Ah, golf. A game of two control systems, if not halves. On the one hand we have systems that give you direct responsibility for the shape of your stroke, allowing you to measure the backswing using an analogue stick or, in the case of the recent DS version, a stylus. On the other, we have the more traditional system that merely expects you to specify length and then stop a cursor in between pair of lines to swing.
Public enthusiasm for the latter is waning. While the Tiger Woods series, which arguably invented the "analogue swing" system, is sometimes accused of being too easy and rough round the edges - particularly when it comes to computer controlled golfers - it wins people over in control terms because it simply feels more involved. Ditto Links 2004 on Xbox.
But handheld golfing is a different matter, and here in the case of Everybody's Golf for PSP (Minna no Golf in Japan; Hot Shots Golf in the States where it's due out soon) we see that the second method can still maintain our interest. Mario Golf on the Cube and GBA has already demonstrated that to a certain extent, of course, and relatively recently, but the key differences here are that Sony's offering is less bogged down by its need to be boisterous and Marionated at every turn, and that Everybody's Golf gets a pair of elements as right as we've seen: putting and the roll of the ball.
Putting, first. While a lot of attention has focused on "the long game" and the differences between analogue and tap-tap swing systems, there seems to be relatively little consideration of putting. But in the case of Everybody's Golf it's not just what you do for a couple of seconds at the end of a hole; it's arguably more important and certainly more difficult, in most cases, than the strokes up to that point.
Land on the green and you're given a view that shows you the path to the hole and overlays a grid on the surface. The lines of the grid have little moving arrows on each of them to signify the relative speed of the ball across that area of playing surface. Meanwhile, the actual gradient is shown off by a wavy line that runs along the top of the shot meter between golf club and flag, and this updates in real time to reflect your adjustments. Then it's just a case of tapping twice; once to start off, and once again when the cursor reaches your desired shot point.
If all that sounds familiar, then fair enough, but the experience of playing it will not. The competition gets it fairly right. Mario Golf is a very similar system, arguably let down by sluggish ball movement and poor framing with the camera; you just never get those big, arcing shots that roll gently over great distances and build suspense. With Tiger Woods the problem's turned on it's head; you do get those big arcing shots, but because the entire putting mechanic is predicated on the player guestimating a point X feet and inches long and Y feet and inches right of the hole the sense of elation is diminished. It's satisfying when it's a big putt, but you never really learn how to do it for yourself.
In Everybody's Golf, the camera watches the ball carefully, zooming to a behind-the-hole shot to capture its movement, and the ball sweeps out and then arcs back at a gentle pace, but with enough momentum that it might, just might reach the hole. And when it does, you punch the air. It's so much more satisfying. Sony clearly realises this too, because one of Everybody's Golf's new features on the PSP is a putting challenge mode, where you take on a series of putts in succession and try and score lots of points by missing as few as possible.
Taking a regular shot is much easier, in most cases, than it is in genre-leading Tiger Woods, with only a few factors to consider. Unlike Tiger, where an involuntary jolt or variation in your thumb movement can see you coming up short or heading too far left or right, here it's a question of finding where you want the ball to land, having a quick glance at the wind direction and going tap, wait, tap, wait, tap. First tap is to start the shot meter, second is to stop the marker at the other end of the meter (or wherever you like; in the case of shooting for the green, the distance to the flag is signalled by a flag marker above the meter), and the third is to take the shot. The third is arguably the only potential stumbling block. You have to stop the marker between two lines, and depending on your ball's lie and other conditions the point of contact may narrow to make things harder on you.
Finish up with the marker outside those lines and you may have a problem; you may have pulled or sliced the ball off-centre, or, in the case of tee-shots, it's possible that you may scuff it completely. But in general that's it. There's no tapping for a pre-shot power boost, no in-air spin control; none of the stuff Tiger does. Other than giving you the option of choosing where on the ball you aim the club (useful for adding swerve, as you might imagine), Everybody's Golf is simple enough to deserve its moniker, and the difficulty and compulsion to keep playing comes from the course design, the putting, and the blades of the groundskeeper's lawnmower; one of EG's subtler strengths is how far the ball rolls on its verdant fairways and greens.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the whole thing is in glorious stylised 3D, either, and as richly detailed as any PSP game has been so far - which is to say it's a darn sight more enjoyable to look at than the jagged lack of definition you'll find in the disappointing Nintendo DS version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour. And, well, I'm not sure whether it's because the characters are cute in the same way Harvest Moon was or what, but there's something about them that makes you quite enjoy playing dress-up in the golf shop, where you can store up to four variations on each unlocked golfer's appearance using things like sunglasses, fancy hairdos, backpacks, watches and other accessories to change the look. You can also pick different club types here to fine-tune your skills on the course.
In terms of progression though you'll find that Everybody's Golf is closer to an RPG. The primary mode of play is a challenge-based affair ala Tiger, which involves beating a player or field of players over various holes of an unlocked golf course under certain conditions (front nine, back nine, full 18, stroke play, match play, etc), but instead of winning money for your troubles you gain ranking stars, and your character gains experience points in a pair of areas. As you build these up, his or her skills improve and more items, characters and indeed courses become available.
Although much still remains unlocked in the copy of the game I finally got round to importing this week, it's already usurped other, what you might consider more inviting games sitting on the coffee table, and the only real concerns are thus: first of all, technically speaking, while easy on the eye and ear, there are a few cut corners, with load times running much longer than seems necessary, slight pauses in the menus as it loads certain graphics and, bizarrely, no obvious way to quit out of a round mid-hole. Perhaps Sony felt that since the PSP sleep mode is so well done this was unnecessary. Whatever; never underestimate the value of a "Quit" function. Secondly, the number of courses, six, seems a little restrictive.
Of course (does that count as a joke?), having five to unlock over the course [stop it now -Ed] of the challenge mode and the fact that they're so inherently devious the further you progress means there's plenty to think about - and it's not as if Tiger Woods DS had any more in any event. But the relatively low number compared to other proper 3D golf games does give cause [I'll come in there -Ed] (I said "cause") to wonder how long it'll keep people going. We shall see - and report in time for its English-language release. And, you know, we haven't even explored the wireless multiplayer modes yet. You can imagine them adding something else.
Even so, what few concerns there are have been offset by the experience overall. It gets so much right, right down to the little touches like giddy-eyed celebrations from the characters (and none of the disproportionate whooping of Tiger's crew), the way the line your ball took to end up where it is can be traced faintly on the course for you to review, the little musical note icon that appears to accompany the perfect "clink!" when you get the shot just right, and the way that an AI opponent's entire display is preserved for you to examine as he plays. In other words, you get to see his shot type, club, lie, even the distance he goes for. It may sound like a small thing, but it makes a difference.
Like so much of Everybody's Golf, then. It seems amazing that this will be the first version in years to see release outside of Japan, despite numerous strong showings on the PS2. But whatever the reasons for its exile it's more than welcome now. And we're certainly waiting for EA's Tiger Woods title for PSP with renewed interest. To paraphrase his entertaining commentary duo, you might need Tiger's 'A game' to tempt you out of here. The best handheld golf game I've played? On this evidence, not half.