badly. Play badly too long tanks your composure, and you end up beating your caddie up (rather fun if, I do say so myself). It even managed a sequel, plus tennis and volleyball versions.
Other Notable mentions go to:
This was an online-only, multiplayer golf game for PC in which you could level yourself up and upgrade your clubs. Typically cute and Japanese — like Everybody’s golf — it was massively popular in Asian countries and is still running in Thailand to this day. All other servers are sadly shut down now, which included an English server. Local-only versions of the game were also released on the Wii and PSP, going under the name of Super Swing Golf in the West
Neo Turf Masters
A Neo Geo arcade title, also ported to the Pocket Color, is a straight-up arcade look at the game of game of golf. With simple controls, six characters and four courses to play, though, it’s as simple as they get, but a lot of fun anyway.
Okay, not technically golf, but ‘Frolf’ — a golf-like game where you propel frogs out of catapults into a hole. It’s not scored on how many shots you take, but how long it takes you. Great, oddball fun, for up to four players on the GameCube and PlayStation 2
Overall, games like golf are a lot more fun when you step outside the norm, and I feel the same about most sports games. I’d take Mutant League Football over Madden, Mario Kart over Gran Turismo and Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games over any other official effort, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
Oh, and if you have a Switch, go get Golf Story now; it’s absolutely bloody marvelous.