Golf, the well-worn saying goes, is a good walk spoiled. Golf Story, on the other hand, is a slight 16-bit styled RPG that’s fortified by its embrace of that most sedate of sports. This is a pairing that, against expectations, works a treat.
Except it won’t be that much of a surprise to scholars of the form – those that’ll tell you that golf is one of only two sports to have been played on the moon, perhaps, or more pertinently that it was Nintendo who invented the trusty three-click system that’s been a genre staple ever since its first appearance back in 1984. There have been countless golf games since, and it’s Camelot Software Planning’s Mario Golf series that have often shone brightest. And within that series there’s one that shines brightest of all: the Game Boy Color outing, with its incredible weaving of a single-player RPG into its depiction of the sport.
There’s been very little else like that game since (even if Camelot’s series did go from strength to strength, its outstanding 2014 Mario Golf World Tour being a personal all-time favourite in the genre until Everybody’s Golf muscled its way in last month). Small Australian developer Sidebar Games has certainly felt the loss, so much so it’s taken things into its own hands for this, a Nintendo Switch exclusive that’s quietly crept out on the eShop.
The dev’s Australian – as is evident in ‘mate’ being used adorably as a suffix by most NPCs.
Golf Story is an RPG/sports hybrid of generous length and considerable charm in which you’re an upstart golfer, attempting to crack into the pro tour and rekindle some of the talent you first displayed as a child when playing alongside your father. You find yourself a coach – after some persuasion – and then use the clubhouse of a course that’s seen better days as a foundation from which to explore the overworld.
The world itself is a delight to discover, tied together with cartoon logic and a love for the links, full of haunted groves and blissed-out beaches, and all rendered in Super NES style. It’s an aesthetic that isn’t entirely original; its loungey soundtrack, while perfectly listenable, has the insubstantial wispiness of library music, and there’s something of the stock image in its 16-bit-style characterisations. They’re easy shorthands, though, and as an appropriation in part of the great Earthbound, Golf Story at least goes beyond the pixels and works towards aping some of the heart and soul of Shigesato Itoi and HAL Laboratory’s masterpiece. Golf Story is a goofy game, but one with the same gentle humour and human warmth of that all-time great.
It’s not quite Undertale – that other exquisite Earthbound tribute act – but whereas Toby Fox’s game spilled out in unexpected directions, Golf Story’s trick is working its way back to that core in equally surprising ways. The overworld is full of side-quests and mini-challenges, all of which dole out XP and level you up, earning you upgrade points you can use to improve your drive, reduce your draw or increase your ability to shape your shots. Use the money you acquire, meanwhile, to invest in new clubs.
All of this is wonderful, but Golf Story continues its grand job of melding golf and the 16-bit adventure RPG in other ways. Come across a new location and there’ll be new problems to solve, new secrets to discover and even a dungeon, in the shape of the round of golf that’s played at the climax of each encounter. Earn the respect of certain characters and you can even earn special attributes, marked on your quest tracker just like one of the spells acquired in Ocarina of Time.
There’s plenty of variety here – disc golf is included, as are races and several other activities I’d rather not spoil.
It’s something of a bonus, then, that this is also a half-decent golf game in its own right. You’d be justified in buying it for its golf alone, even – there’s a quick play mode which allows you to play either solo or with a friend on the courses as you unlock them. It’s perfectly matched to the Switch, of course, with its premise of local multiplayer, and Golf Story makes it straightforward to play with two Joy-Cons – and also makes some sublime use of HD rumble, with a satisfying ‘plonk’ each time you sink a shot.
That’s one of several neat touches – there’s something supremely satisfying about the sniper-rifle crack that’s unleashed when you achieve the perfect shot – in what is an enjoyable appropriation of golf genre standards. The shot system is the standard three-click, with a few added crinkles. Precision shot is an easy way to place where your ball will land, pinning a marker on the power gauge. You can shape the shot, too, by marking where exactly you want to hit the ball itself. It’s simple and it’s satisfying, which is something you can say for the rest of Golf Story too.
This isn’t the greatest golf game there’s been, although it boasts some deceptive depths. It’s not the greatest RPG, either, though its charm wins out over any clumsiness. What it most definitely is, however, is an irresistible and harmonious combination that makes for one of the finer games you’ll find on Nintendo’s Switch this year.