“Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.”
Comparisons are “unbound” between Sidebar Games’ Golf Story and a variety of other titles. You may be invariably reminded of any number of golf games (Mario Golf is one I hear putted around most frequently), or you could recall to mind the retro RPGs from the Super Nintendo’s yesteryear. Considering Golf Story is a third-party game for Nintendo’s latest console, the comparison with the SNES, made great by first and third party games, is appropriate. Personally, I find that I can describe Golf Story best as EarthBound without the aliens, psychic powers and time travel. It’s EarthBound with golf.
That comparison survives beyond the superficiality of the graphical philosophy both games share. Yes, of course Golf Story clearly exemplifies the beauty of and nostalgia for the 16-bit era. However, the pixel art is bolstered by obvious modern touches: atmospheric effects and trees swaying in the wind, character sprites crowding the screen in droves, their speech bubbles and dialogue infused with new dynamism. These stylistic spins on the old 16-bit look elevate Golf Story above “yet another” retro-themed game. The dialogue boxes exploding when characters yell or slanting when they say something awkward is an amiable way to get intonation and the nuances of speech across without the perks of voice acting.
We’ve all sent those texts where the other person took it wrong because they couldn’t catch a tone of sarcasm… This is the future.
Golf Story’s resemblances are more than just skin deep.
It is as hilarious as EarthBound, in its own straight-faced way. I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly as funny as it is. It seems like there’s a tendency in video games toward knee-slapping dad jokes that feel too intentional, but the writing here is extraordinarily endearing and clever. If humor at its core is about defying expectations, then Golf Story is on par here. One of the funniest parts in the game comes when your character’s vengeful wife shows up to harass him at a tournament. The TV reporters begin interviewing her instead of your actual opponents, asking her what her game plan would be for the day, to which she responds nonchalantly that she plans to bring up his weaknesses and past failures in an effort to undermine his confidence.
Golf Story’s frequent use of the unexpected in its humor pays off in numerous examples. I bet you didn’t think you’d be warding off wizards or the undead with golf balls! It’s all golf but this game plays around with the sport in contexts you’ve never seen before.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Golf Story opens twenty years ago with the heart of this tale: a father and son at the golf course. The little boy is getting some lessons from his dad, learning to deal with squawking onlookers in the form of geese at the park. It’s a premonition of things to come and, no, that analogy is not misplaced. Showboating remains outside of the general humility of the player character but he’ll still have to learn how to deal with those who would stand against his aspirations.
Twenty years later, our protagonist decides to take up the way of the clubs again. He’ll set aside the normalcy of life that came between him and his dream and do whatever it takes to climb the ladder to become a golf pro, though of course, getting to the top is not so easy. The honking geese of his childhood are now replaced by an entire macroverse of naysayers, downers, elitists, and hecklers. It seems like everyone hates him, the amateur.
It’s no understatement when I say that virtually no one believes in our hero. He’ll be starting off from the very bottom rung: flat broke, no coach, no sponsor, having to earn his first few bucks performing cheap trick shots at the local golf grounds. Through nothing but painstaking determination and good old fashioned grit, our hero begins to climb the ranks, but only if he can find someone to mentor him and keep up with match games, tournaments, rivalries, and the odd jobs here and there.
The questions remain: Would the fame be worth it? At what point will he sacrifice the humble smallness for the pomp and swagger of the pros? Will aspiration change him?
Golf Story features eight distinct areas each with their own cultures and courses. Wellworn Grove is the run down, shabby place where our hero remembers golfing as a child. Two decades haven’t been kind to the Grove, though. Now it’s lorded over by a greedy swindler. The grass is patchy at best and the holes are crowded by moles. Still, Wellworn Grove is where our hero will run into his Coach and get his first lessons, if he can learn how to impress with his… unorthodox swing.
Beyond the world of Wellworn Grove lies a world map connecting to the seven other areas. There’s Lurker Valley, a place seemingly stuck in time with cavefolk fiercely guarding their idols and muttering their neanderthal grammar. There’s Cheekybeak Peak, a mountainous region high in the sky where the wind blows strong, affecting your game, and where meddlesome birds are ready to snatch up your errant golf balls. Bermuda Isles is an ocean-side paradise with blue waters and white sands, which unfortunately means lots and lots of bunkers.
Tidy Park is home to a gentleman’s club of old fashioned seniors and their out-dated philosophy of playing it safe in golf: a safe six is better than a messy four. There’s also Oak Manor, an all but abandoned realm of ghosts, graveyards, and emo kids trying to summon up the dead. At one extreme end of the world lies Coldwind Wastes, land of endless snow and ice, and banditry.
Finally, at the end of the long road to stardom, Blue Moon Dunes awaits. Only the best of the best are allowed on those hallowed grounds to stand among pretentious giants. You’ve a lot of golfing ahead of you before you can make it in there. It’s not as simple as slicing in a mega albatross…
Golf Story lets you tee up virtually anywhere but knowing what you have to do with an 8 iron and a golf ball is another story. I usually gripe about video games today being over-tutorialized but there’s no need to worry about that in Golf Story. On the contrary, there is more than some degree of golf knowledge required to understand all of the lingo, which I discovered with mild disappointment.
Even though I played through the whole game, I still don’t really know what the difference is between a chip and a slice, or an eagle and a birdie. I’m certain the explanations are simple. Hey, I know what a hole-in-one is, and a putt, so there’s that! Still, if you asked me to get out on a real life golf course, relying on everything I learned about golf from Golf Story, I wouldn’t know how scores are kept and how to choose the best club for a specific shot. I only picked up enough basic knowledge in order to make it through this RPG.
Our hero gains experience and a bit of cash performing trickshots, beating challenges, and winning tournaments, and these experience points go toward level ups and raising stats. There’s a good example of esoteric know-how required of you here. With each level up, you’ll gain points you can spend on your character’s Power, Purity, Strike, Ability, and Spin. You can bunch up all your points on any one of these or spread them out evenly, but if you spend points on Power (the distance of your shots, or drive) then your other stats will be reduced. You can reduce Power in order to spend points on other elements and create a more balanced character. However, when I tried to research the meaning of these elements as far as how they improve the capabilities of your character, I couldn’t really find a consensus. In fact, there was a lot of guesswork going on as to what these specifically meant.
See, this game never once tries to explain the nature of golf’s scoring system (utterly foreign to me), or the mechanisms of its terminology, or the essence of its jargon, so it seems to me that an accessible tutorial on the basics would’ve been appropriate here. I get the feeling that it was a game made for golfers. It parodies the world of golf, makes light of the PR of athletes, pokes fun at the commercialism and journalism surrounding golf, and even satirizes itself with exaggerated golf parlance.
I approached Golf Story as a fan of SNES RPGs, not a fan of golf. I don’t know a whole lot about golf beyond “Today in sports: man hits ball”. I’ve played a bit of mini-golf at awkward social events but I’ve never actually played real golf beyond taking a swing or two on a driving range back when my step-dad was a golf fanatic. For me…
“I regard golf as an expensive way of playing marbles.”
As an RPG, Golf Story is lighter fare, albeit with a moderate length. Those like myself accustomed to retro RPGs will find systems in Golf Story like development, gear acquisition, and grinding all stripped down and replaced with substitutes in their most embryonic forms. Without battles (random or otherwise), there’s little to do in Golf Story between the tournaments and matches you’re required to win in order to advance the plot. The game can sink into a sensation of fulfilling chores. Past times like disc tossing, drone flying, or hunting for minerals are infrequent but present enough in quantities to distract from what eventually turned into a kind of golf fatigue for me, given the simplicity of the mechanics at hand.
I say that the mechanics are simple but they and the controls are also plentiful. There’s a lot to take in at the beginning of the game with having to factor wind and curvature and different clubs and types of swings. The overwhelming nature of so many small details bearing down on a single swing meant a steep learning curve at the start of the game, for me at least, a non-golfer. It’s been a long time since I played Hal’s Hole In One Golf… or the golf mini-game in Dark Cloud 2. I realized that the game wasn’t designed with me in mind but really… that’s okay.
In gaming today, it seems as if there’s always a new controversy-of-the-week. Currently, one of them concerns the nature of inclusiveness in the design of games. I like to avoid taking sides and getting “political” in the latest scenario that’s come out of the outrage machine (regardless of how much like virtue signaling that sounds), but I’ll just say that I have no problem with Golf Story feeling exclusive, as in its design excludes me.
I don’t care that it wasn’t made with me in mind, and I think that’s the reasonable stance to take. For generations, we’ve enjoyed literature that let us see into the lives of people who aren’t like ourselves. For decades, we’ve watched movies that showed us what people different from us are like. Why can’t we extend the same thing to video games and experience others vicariously through them, rather than just experiencing “us”, or when did entertainment have to become all about our Selves?
On the other hand, the market is vast and new games are being made every day. Surely you can find something that represents what you like without having to go too far, or even better, with games being made by individuals why not create the kinds of games you want to see yourself?
Golf Story is a game for golfers more so than retro RPG fans and that’s okay, even though I’m not a golfer. What I enjoyed, I enjoyed. What I didn’t, I didn’t. What I had no clue about, I chalked it up to the value of some other autonomous sentience out there appreciating it, but I got to experience a bit of the life of golf beyond myself. Golf Story is a game and it’s meant to be fun, doubly fun for those to whom it freely caters. And that’s just fine. I think that deep down we’d all rather find quality games that feel like they’re made for us, and risk encountering those that clearly aren’t made for us, rather than endure a socially-pressured “regulated” market where it all feels the same because each game must pander to everyone.
The world is much bigger than that.
The 8-bit Review
Golf Story occupies that favored indie magic-zone with its 16-bit inspired visuals, with additional flairs I mentioned earlier such as the observable effects of wind. Leaves and bits of dust and dander waft across the screen, helpful indicators where lining up your shots is concerned. What works best with these graphics in Golf Story is how bright they are. Sometimes the indie scene can go full art house and drag 16-bit graphics down into drab muddiness or monotony. Not so with this game. The eight main environments are each distinct from each other, complete with their own color palette. There is in fact very little monotony in Golf Story, even among the 8 or 9 holes in a single area’s course.
The sprite art in the game is also well-done. Sidebar Games matched the deformed anatomy of SNES-era RPGs but they infused their characters with many expressions and gestures, as well. NPCs’ idle animations are livelier than simply walking in place but the main cast of characters gain plenty of personality from fist shaking, sketching on notepads, and so on. As great as the pixel art is, the very few 3D elements in the game are somewhat out of place. Still, they’re few enough that it’s of little consequence.
Golf Story’s opening hours featured music as I largely expected I’d find: some smooth ambiance, some jazz, some birds chirping peacefully in the background. It’s all what you’d expect on a sunny day out on the grass. Wellworn Grove’s sounds represent that quite well.
I’m reminded again of EarthBound which thrived on a bizarre, deliberately clunky, jazzy soundtrack. Golf Story’s music by Joel Steudler riffs on a lot of that while keeping things far less melodic, per modern tastes in gaming soundtracks. While I thought I heard a recurring theme throughout several tracks, it’s nothing I could bring to mind right now.
The soundtrack is serviceable for a pleasant round of golf, minus a few tracks. Easy listening is par for the course but there are a handful of songs that had me reaching to lower the volume, particularly the icy bagpipes of Coldwind Wastes? I don’t know what that was. Worse still is the sound editing, which cuts sharply between very different tracks on several occasions. The music that works in Golf Story sounds great but there are a few musical equivalents of thorns in sides.
Typically I get lost with the mechanics of golf games, too many options before me, but with Golf Story at least the game starts you off slowish and begins to demand of you more and more, introducing to you new emphases in golf culminating in the pro tourney. What each course says about golf is significant. Wellworn familiarizes you with course hazards, Cheekybeak Peak lays importance on keeping an eye on the wind and its direction, Bermuda Isles forces you to deal with tiny greens and fairways, and of course hitting balls out of bunkers, Coldwind ensures that you master chipping, and Tidy Park stresses safe play. Golf is not a brute force game but it relies in many ways on gentleness and precision.
This was much more than I expected of Golf Story and I am glad that it gave me a greater appreciation for the subtleties of golf that were previously beyond my ken. I thought that Golf Story would just be a lot of golfing, and it is, but at least those matches and tournaments take place in diverse areas with diverse dangers and features, demanding that you change up your play style just a smidge each time you reach a new area. The game doesn’t feel like a collection of recycled maps with mere aesthetic differences.
Not everything is sunshine and fairways, though. The game cannot escape those rough gameplay inconveniences which often bring impressions down. Having to figure out on your own that you need to equip a new item before an NPC will take note of it, having to talk to an NPC again each time you fail a challenge or mini-game rather than having a simple retry option, being unable to cancel your swing if you screwed it up. Then again, maybe these things were all possible? I can’t be sure since Golf Story doesn’t do to swell of a job of helping players navigate its nooks and crannies.
There’s always a lot to do in Golf Story. Upon reaching a new area, there are generally a host of new tasks to set upon accomplishing. Most of these are welcome distractions from the rigorous training and the competitions that you’ll be put through. Some of the most memorable moments in the game come from these wacky new interpretations of golf, like hitting these beach balls onto this crab with a giant claw so that the balls pop for… seemingly no reason at all.
You will be rewarded experience points and cash for the most bonkers of tasks, at least. What you’ll quickly find is there’s not a whole lot to buy with all the money you can earn. A handful of new clubs or a miscellaneous doodad… that’s about it. When I ran across my first club that ran a retail price of several hundred dollars, I was kind of taken aback for a bit. I imagined myself having to complete a lot of challenges in order to rack up that much moolah, but as it turned out, the money flows easily throughout this game to the point of becoming meaningless in its acquisition toward the latter portions of Golf Story, when just another club doesn’t mean much.
At least the experience points go to a good cause and seem to have purpose in this game. There were a few side quests I couldn’t complete upon first reaching them, but returning to them later in the game saw my character succeed with greatly improved skills. One example is on the driving range in Wellworn Grove where I was tasked with reaching a pretty distant green. I couldn’t do it early in the game but coming back with greater drive and accuracy made it a cakewalk.
And hey, if it’s even more golf that you crave, there’s always the Quick Play option off the start menu that’ll drop you right into a match without having to fuss with the tedium of tale-telling.
I should lastly mention the game-ception game of “Galf” included as a game within the game. It’s unlocked just past the middle part of Golf Story and it seems to be modeled after 8-bit instead of 16-bit visuals and gameplay, which means it’s all but impenetrable, complete with unintelligibly garbled synthetic narration. I’d been playing hours of golf up to that point but I couldn’t make heads or tails of “Galf”. I’m assuming its presence is there for the truly die hard golf fans who have been playing these games since the golden age. But hey, the manual is pretty funny!
Full of personality, Golf Story is alive with charming characters and caricatures. Don’t look for Shakespeare in Looney Tunes. Not a single character in the game breaks their mold or truly develops, and these are all portraits we’ve seen before. Predictably, there’s the injured coach with a mysterious past motivating him to train our hero to redeem himself, there’s the hero himself practically a Gary Stu whose only ambitions are virtuous, there’s the vengeful wife, the bitter rival, the geeky kid, the cheating swindler, the arrogant pro, the gnarled old men and the young riff raff, and so on.
Golf Story doesn’t make any apologies for playing upon stereotypes, but this archetypal approach is perhaps why its humor functions, defying expectations with well-written dialogue, and why its engaging. We’re watching characters interact as we expect them to act, reinforcing our perceptions of them with our memories of other characters, allowing us to project foreign personalities over the impressions of 16-bit silhouettes throughout this particular story. That’s the benefit of dialed back graphics.
Though the actual progression of the narrative is pedestrian, without drama, without romance, tragedy, or disaster, it’s moments like these that you live for in video games, moments that surprise you like octogenarians and street punks having a rap battle outside the country club. I laughed aloud a few times, surprised by joy.
As I’ve already mentioned, Golf Story could have been improved with a few simple lessons in the absolute basics of golf, for those of us uninitiated into its sacred ranks. Golf can come off as an emblem of impregnably high society and wealth, but I refuse to shift blame onto Golf Story for perpetuating a stereotype! In all seriousness, perhaps an in-game encyclopedia or reference guide would’ve sufficed to increase this game’s overall accessibility.
Frisbee Disc golf is this game’s inaccessibility in a nutshell. It’s a side quest thread away from the golfing but you’re sort of thrown into it without a full lesson. The veteran disc players inform you that the best disc tossers can control the discs with their minds, but you’re left to your own wiles to figure out the control scheme. Considering you have to pass a disc challenge in order to progress through the story, it’s likely you’ll see a lot of trial and error that frustration might’ve been unnecessary with a bit more explanation.
Alright so at first I reported that this game was kicking my butt. As I continued to plow my way through, I realized that the initial difficulty I was experiencing came as the result of my general unfamiliarity with golf and the level of know-how that Golf Story seems to expect you to have. Most of the very early trickshots and side quests seemed somewhat unfair to me and it took me some time to get a hang of what was what and how golfing felt in this world. It ended up turning into something more intuitive rather than something I could read based on on-screen data.
The slope indicator is a good example of this. There’s an arrow that tells you the direction the ground slopes in, as well as words like “heavy” or “medium” to describe the grade, but that doesn’t do much to ultimately tell you how the slope is going to bend your putt. You’re forced to get a feel for it and make mistakes.
After overcoming these challenges, which took several hours (I really only started feeling confident and comfortable when reaching Bermuda Isles), the game started to seem easier to me. Improvements to my character’s stats started paying off. Better equipment I picked up here and there also helped. Most significantly, I realized that nearly every opponent I faced in this game was a terrible golfer. Go figure! But playing against someone like Tara or the crusty gentlemen at Tidy Park had to be some kind of joke. Even Max Yards, for all the tough talk and bravado, went down easily.
Yes, as reported, the game does get difficult right toward the end with some tricky holes on the Blue Moon Dunes course. If you’re sloppy, those pros will out-class you. The fact remains, though, that I never lost a single tournament or match in the whole game (though I failed many a side quest or mini-challenge). Here was my final championship score card, first try:
It’s not often that I play golf games and I can count the ones I’ve experienced off the fingers of a single hand. I don’t play too many sports games as it is. I need some additional quirk in order to get into a sports title, like if Mega Man is kicking the ball around or if I can set the ball on fire when performing a slam dunk.
Here, the SNES RPG hints drew me in and explained my initial excitement. They’re not enough to carry the entire game, so be forewarned. Maybe it would’ve been neat to build a party of characters with different strengths for different tourneys, but what you get in Golf Story is a golfing game quirky beyond all reason. If the RPG elements and the humor aren’t enough for you, then maybe you’ll have to come to grips with the fact that Golf Story is a story about golf, and that’s it. You don’t have to like golf. You don’t have to like golfing stories. But I tried to like something outside of my normal comfort zone and I got to play a fairly memorable and enjoyable game for it. Try new things!
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Getting into Golf Story was deeply rough at first but it eventually struck home with me. I’m glad I didn’t give up and carried my protagonist through all the way to the end. Did he learn anything? Not really. Ironically, he seems sort of dazed by stardom and he turns into the mewling TV personality we saw from other athletes. Did I learn something? Yes, I think so. I got to experience something outside of myself. I learned a good deal more about golf than I knew before, and I learned what it’s like to be surprised by video games in a refreshing way again. I’m happy that I didn’t pass this experience up. It was a good match and I got some decent putts in when it counted and that’s all I can really ask for.
I’m also thankful to Sidebar Games for supplying us with their game to review. I want them to know that they crafted something special here. Thank you!
Aggregated Score: 6.5
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Game Review