Version tested: Xbox 360
It's rather revealing that this latest Live Arcade excursion into the realms of casual multiplayer amusement goes by the more mundane title of "minigolf" rather than the more traditional "crazy golf".
For all its bright colours and incessant upbeat muzak, and despite mostly acceptable controls and ball physics, it's a curiously inert affair. Diverting and moderately engaging, certainly, but never reaching the levels of instantly gratifying hilarity you'd expect from a game that sees you putting away on fairground rides, in wild west towns full of dynamite or in the low gravity environs of outer space.
(And, yes, I realise that the "minigolf" name has probably been used since that's what most American gamers call this peculiar pastime... but then I'd have to think even harder about how to start the review, and where would that get us? Nowhere. So shush.)
The available options fall somewhere south of what you'd want from a full price title but nestle snugly in the niche marked "quite acceptable for an 800 point download". Only four characters to choose from, for instance, and quite a generic selection at that. Two male, two female and all brought to animated life with a stylised design in between the realistic proportions of a Tiger Woods, and the super-deformed manga look of Everybody's Golf, but with precious little in the way of personality.
Thirty-six holes are on offer, across three themed zones, and at first glance that would appear to be a decent enough spread. In fact, after playing through all of them (a feat which should only take a few hours) I wasn't seized with a burning desire to revisit many of them again. In fact, there are two features of the game that, were they removed, would greatly increase the playability and longevity of the title.
First is the inclusion of unpredictable obstacles. The first you'll come across are scorpions, wandering around the holes of the cowboy-themed courses. Skittering about in a semi-random fashion, they'll also attack the ball if it comes close, shunting it across the green. Now, I'll happily accept that crazy golf, by its nature, requires a certain amount of craziness but going over par because of something you had no control over is only funny a couple of times. By your sixth, seventh, eighth game the chuckles have dried up. This problem recurs sporadically, in various forms, but always leaves you feeling that any attempt to play even a semi-serious game can be undone at any moment in the name of half-hearted zaniness.
The second irritant is perhaps even more baffling. Pretty much every hole has a hidden "trick shot", a specific item or shortcut that - when hit - drops the ball in the hole for you. Some are harder to find and hit than others but, once discovered and mastered, they render the holes in question pretty much pointless. Even after my first play through, there were at least six or seven holes that I could ace simply by memorising the best angle and power for the one shot needed to make the game do all the hard work. The gameplay thus shifts from being a test of your golfing skill, crazy or otherwise, and instead becomes a race to simply find and hit the sweet spot first. The fact that, within only a few hours of the game going live, there were people topping the leaderboards with scores of 70 under par or more suggests that this feature can only damage the game's long term appeal rather than enhance it.
To prolong your pleasure you can share your holes with friends but... wait, let me rephrase that.
There's a level editor, so you can create your own courses and include them in the line-up for online games, but it's a frustratingly clunky little side-dish. You get a paltry spread of ramps, corners and junctions to slap together in a grid, but there's no way of adding any of the wacky themed content that is so central to the game's appeal. Rather than allowing you to improve on what's already provided, your creations will always be poor cousins to the main event. It's also rather sloppy at joining up parts of different height, so this is a feature for shallow tinkering rather than dedicated design. Live Arcade's file-size limit is obviously to blame, and you could argue that a perfunctory level editor is better than none at all, but it does carry a whiff of opportunities missed all the same.
Also chipping away at the game's cheery exterior are tournaments that go on just a little too long, forcing you to play each course twice over and losing the immediacy of casual play in the process. There doesn't seem to be any coherent learning curve to the game either. Holes that are insultingly easy follow holes that are impossibly frustrating, seemingly at random. While you can pick and choose holes for online matches, in single player you can only play through them one after another - there's no practice mode .
There's also a rather pointless array of power-ups scattered around the scenery, often hidden behind objects. Mostly geared towards hampering your opponents, they should have turned multiplayer games into a riot of foul play but, in my experience, are rarely useful. Balls that leave trails of glue or fire, or emit blasts of lightning, sound great fun but their effects are too short lived to have any tactical effect on the proceedings and rely so heavily on landing in close proximity to your opponent that it's hardly worth risking going over par to pick them up. The multiplayer games I hosted and joined, with both friends and strangers, were not full of raucous laughter and good-natured hijinks, but long silences, muttered swears and periodic grumbles about having perfect shots muffed up by some forced moment of wackiness or impenetrable quirk of physics. It's all rather dour and lifeless.
Still, despite the half-cocked implementation of some key concepts, 3D Ultra Minigolf offers decent enough putt-putt mechanics with three control set-ups to suit every player and admirably customisable multiplayer modes. It's probably worth mentioning that the presence of a "download content" option on the menu suggests that the game will be supported with additional themes and holes further down the line.
Whether you're simply after another 200 gamerpoints to ferret out or just a few hours distraction from meatier offerings, Minigolf will probably meet your expectations, though much like Assault Heroes, Wanako's previous Live Arcade offering, the overall experience tends to favour the functional over the thrilling. It's adequate amusement for the price, perhaps, but still falls short of the gut-busting potential presented by online crazy golf.
5 / 10