While this might not be the first golf game where you play as Mario, it is definitely the first one with his name in the title outside of Japan. This is about the best trivia I can give about this game besides the strange colouring of Wario’s shoes, as it is a rather overlooked entry from what I can tell. There are plenty of other titles staring the Italian plumber that are easily brought up in discussions about the N64, such as Mario Party, Mario Tennis, and Paper Mario just to name a few, but not this one. Even I who am fond of golf in general, has Mario Golf for the N64 leaving me with a confused smile and a shrug. I had little to no experience with this entry throughout my childhood, but it always seemed charming and like a good alternative for gaming sessions with friends. Is it though?
Too many ways to play, and no solid swings
Before we get into all the modes this game offers, lets go over the the rules of golf quickly. Through 18 fields, you will try in each to get a ball in a hole by swinging different clubs at it. The fewer swings you do compared to your competitors, the better. However, despite that this sounds simple, golf is far from it. You will have to take different elements into account, like the varied terrains that can include sand bunkers or rough grass, weather effects such as wind and rain, and your accuracy and strength of each swing needs to be solid. While complicated, all needed stats are shown on the overview map, which makes it easier to plan on how to approach each field.
When you have picked a club or gone with what the game recommends, you will use a bar on the bottom screen for timing the amount of power and accuracy for your shot. The first timed press will determine the swing’s strength, while the second one will affect the precision of hitting the ball. This goes for the general clubs, such as sand wedge for getting you out of bunkers or foot for long distances. The only exception is the putter, which has the shortest range and will only require presses for power, due to its accuracy being 100%. You can even put a spin on the ball for some neat effects, like making it roll forward or backward when it lands. Although, this is tricky to do as you must hold the Z button and move the analog stick in a direction, while timing the presses for power and accuracy. This is luckily not a required skill to have, just a nice extra for veterans to attempt at.
Mario Golf presents many ways for you to play golf. I will come back to the multiplayer aspects in the extra segment, but for the single player, you have tournament, get character, ring shot, speed golf, stroke play, minigolf, and training. Training is where you practice on any unlocked field, and is rather forgettable by offering nothing else. Unfortunately, speed golf might be worse by being an off idea where you just swing as fast as you can until you hit the ball in the hole. This completely misses the point of the slow and calm strategy this sport provides, and it is nothing more than golf with a timer.
Back is stroke play, which has the winner being the one finishing the fields under or equal to par the most, where par represents the expected amount of strokes required to get the ball in the hole. This also goes for the tournament mode, except that it rewards you with trophies and birdie badges for hitting under par, making normal stroke play useless. Get character puts you up against an unlockable character in match play, where you get one point in every hole you finish in less strokes than your opponent. The one with the most points, win. I did enjoy this mode, but found it strange how tournament mode’s birdie badges could also unlocks characters.
That is, except for one that must be unlocked through ring shots. This is a mission-based setup and a neat concept for teaching you how to make different arcs with the swings. However, due to the underwhelming difficulty and reusing familiar courses, it is more of an unique idea than anything significant mechanically. Finally, there is minigolf, which could have been my favourite mode by being simple and relaxing, with only a putter being required. Sadly, there is a huge lack of creative courses in this mode, with all 36 fields being shaped as numbers or alphabets. A terrible blemish on what could have been a cute extra.
Thankfully, the actual golf courses fare much better due to their diverse layouts. The first couple of fields are more traditional with little variety and some different obstacles, making them nice introduction levels. However, the later ones are more creative, such as being up in the clouds with dangerous pits, in a dessert with varied slopes and hills, and some are even shaped like Nintendo characters. You can also save at any time, which is nice since playing a game with 18 holes can be time consuming. Playing in any mode will also grant you XP that will lead to unlocking more courses, which I do appreciate as a way to reward the persistent player. I also like the power shot, as six are given to each player and used for making longer shots, but you will not be spending one if you get a “nice shot” while using it. A really neat extra for making golf even more strategic.
While most of the modes are throwaway, they are not the biggest issues of Mario Golf. That honour goes to the physics of the ball itself. No matter if you pick a character with straight, fade or draw shots, or even if you are on clean fairway and there is absolutely no wind to speak of, the ball will occasionally fall 20 yards off the grid it is set to land on. This is an unacceptable form of randomness that is simply unfair. It will never cost you a game though, due to the computers’ AI being all over the place in terms of difficulty, going from making accurate shots to hitting out of the field in the same match. This is a strange flaw that makes the game feel close to unfinished.
The main courses are varied and entertaining, but that means little when you cannot rely on your planning in order to make solid shots because of the random physics, and the different modes tacked on does nothing to help. It is such an odd element to not have fixed, as the game gives you many options and stats for making you ready to swing your clubs. The issue of the ball having a mind of its own, destroys what is otherwise a decent game.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Comfortable day at the Mushroom Kingdom
This is a relaxed version of the Mario universe, which is fitting to the theme of golf. You will see mountains with eyes, plenty of pyramids, and even visit Yoshi’s Island filled with enormous fruits, but there is little in abstract visuals otherwise. The courses resort to the normal designed green fields you would see in a realistic game of golf, just with some cute references that makes it all feel accurate to what the title presents; golfing with Mario. Despite the lacklustre design of the minigolf fields, the rest of the areas are pleasant and vibrant enough to be intriguing.
There are also some nice details implemented, such as a boo representing the wind’s direction, cheep cheeps jumping out of the water when a ball plummets in it, and neat animations that are unique to each character’s “nice shot”. It is all simple, but charming. I also love how the weather effects and time of day are lovely presented with clear transitions, and the game has a consistent frame rate that makes it easy on the eyes.
What is an eyesore though, are some of the characters’ design. I can forgive most of their blocky looks, as they are colourful and carry over the iconic art style this universe is known for. Unfortunately, this is definitely far from the console’s best and more could have been done to make the limbs actually connected. Donkey Kong and Bowser are especially ugly here and could have used an extra redesign. To give some credit, the normal humans fit in with Mario’s art style and are fine additions, despite being nothing interesting in design.
The music is wonderful for such a slow sport, utilising a lot of cheerful flutes, soothing pianos, and rhythmic marimbas, creating a comfortable atmosphere. It is an impressive soundtrack that contains songs that have good beats, variety, and are never intrusive. The intro melody is actually better in the NTSC version as well, keeping up with the game’s calm setting. It kind of makes it easy to see why this composer would later on create music for Dark Souls. The voice acting for the characters consists of adorable grunts and comments, all being solid. Surprisingly enough, Luigi sounds incredibly polite and gentle, which is a nice change from his recent shaky direction.
Presentation Score: 7/10
Rather pick up the dice, racket or smash some bros
Having all these different modes to unlock characters with were obviously not enough, as Mario Golf even features the option of using the transfer pak. By linking it up to the GBC version of Mario Golf, you can upload up to four characters and data. These characters can earn experience points by playing the courses in the N64 version and be transferred back to the GBC version. This is a neat idea, but I cannot see myself replaying anything in this title due to the awkward ball physics, which is a shame as you can play many modes with up to four players here.
These modes are stroke play, minigolf, club shots, and skin shots, with match play only allowing up to two players. Skin match is match play for up to four players, and club slots randomises your club with only putters being available at all times. These are decent ideas, but I find the randomisation of clubs a hit and miss setup as there is not enough included to make this mode interesting. You can taunt or cheer your opponent when it is not your turn, but that is all the multiplayer has otherwise. It does not help that the characters are severely unbalanced, as well.
Extra Score: 4/10
Mario Golf goes for a huge focus on quantity, which does not benefit it at all when most of the modes are forgettable. Sadly, this does not come close to how the lack of quality affects the ball physics, which makes this game easy to rage quit. It is great when it works, but that is not a sentence that should ever be praised. I will say that the visuals and audio are nice and imaginative, and I am happy that there is an attempt at making the multiplayer solid. However, I believe more could have been done to add to the creativity, especially within the modes’ structures. It is hard to truly recommend this title, unless you need a golf game for the N64 with charm and nothing else.