Full disclosure: I do not like golf. The only thing more boring than playing the game is watching it. So I did not go into Golf Story with the highest of expectations. I figured it was just another collection of golf mini games loosely tied together by some type of narrative. I expected a short afternoon affair, followed by the game getting promptly deleted from my Switch and never being touched again. Instead, I found a riveting 20-hour story about a young man pushing past his own shortcomings to pursue his dreams and grow into, what I can only describe as, a hero. Is there still a lot of golfing? Yes, yes there is. Yet there is so much more.
Rooting for the Underdog
Developed by Sidebar Games, Golf Story is a tale of redemption. The game opens on a man teaching his son, Max, how to play golf. After seeing him swing, Max’s father thinks his son might have a natural talent for the game. He tells Max that he may be able to go pro one day if he wants to. The scene closes on Max excitingly proclaiming he is going to be a pro.
The story then quickly flashes ahead twenty years and we see that things have not gone exactly according to plan. Max has a distant, unloving wife, and he has not picked up a golf club in years. Although it is never directly stated, it is assumed that his father has also recently passed away and Max is out of a job. He leaves his wife at home, returns to the golf course where his dad taught him the basics of the sport, and vows to accomplish his childhood dream of becoming a professional golfer.
Obstacles quickly pop up in his path, from an uncaring coach who wants nothing to do with him, to an unkempt course that is almost impossible to practice on. Max also has to deal with several rivals, a greedy sponsor, and a lack of any formal golf training. Max naïvely forges ahead against all odds, declaring his intention to get to the Pro Tour by any means necessary. It is one of the campiest, most stereotypical openings to a sports drama I have ever seen, but delightful moments of subtle humor and genuine emotion had me hooked on the story within the first hour.
Outside of the tutorial, there is very little golfing at the start of the game. Instead, Golf Story takes its time focusing on establishing the characters and setting the events of the overall plot into motion. It does not take long for the game to convince the player to stand firmly in Max’s corner, as well as invoke intense feelings of animosity for those that wish to do Max harm.
Golf Story is a True Role-Playing Game
Golf Story is an RPG first and golf game second. Within minutes of starting the game, I got huge Earthbound and Pokémon vibes, and those feelings never went away. Players will explore eight diverse areas that are connected via an over world, interact with a unique cast of characters, and complete quests to further the story. That is not to say that golf takes a backseat. It is still very important, and, after the first hour, players will find themselves playing golf almost every five to ten minutes.
However, in Golf Story, golfing is no more than a means to an end. The game just takes the RPG formula and replaces instances of combat with games of golf. In this sense, Golf Story‘s golfing matches are pretty much Pokémon battles.
When playing Pokémon, isn’t it ridiculous that a ten-year old kid can take out a criminal organization with his lovable pets, and then walk away from the criminal’s base unscathed with an extra few hundred dollars in his pocket? Yes. Does that make Pokémon any less fun? Absolutely not. The same is true for Golf Story, and by the three-hour mark, I no longer cared that golf could be used to duel an evil wizard or find the necessary clues for solving a murder mystery. Within this world that is seemingly ruled by the game of golf, it makes sense that someone who is good at the sport would naturally be able to solve any problem.
The Golf Half
The golfing mechanics are not hard to pick up. It is a standard three-click formula that fans of other golf games are sure to know very well. Click once to line up the shot, a second time to set the shot’s power, and a third time to aim. The game slowly introduces additional mechanics the player will have to consider as the story progresses, such as wind speed and direction, sloped courses, and tricks for bouncing or rolling your shot.
Each of the eight areas house a nine-hole course. Not every course will be immediately unlocked when Max first visits, and as such the player will have to perform specific tasks for certain NPCs to unlock them. These tasks range from riddles and fetch quests to mining and crafting.
Some NPCs offer more than simple tasks. Several provide optional training sessions, in the guise of side quests, that help the player master a specific skill. These skills are typically learned in the areas where they would be most useful.
For example, Cheekybeak Peak is the home of a golf course … on a peak. Since it is so high up in the air, the Cheekybeak Peak course is especially windy. One of the golfers (that the player can find to the right of the entrance to the course) is trying to master hitting a ball against the wind so that it lands within a target. He challenges Max to try too, and offers advice for how the player can redirect their shot in a way that uses the wind to their advantage. It is very hard to hit that target (I still have not completed the challenge), but just trying to do it was worth the trouble. Nothing on the actual Cheekybeak Peak course is anywhere near as difficult to hit, and I was able to handle those winds like a champ after the punishing targeting practice.
Completing these side quests also yield a monetary reward that can be used to buy different types of clubs that customize Max’s swing, and EXP to level up one of Max’s different stats. However, the knowledge gained from even attempting these challenges is far more valuable.
I appreciate that Golf Story broke up its tutorial this way. Optional side quests surrounding each and every skill ensure that the player can learn how to play the game if they need or want the help. Immediate application of the skill means they will commit it to memory too. On the other hand, if the player would rather go it alone throughout the campaign and just experiment, then they still have that option. It also means that players can skip any (or all) of the tutorials on subsequent playthroughs if they do not want to waste time on them.
Slowly offering tidbits of instruction to the player, instead of flooding them with all the mechanics right from the start, also helps sell the narrative of Max slowly learning how to play golf and growing stronger. Even as the courses become harder, the player’s expanding arsenal of moves translates into better performances. I hit par or bogey (or much worse) on a lot of holes at the game’s beginning, but was able to consistently get birdie or eagle the further I got into the game.
It felt strange seeing myself performing so much better at the game’s end. I normally associate the latter half of a game’s story to be the half where the challenge supersedes my skill and lowers my scores. Yet, as the game went on and the courses rapidly became more difficult, I naturally flexed my brain and weighed my shots a little more, as well as took risks I would have never even considered at the game’s start. I became more creative, and it showed, just like how actual sports work. My golf game was always improving, and I was learning new types of shots and tricks all the way up to the final tournament.
The Story Half
Golf Story perfectly captures the charm of a gaming era long since past. A lot of the game’s personality comes through its characters, which are all remarkably expressive. They may all stand there, bobbing up and down as pixel-art sprites usually do, but their text bubbles do anything but stay still.
They all move in humorously insane ways, conveying the tone and personality of their speaker. One of the first characters I ever met began his sentences with the words, “If I may interject….” The first time he did it, he was not actually interrupting anyone, but I thought little of it. The second time, I immediately thought, “Wow … what a douchebag. Why is he trying to sound smart?” So when he said it again, and his text balloon slightly tilted to the side in a diagonal slant, I just knew he was saying the words while cocking his head in judgmental … amusement? Expectation? No, it was both. It was definitely both. Within seconds of meeting him, I hated his smug little face.
Character’s text balloons grow, shrink, delete themselves, flip across the screen, violently shake, and do all manner of wacky movements, and it brings so much life to Golf Story’s characters. How these balloons move creates the tone, and it is very easy to understand. None of the characters ever change their expressions, nor make any more than two different animations, but every single one of them was overflowing with personality.
These characters are the soul of Golf Story’s tale. If someone had told me, going into 2017, that the year’s best video game story was going to be in a golf game, I would have laughed in disbelief. Yet, here I am, nursing my hand because last night I accidentally punched my ceiling in celebration after jumping on my dining room table with a roar of victory. I had managed to defeat one of Max’s rivals who had been insulting him for most of the game, and the match had been one of my closest yet.
Outside of fighting the Diggernaut in Metroid: Samus Returns, it was my most stressful gaming experiences of 2017. I was ecstatic for finally defeating a man who had been relentlessly teasing Max, and getting on my nerves, for days. He would not be the hardest boss of the game (not by a long shot), but beating him was the victory that mattered most to me. That feeling of triumph would not be possible without Sidebar Games doing such a good job of writing an incredible jerk of an antagonist.
Golf Story’s characters fill its hours with these moments of pure emotion. Some are triumphant – like beating a rival. The ones that stand out most in my mind (other than my previously mentioned victory) had me close to tears, hiding my face in embarrassment, wheezing with laughter, or wondering if Max was going to make it out alive. I will not spoil any of those moments, nor should you spoil any of them for yourself. Golf Story’s best twists and turns are best experienced first hand.
As for what Golf Story does wrong, two things stand out. First off, twice in the game, my ball landed out of bounds, and the game refused to register any of my shots after that. To be fair, I went so far out of bounds that my ball went off the screen, so when Max went off screen to follow the ball, the game could not even register him, much less any of my shots. I was stuck, doomed to aimlessly swing and miss for all eternity in a trap of my own making (or, as was the case the second time it happened, until the game pitied me into conceding victory to my opponent and ending the match).
Second, I was not a huge fan of the music. Each course had its own theme song, but none of them really stuck out to me. I can remember the crack of getting a perfect hit or the fabulous peeps and squawks associated to earning a birdie, eagle, or hole-in-one, but none of Golf Story’s soundtrack comes to mind when I think about the game. I normally would not harp on the issue, but since this game seems to have been so heavily inspired by RPGs like Earthbound and Pokémon, games that are known to have quirky, but memorable, music, it is a shame that Golf Story does not create a unique tone (on par with something like “Smile and Tears” or “Lavender Town”) all its own. Golf Story’s music feels borrowed, like it does not quite fit, and it fails to inspire, depress, or entertain at the same caliber of the game’s story or dialogue.
A Hole in One
Golf Story is a lot like Rocket League in that it transformed how I perceived a sport. Whereas the latter made me a fan of soccer and reinvigorated my love for volleyball, Golf Story gave me an appreciation for what I considered, up until a week ago, the most boring sport in the world. I will not be going out to pick up golf clubs anytime soon, but I will pick up Golf Story again. Maybe even one more time after that!
Yes, Golf Story is a video game about playing golf, but it is just as much, if not more, about a young man’s story. Max’s journey to prove everyone wrong and become a professional golfer is full of honest human interaction, hysterical spontaneity, and heartfelt moments. This game is a beautiful homage, in equal parts to the golf games that became popular on the NES, and the RPGs that gamers fell in love with during the golden era of the SNES. It hits all the nostalgia buttons, minus the music those games are known for, and still takes the time to make a name for itself with its own unforgettable story.