Golf Story’s the kind of game you jump up and down about, demanding all your friends play, and all the strangers on the internet respect. The kind of game that has you leaping to Twitter, Facebook, and every Nintendo Switch related outlet, evangelizing its specialness – even if its moment in the cultural zeitgeist has passed. It’s the kind of game you savor, playing it slower and slower as the end approaches, lapping up every last drop because you know there’s nothing like it. This must be what early adopting Undertale fans felt like.
Golf Story, like Undertale, is an amalgamation of what came before, but also wholly its own thing. It’s written like a hilarious anime, looks exactly like the best SNES games of the past, plays like ‘NES Golf’ matured in the best way, and is simply, utterly, uniquely marvelous.
The first hours are special: alternating between tough, rewarding challenges and interactions with silly, endearing characters. Characters like a human ‘golf simulator’ that judges your shot (poorly), a gang of Frisbee…sorry, Disc Golf enthusiasts, a zany blacksmith who thinks 90 degree wedge is a good idea, and many more. They all have distinct personalities that give the entirety of the game’s 12-13 hours a zany, self-aware screwball vibe.
Golf Story also might conjure up memories of another somewhat self-aware Role Playing Game – Super Mario RPG: Legend of The Seven Stars. Both are irreverent, silly, occasionally touching, and feature a cast of colorful, eccentric, memorable characters. Both are RPGs but happily subvert the genre’s mechanics – Mario using his jumps for affirmative answers, puzzle solving, combat, and traversal outside of combat – with in-combat mechanics featuring twitch-based commands.
Golf Story similarly leans into its primary gameplay mechanic – golf – by finding just about every single possible reason a person could find to hit a ball with a stick – be it at, in, through, over, or around something. So while you’ll be playing a lot of actual golf (9 hole courses, lowest score wins), ‘golf’ also functions as a puzzle solving mechanic, be it hitting secret switches, using a nearby fire to flame-charge your ball to unfreeze a person 50 years away with a pin-perfect hit, start a lawn mower, or proving to an old geezer you can putt with the best of em’…even in the rough. Like Mario RPG, it’s totally absurd and all the better for it.
But it’s also a little more educational than your typical RPG. This is a game that teaches you the fundamental ‘zen’ of golf in a way major golf games like excellent ‘Golf Club 2’ don’t really bother with. Sure, Golf Story and Golf Club 2 teach you how to putt, chip, slice, draw, flop, and punch. Only Golf Story teaches you why you’d do these things, then reinforces the concepts in the form of concept-specific challenges, so you know why and how to implement these mechanics in the future – both in-game and on a real-life course.
You’ll find yourself frustrated and challenged, occasionally to a breaking point. But unlike a combat focused RPG the challenge is almost never *if* but how. Stats play a factor, sure, but the game’s challenge comes from how you approach a course mentally, not how hard you can hit the ball – a concept the game re-enforces continuously. This isn’t a game about an external threat. It’s about internal fortitude and approach.
And that’s what makes Golf Story truly something special. It took Shaq-sized Golf Balls to think any of this would work at all. To believe there’s a market for a zany, character driven RPG juxtaposed with generally ‘hardcore’ Golfing mechanics and concepts is the kind of notion born out of genius, insanity, or passion. To pull it off is simply devine.
As 2017 winds down and GOTY awards trickle out, the conversation tends to turn toward major games with major budgets and major appeal, and Golf Story, at face value, doesn’t have that. It’s not a massive open-world like Zelda or Horizon Zero Dawn. Its also not an emotionally impactful or ‘socially conscious’ game like Wolfenstein. What it has is intangible. Gumption. Spirit. Charm. Vibes. Words you can put on the back of a box sure, but really need to experience to understand.
Sometimes a game comes along that’s entirely different from its peers, bucks trends and delivers something wholly unique and clearly ‘authored’. Games that come from a place of true passion, and exist to communicate that passion in the form of interactive media. Golf Story is such a game, and in terms of both quality and entertainment value, stands toe-to-toe with Zelda, Wolfenstein, Mario, and Horizon. It is special and hopefully a sign of wonderful things to come from Sidebar games.
It deserves to be listed with all the GOTY contenders this year, but sadly won’t. Its budget too small and focus too specific. But that said, simply put, through 13ish hours of silly, challenging, edutaining ‘Golf Story’ goodness, I laughed, learned, and had more flat-out fun than I did with any other game this year – punctuated by a brutal final course that put all my skills to the test in a way as robust and rewarding as any Triple A experience I’ve had all year.
They really gotta do something about that putting though.