Nintendo continues to infuse its standalone sports games with the whimsy and vibrant stylings of the Mushroom Kingdom to make the mundane feel a little magical, and if there's any sport that needs an excitement elixir, it's golf. I love the nuances and deliberate pace of the sport, but I'm also not surprised at the eye rolls I receive from my wife when I'm captivated by a Sunday afternoon showdown on TV. Add some warp pipes, candy-coated terrain and power-ups, however, and the action comes off much friendlier and perkier.
A decade removed from its last entry on Game Boy Advance, Mario Golf returns with Mario Golf World Tour on Nintendo 3DS, which maintains the winning foundation of past entries – accessible golf set against colorful backdrops – with the addition of newer amenities like online matches and tournaments. But while World Tour hits most of the fundamental elements with success, it comes off as content to coast by on the bare minimum needed to justify a modern-day reemergence. This proven formula, once so potent in its handheld incarnations, can't help but feel a bit paltry.
Gallery: Mario Golf World Tour (5/1/14) | 11 Photos
Little has changed on the fairways, aside from a new dual-screen layout. Still taking many cues from Sony's Hot Shots Golf series, Mario Golf: World Tour employs the familiar three-click control scheme for setting power and accuracy for a shot, though an "easy" option nixes the last input and automates precision (for better or worse). It's simple enough to line up a destination, take a peek at the wind conditions, and let 'er rip, though a couple of nagging issues intervene when it comes to really honing in on a careful shot.
For whatever reason, the aiming camera proves unwieldy, making it extremely difficult to visualize a planned shot at times. And since World Tour likes to suggest terrible shots here and there, the camera serves as a real hurdle in the way of dominating each round. On the putting green, meanwhile, the tiny moving markers that depict slope are tough to read; the top-screen image just doesn't seem crisp enough to show the minute detail with clarity, whether playing in 2D or 3D.
Beyond those quirks, the on-course action proves reliably enjoyable, whether playing on bare courses or trying to snag scads of coins (used for buying gear or meeting challenge / tournament objectives). As ever, the optional items add a cartoonish edge to the action, such as an Ice Flower freezing any water it touches for a safe landing, or the wind-resistant Bullet Bill flinging your ball straight ahead for greater distance. It's all tried-and-true material, with or without the power-ups, but it's still satisfying to nail a chip-in from the sand, or sink a daunting putt. And while you can dip into full 18-hole courses and play for a solid chunk of time, World Tour puts a special focus on quicker-hit options, including a bevy of brief challenges – like knocking the ball through multiple rings while still attaining par, or completing a few holes using the limited clubs won through a slot machine pull – and a speed golf mode.
Conversely, however, Mario Golf: World Tour fails to offer avenues for long-term investment or reasons to stick around for more than short spurts. That's nowhere more evident than in Castle Club mode, the closest thing World Tour has to a campaign. Past handheld Mario Golf entries did a fair job of recreating the console golf experience with meager hardware, but made up for any deficiencies by including extensive, RPG-tinged single-player modes that kept you pushing along towards enticing goals.
Castle Club, by contrast, is a sadly superficial option that lacks both pleasure and purpose. Playing as your customizable Mii, you'll wander a confusing castle layout and enter a trio of 18-hole tournaments, take on practice challenges and purchase new gear with your slim winnings. However, once the tournaments are conquered, the credits roll and that's really it. Reasonably skilled players can clear everything within a few hours, and the experience leaves no lasting impression whatsoever.
And those three full-sized courses are the biggest focus in the game, yet their bog-standard forest, tropical, and desert themes simply aren't exciting for genre veterans. Instead, it's the various nine-hole themed courses that command interest, whether it's the rolling pink hills of Peach Gardens or the sludgy underwater physics of Cheep Cheep Lagoon. Those are unlocked via clearing the aforementioned Challenges, which provide a much larger hook than Castle Club can.
Thankfully, World Tour has considerable legs when it comes to online action, due primarily to the rotating selection of official tournaments, not to mention an array of user-created ones. Each lets you take a crack at its customized set of rules and limitations – certain holes, characters, options, etc. – and post a score while others players' attempts are shown via moving shot lines on the course. An awards ceremony caps off each concluded tournament, with coins earned for placement. Beyond simply adding more to play, it's a cool touch that helps create the sense of a competitive community of players, and the idea of "major" tournaments throughout the year is truly enticing.
Traditional active online match-ups are also included for up to four players, along with the ability to create your own communities – public or private – to help find competition eager to play the types of matches you want. Still, Nintendo missed a real opportunity to make World Tour extra portable-friendly by including asynchronous, turn-based matches with friends, like those in the excellent Super Stickman Golf 2 for mobile – a $3 game that in many ways shows more creativity than this $35 offering.
Nintendo has already confirmed plans for an extensive slate of add-on courses, which should add some welcome variety into the mix. However, a bulk of extra locales won't make up for a lack of ambition on developer Camelot's part, as Mario Golf: World Tour – like Mario Tennis Open before it – takes a too-conservative approach, as if notching par was the only end goal. Castle Club's lackluster design and content, plus the focus on unremarkable course designs, make a fine golf game feel flat, even with solid online elements included. A little panache and daring can go a long way towards standing out on the real-life fairways, and it would've done so here as well.
This review is based on a pre-release eShop download of Mario Golf: World Tour, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo.
Andrew Hayward is a freelance games and gadgets writer whose work has appeared in more than 50 publications around the world. Follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.
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