Golf has never been my sport. I tried it once. You have to hit the ball really hard. It just felt wrong. I couldn't bring myself to hit anything that solid such a long way. Someone could get hurt! Clearly, crazy golf is more my sport. (I still believe I'm going to get rich with my idea for full-scale crazy golf. Actual windmills for the windmill. Convert a hillside into a clown's head. It's the best idea any human has ever had.)
But despite a lack of desire to play it in real life, golf games have always appealed to me. Whether it was playing Linx with a golf-enthusiast university housemate in 1998 to get over a break-up, or scratching a groove into the touch-screen of my new DS with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005, the simple pleasure of hitting a ball into a hole has been a recurring theme.
One golf game stands above all others for me. One appealed on a different level. Mario Golf: Advance Tour, for the Game Boy Advance, is exactly the golf game I want to play, pretty much all the time. It's golf. It's an RPG. It's enormously silly.
I should explain that I never played the Game Boy Color version of Mario Golf - essentially the direct prequel to this Game Boy Advance incarnation. In fact, when first playing this in 2004, I'd not even played the N64's Mario Golf, nor either of the NES versions dating back to the eighties. Although once you've played the RPG magic of Advance Tour, I'd argue the N64 version feels so empty and vacuous as to be unbearable.
You begin playing as either a boy or a girl. A human, rather than a Mario character. You arrive at the Marion Club, in a large Mario-themed mansion, reminiscent of Peach's castle in design. In here are many other golfers, along with your coach and instructors. There are rooms to explore, secrets to find hidden in plant pots, routes to find taking you outside onto the balconies, and all manner of silly Mario-related things to look at.
This introduction shouts out that this is more than a golf game. It's a golf game that wants to give you a cuddle. You can chat with everyone, get tips, hear stories, and hear the awe everyone has for Mario's golfing prowess.
You've then got the Marion Club Lodge, where you sleep. Your roommate is the boy or girl you didn't select at the start, who is also your doubles partner.
Oh yes, golfing doubles. It's an increasingly popular version of the sport, characters tell us, but more on that later.
And there's the Marion golf course. Here you can play practise rounds, take on a number of mini-challenges from various pros hanging around on the practise greens, or compete in the main tournament. Head out of Marion to find the golf clinic, where experts will analyse your shot. Make you way to the Custom Club Shop, where you can get specialist clubs made in return for special tokens you may have gathered.
Then there are all manner of strange extra places to find - odd variants on golfing challenges (getting the ball through slalom poles, completing multiple holes in very few shots, getting par on holes using only one club and a putter, a slot machine choosing which three clubs you'll get for tough challenges, and on and on and on.)
There are lovely moments like helping to restore a run-down course for an elderly couple. Complete par on their short course despite it being massively overgrown and you'll help the man, Gramps, recover from the illness that has him bedridden.
Complete this, and after being warned not to get carried away by his wife he cries,
"I'll take nothing easy! Watching that rising star play with such fire has gotten me all twitchified!"
He then starts running and jumping around in circles.
"Grampie, remember your bad back, now... And your knees..."
That's to ignore the four major tournaments, each with their own sets of bonus competitions. Win those and you can then play them again, directly competing against the former champ who wants revenge.
In the doubles, you team up with your buddy, who walks around behind you, and you can play all the major tournaments in this completely daft version where you take it in turns to hit the ball, against other paired-up teams.
Am I managing to portray how much there is to do in this game?
Yet I've not really covered the levelling. As you win tournaments, matches and challenges, you gain XP. This is shared between your character and your partner (whom you obviously want to improve to succeed in doubles games). You can focus on various aspects of your shot, and most of all increase the distance you can hit the ball.
But my favourite is the spin shot. If you boost this as high as you can, it lets you, with a double tap of B as the swing meter retreats, put such fantastic spin on the ball that it will land, then change direction on the green, ideally rolling itself backward into the hole.
Shots can be very complex if you choose. There's an option to have the game do it automatically for you, only having to hit A when the bar reaches the top, and then again when it returns to the bottom. But bring out the B button and you have far more control, able to put extra spin on the ball during the backswing, and double-tapping either A or B to put special spin on the ball as it lands. Deliberately fading the ball can let you curve elegantly around obstacles - a trick that's pretty vital for completing the slalom pole holes.
It's still fantastic! It's still my favourite golf game. Obviously it has nothing of the peculiar approximations of realism that you might find in the latest Tiger Woods, nor the hardcore simulation of the now-defunct Linx series. But despite its outlandishly cartoony appearance and excellent sense of humour, the golf game is still extremely solid.
It's enormously big, too. And there's a real sense of getting better at it, as you unlock new specialist clubs, level up the correct aspects of your game, as master the tricks of curving balls. (Oh my goodness! As I write this paragraph I just scored a hole in one on the 'Linx' course! I'm the best! Apart from Bonkadera, who's one shot ahead of me.)
Oh, I'm sorry. I've just realised I've only described Story mode.
You can have a quick game or VS multiplayer, playing as favourite Mario characters.
But who cares, because I just won the Links tourney - a sort of end of game moment, credits roll, etc. But then there's loads more! It may never end! All the (dozens and dozens of) characters are congratulating me! And I've just received a mysterious letter from Princess Peach telling me to stand in front of the stained glass Mario window in the Lodge...
There's beam of light from the window that illuminates the carpet below. And floating within it is a yellow orb. And Toad jumps out!
"Wouldn't you say competing against the likes of Mario and Luigi would be any golfer's dream?"
And then I'm teleported to the castle, and meet the whole Mario crew. I kind of regret calling my golfer Botty now, in this company. There's a whole new course, the Mushroom course, at the other end of a drainpipe. And the game continues. Mario-themed holes, floating in the clouds. I'm so happy.