As predictable as a new Ridge Racer, an iteration of Everybody's Golf accompanies the launch of new Sony hardware with solid dependability. Not that 'iteration' is really the right term here. Even Sony and developer Clap Hanz acknowledge the lack of innovation with this new release in the series by not bothering to add anything to the vanilla title.
Neither has the core of the game been touched in its move to touch-screen. Those Vita-exclusive features that do make an appearance - including a humorous option to pick up and move your golfer for tee-off by pinching the front and back screens as their legs flail in your grip - are gimmicky and thin.
You can poke at the few animals that stick their heads up before scarpering into the undergrowth, swipe at the screen to create a gust of wind and select the odd menu option with a tap. The only meaningful new interaction allows you to gain extra yards on tee-off if you quickly tilt the Vita backwards at point of impact (incredibly difficult to pull off) - but otherwise the designers have found little inspiration in meeting the idiosyncrasies of Sony's new hardware.
Elsewhere, though, the game soars as straight and true as it ever has. The super-deformed character designs and high-contrast colours may communicate lighthearted fun, but on the fairway, this is a challenging, intricate game.
The steep learning curve ensures that, by the time you make it through the Beginner, Amateur and Pro tournaments and start on the hugely competitive Bronze, Silver and Gold offerings, an entire competition can be lost on a misjudged putt. An out-of-bounds shot - for example, one that plops into a lake - will cost you a penalty point on your score card, and with tee-offs that cross ravines and rivers, the stage is regularly set to ruin your hopes.
Challenge mode is the core of the campaign, a series of Cups each containing five tournaments with a 'final' in which you compete against one other golfer in a Stroke Play competition. It's a large amount of content, but the option to race through holes by skipping the ball-flying cinematics ensures that you can comfortably make it through one or two full events on a bus ride.
Clap Hanz rewards everything that you do well in the game with points, from successfully landing on the fairway to securing a 'nice approach' to a hole on the green. These points can mean the difference between victory and defeat as, in the case of a tournament tie where two golfers enjoy the same final score under- or over-par, the trophy will go to the competitor with the greater number of points on the journey. Points are then converted to cash at the end of an event, which is used in the store to purchase new clubs, balls, characters and even HUD designs.
Indeed, there are no less than five different graphics for your swing meter, from the classic NES three-tap style (one to begin the swing, one to set the power and a final to set the accuracy) to a range of other less orthodox options. It's worth experimenting, as finding the one that suits your brain and offers you the greatest degree of accuracy can be hugely beneficial in the long run.
You also earn heart points every time you use a specific golfer, these feeding into a gauge that 'levels up' that particular golfer, improving their abilities and unlocking special techniques for each. Unfortunately, the system disincentives experimentation with other characters, as it rarely seems worth trying out someone new when you've already maxed out another.
Tapping the square button before making a shot will use up a 'booster' token, adding a percentage power bonus onto that strike - particularly useful when trying to chip your way out of a bunker, where the 'estimated' distance of a strike is reduced by up to 50 per cent. As you gain more affinity with a character, so you earn more of these booster tokens - another reason to stick with your favourite player for the best chance of a win.
As ever when playing against an AI, it's sometimes difficult to shake the feeling that the computer is massaging the stats a little - rubber-banding the results of other competitors to ensure that every tournament is a close-run affair, regardless of whether you are having a strong round or one characterised by mis-hits. But it's much easier to dominate your opponent in the face-offs at the end of Cups, and if you manage to pull three holes ahead in the stroke play then you score an automatic win.
The Everybody's Golf aesthetic is sugar-pop Japan, with petite girls that titter and dance on the spot when they land a chip-in and tubby black men who blow steam out of their ears when they make a mistake. It's clichéd but effective, and the world is pleasant and engaging. The quick-fire rounds make it more accessible and suited to handheld play than so many serious sims.
The online features of the game, while unavailable before the system's general launch, appear robust and interesting - if less fully featured than the most recent PlayStation 3 release in the series. A daily international tournament is the stand-out feature that could inspire players to keep returning to the game day after day as they seek to rise through the international ranks. Meanwhile, online lobbies are more than just menu lists, instead launching a physical chat room which your character can run around before approaching and talking to other competitors.
Conservative, but still rich and engaging, Everybody's Golf will never stand centre stage in the Vita's launch line-up. But in truth, it's one of the strongest launch titles, offering taut fun and challenge in a rapid-fire, quick-load manner that's perfectly suited to the handheld. It may not offer a vision of the portable future that Sony's creative dreamers were hoping for, but as a video game, it works small wonders.