As dedicated gaming handhelds fall in popularity and phones take over, there is an ever greater call for Nintendo to move over to the App Store. Look at Mario Golf: World Tour. It’s barely more than a one button game, perfect for mobile adaptation. What could possibly justify this having a $40 cartridge all to itself, let alone a $250 dedicated system? Incredible quality and polish, that’s what.
Looking at Mario Golf: World Tour it’s easy to be cynical. The basic gameplay involves little more than directing your shot towards the hole and then hitting the a button at the right time to get the perfect amount of power into your swing. I’m not kidding when I say there is absolutely no reason you couldn’t make this exact game for phones, save the Nintendo IP. Make a couple of course corrections to account for the wind and the slope of the land, tap once, tap twice, put the ball in the hole, rinse and repeat 17 more times. It’s not exactly rocket science.
But there’s something beautiful about the simplicity. It’s catharsis; bright colours and soft music to relax and soothe you. There’s nothing outstanding or memorable here, Mario Golf is like a humble, dutiful caddie – all it wants is for you to have a good time, and it stays out of the way as much as possible.
Mario Golf: World Tour is the first 3DS entry in the Mario Golf series, and the first return to the series since the Gamecube version (why there was never a Mario Golf game for Nintendo’s enormously successful motion-control based console is utterly beyond me). It’s a very casual treatment of the golf sim, with a single button to swing and wide courses with little room for complete failure. It takes great pains to explain and tutorialise any golfing concepts the game might use, has a comprehensive glossary of golfing terms in case you missed something, and generally doesn’t care about the technicalities of actually placing a shot. Want to use a 9-iron to get out of that sand trap because it will go further? (real life golfing pro-tip: it won’t) Sure, why not – the clubs are just abstract representations of shot strength anyway.
That’s pretty much Mario Golf’s design philosophy – abstract representation over simulation. If you want to use them you can toggle on some slightly more advanced options to put some spin on the ball or make power shots, but it’s never anything more than tapping a button when the meter is full. The game requires just enough attention to keep you engaged, but not so much that you can’t do something else while you occasionally press buttons and glance at the screen for quick reference. It’s a design perfectly suited to a portable game.
Starting out World Tour will drag your Mii into some golfing garments and give you a little country club to run around in. You’ll then have almost every NPC you try and talk to give you dialog about whether you’ve got your handicap yet. It’s a little annoying, but I applaud Nintendo for taking the high road and not forcing you to play a handicap match before actually being able to do anything. Getting that handicap opens up the rest of the game, essentially setting your difficulty. To explain a little bit of golf here; the goal of a golf match is to get the ball in the hole in the fewest number of hits. A handicap is subtracted from your number of hits at the end of the game to level the playing field between players of different skill levels. Better players have lower handicaps, meaning they have to play to a higher standard to win. Mario Golf adjusts your handicap based on your results after every match, so the difficulty scales organically to your skill level.
Of course obtaining that handicap demonstrates Mario Golf’s only real drawback. To progress you’re going to need to play full 18-hole games. That’s a decent time investment, especially once you’re into the harder difficulty tournaments where you’ll be taking a little while to set up each of your shots. It can easily take over an hour to play a full game which is a fair bit more time than my usual bus ride. The 3DS’s sleep mode is a godsend here, and because the game is so relaxed you don’t lose any momentum by just putting it to the side for a while – but the lack of a mid-game save option in case you run out battery or want to play a round with a friend is frustrating.
It also slows down the reward loop. You get golfing gear unlocks and coins for completing a whole game, but when every reward is so far away it’s a little disheartening to see such a heap of stuff still locked behind that wall. These unlocks are also delivered randomly, which removes the satisfaction of gradual progression that the previous, more RPG heavy, Mario Golf games enjoyed.
The other method of progress is, thankfully, a little less dry. There’s a set of challenges which involve trying to achieve a precise score (no higher, no lower) over a few holes or collect coins on the course as you make your shots. These golf puzzles provide a more interesting way to teach players how the mechanics work, and are a thoughtful addition.
As well as the standard courses there’s a set of Mario World courses which are a little more fanciful in their design. Boost ramps and coloured grass make the visuals and the gameplay just that little bit more interesting, and it’s good to see that they’ve taken the Mario concept further than just a thoughtless sprinkling of characters. It adds some nice variety and requires a bit more thought when playing the game.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the single player side of things is laughably easy – and for the most part the level of challenge is pretty low. It’s not a total cakewalk though. There are some pretty demanding shots in the tighter fairways, and the AI will maintain a high standard whether you’re keeping up or not. There’s also a particularly punishing gauntlet of floating island holes which offer no room for failure. It’s never going to be golfing Dark Souls but there’s some meat to bite into if you dig deep enough.
Local multiplayer is exactly what you would expect but the online offerings are genuinely impressive, especially for Nintendo. After years dealing with friend codes and whatever awful excuse passed for internet connectivity on the Wii, there’s real evidence that parts of the company are starting to realise people like to interact with each other. Friend’s scores and ghosts are all presented, daring you to top them. Global leaderboards are available for a host of challenges, timed to last a certain number of days so it always feels like there’s fresh competition. They weren’t messing around when they slapped World Tour on the box. Someone has gone to some effort here, and it will add a lot of longevity to the game for those with a competitive itch.
As surprising as the well-built online component is, it only proves that this game is the perfect example of what Nintendo does best; polish until there’s not a single flaw in the design. I was ready to write off Mario Golf when I saw it. It practically plays itself, and how interesting can golf really be anyway? But you just can’t argue with quality. Sure it might be simple, but it feels absolutely whole and complete.