Version tested: GameCube
It's just not cricket. That's not a jab at Mario Golf, by the way, which is great and obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with cricket, but rather it's a comment on Nintendo's continuing failure - despite innumerable protestations of enlightenment - to release a first party Cube game in Europe within a reasonable timeframe. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour came out in the States in mid 2003. Here we are in late June 2004, nearly a year later, and it's only just come onto the market in PAL form. Bizarre.
It's just as well really that the game is sufficiently enjoyable. Eschewing the Tiger Woods/Links 2004 approach of mapping a golf swing to the analogue stick, instead it uses a well realised two or three-tap digital swing more in line with older golf titles, and delivers a consistently enjoyable round starring various Nintendo characters, smothered in typically exuberant Nintendo presentation. As perhaps you'd expect, that means courses based around familiar themes - Princess's castle from Mario 64, DK jungle, etc - and full of remixed Nintendo theme tunes and generic quirks, like warp pipes that transport your ball to a new location, and chomps and thwomps that bite and crush you.
All the usual suspects are in the line-up, including Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Wario, Toad, Waluigi, Donkey Kong, Bowser and co., and much like Nintendo's other Mario sports titles, each is slightly distinct in terms of play style (determined by three characteristics; impact, control and spin) and has his or her own range of animations for celebration and defeat, and voice-overs supplied as ever by the oft-amusing Charles Martinet - who is perhaps at his best providing the 'taunts' which can be used in multiplayer encounters. (In fact, side note: if the thought of Waluigi snarling "Caaaaam aaaaaan!" at Mario doesn't raise a smile, you probably shouldn't buy this game. Or a Nintendo console.)
In keeping with the tone of previous Mario Golf/Kart/Tennis titles, and despite what the unnecessarily vast tutorial section might leave you thinking, it's actually a very easy game to get the hang of. The manual swing involves picking your club (up/down), lining up the shot (left analogue to move your target pointer, with X and C-stick to zoom the camera about), then tapping the A button once to set the swing meter in motion, tapping B when the bar fills up, and then tapping A or B again when the cursor returns to the starting point. Time it right, so that the cursor lands in the centre of the "sweet spot" back near the start, and barring a bit of interference from the wind you'll see your ball end up exactly where it should. Putting is largely the same, except you just have to tap A and then A or B again, rather than measuring three taps - and an overlay on the green gives you a better idea of the lie of the land.
There are other things to think about too of course. Wind is obviously one, then there's the option to change the strike point on the ball (D-pad) to add sidespin, add topspin or backspin at the end of a swing, or even change the shot type. Approach shots shorten the maximum distance, allowing you to take more time with the shot meter (since it has farther to go to fill up than it would if you just shortened the maximum distance manually), while power shots are generally reserved for big clubs and add a good 20 yards or so - but unless your timing is exceptional, you're limited to six for every 18 holes, so there's an element of should I/shouldn't I to contend with.
There's also plenty to do besides just playing 18 holes round one of the game's courses. The main tournament mode gradually unlocks all the game's courses in stroke play, but there's also a Character Match option (to unlock "Star Characters" - existing players with a bit more zest to their swing), Stroke Play, Doubles (a co-operative option for a pair of players to take turns at the controls), Speed Golf, Near-Pin (nearest to the pin in one stroke wins), Club Slots (played using a limited set of clubs chosen by slots) and all sorts of other bumf.
In fact, it's more than bumf. Dispensing with the list-brackets-etc approach for a minute, this reviewer's favourite is probably Ring Attack, in which the player has to whack the ball through a series of rings on various courses, often forcing a slightly unusual approach to particular holes, and still make it into the cup within par. It's satisfyingly different. Coin Attack, meanwhile, fares less well - the Cube can barely cope with the sight of so many spinning shiny objects on the course and drops countless frames in trying to, and the actual game of collecting coins seems a bit shallow and pointless compared to the joyful simplicity of golfing through giant golden hoops.
There are also various "Side Games" to consider (Birdie Challenge and various forms of practice session), but it's the multiplayer mode that's likely to prove most entertaining. Up to four players are accommodated, and the game's handicap system allows you to allocate Mulligans, alter the simulation line (the big arc through the air that shows you roughly where the ball will go) to show what will happen post-landing, and opt for one of two tees (front and back - back obviously requiring a longer drive). Slogging your way up and down the courses with friends in tow is a good deal of fun.
Ultimately, though, the question is whether or not it's as much fun as Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 and Links 2004 - the most popular of the various console golf titles out there. And the answer is, unfortunately for this reviewer, rather subjective. It comes down to a question of digital versus analogue swing. Tiger Woods would argue that moving the stick back and then forward is more organic, believable approach, and adds the faintest hint of chance where none exists in the rigid certainty of a digital shot meter. Mario Golf would probably counter that when slickness of presentation, ingenious course design, a sense of fun, and a simple, manageable control system combine this entertainingly, questions of realism are somewhat irrelevant. (Which is a fair point on both counts - just as you're unlikely to see a dragon clutching a driver, you're not going to see many 350-yard drives in your time - from Tiger Woods or otherwise.)
But although both sides can argue their cases quite convincingly (and we wouldn't be too surprised to see that happen in the comment thread), this reviewer is leaning towards Tiger Woods overall. Mario Golf is extremely enjoyable, particularly with friends, and some of the extra modes add a bit of spice to an otherwise potentially monotonous single-player game; but Tiger Woods fights back with more RPG-like progression of characters, timed events and - most subjectively - a control scheme that we just plain prefer these days, largely because golf should never be wholly predictable, and with a system based around precise thumb movements, it never is. Come Tiger 2005 (which isn't too far off), it will even have online play - and you can forget that on the Cube, fairly obviously. Links already does of course.
There's another issue too. Not the camera, believe it or not. It may be a bit iffy at times (okay, very iffy), but so is the camera in Tiger Woods from time to time. No, the big issue, for us, is that Mario Golf hasn't really grown much since its time on the N64 - and when you consider the sorts of things that other golf games are doing at the moment, that's much less forgivable than it is in the case of some of Nintendo's genre-leading franchises. Much as we enjoy namechecking the games that brought us certain sounds and visual effects as we play ("Ooh, the wind trails from Wind Waker!"), it needs something more in the genre's current climate.
Which is not to deny that it's a wonderful game taken completely apart and on its own merits. Very nicely put together, easy to get into and yet deep enough to prove rewarding over long spells, and decked out with all the charm we've come to expect from Nintendo's precious franchise heavyweights, it's the sort of game that you could buy and happily play for months and months, alone or leading a group of up to fore friends. It's very good. It's just disappointing that at a time when its rivals seem to be treading water and heading towards bunkers full of cheap gimmickry to compensate, Mario Golf doesn't hit us more in the ascendancy.
7 / 10