"As the meter fills toward the left, you can press the 'B' button instead of the 'A' button. This is a subtle but very important difference. While pressing 'A' causes the game to hold you by the hand and automatically give you a good swing, pressing the 'B' button puts the control more directly in your hands. While you are more likely to slice the ball and send it into a nearby bunker, you also have additional options."
It's down to the last hole, and the sun is beating down on you mercilessly. The crowd is watching silently, waiting for you as you stare at the hole, a good fifty feet away. You lick your lips to moisten them, and wish you had a bottle of water. A bead of sweat rolls down from your eyebrow, over your eye, and you blink quickly to remove the stinging sensation. If you hit too hard, you'll overshoot the flag. If you don't hit hard enough, the ball will roll to the side, just short of its goal. You'll have lost the tournament. Then there's the elevation to worry about. A slight slope complicates matters, but it's hard to tell how much. Do you aim straight for the hole, or slightly to the side to compensate for the hill and the slight incline? The gold cup is yours if you make the right move; failure will be your constant companion if you don't.
The game is Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, and the situation described above is precisely the sort of thing that makes it tick. But the gold cup is decorated by dolphins, there's a chain chomp on the green, and your golfer is a green dinosaur. The direct sequel to Camelot's previous mascot golfer, Mario Golf, this new franchise entry is a finely tuned blend of tension, strategy, and old-fashioned fun. It's classic Nintendo gaming in every sense of the phrase, a small evolution from its predecessor that's big on fun and cautious about radical innovation. And is it worth owning? Absolutely.
If you played the original, that answer shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. After all, the original Mario Golf title was arguably one of the best party titles for Nintendo's 64-bit system. It put players on the green in a golfing system lifted directly from the Sony-published franchise, Hot Shots Golf. Players could choose from an assortment of Nintendo mascots, as well as a few of Camelot's own crew (people that just didn't look like they belonged anywhere near the mushroom kingdom). At the time, the mix was a touch of genius. Four years later, not much has changed. Which some people are going to view as the problem. If you owned the original, there aren't a lot of changes this time around.
As a matter of fact, the most important change is the way a golfer swings. When your golfer appears on the green, he is positioned near the tee, on which rests the golf ball. This is hardly shocking; it's the same for any golf title. From here, you can scope out the course using the various buttons bunched around the 'A' button (it's easy to zoom up to the hole, to view an overhead map of the course, and so forth). Pressing the 'A' button starts a meter filling from right to left. The meter fills quickly. Hitting with full power means that you will press the 'A' button the minute it reaches the far left side of the gauge, at which time you've committed yourself. The gauge then quickly fills back to the right, and you again try to press the button as it lines up within a certain range. If you time everything perfectly, you'll see ''Nice Shot'' flash across the screen, and your ball will head in the general direction you indicated.
The club you choose determines how far you can hit the ball, and the wise golfer will make careful selections each time so that the ball comes within the desired range. There are outside influences, as well. Chief of these is the wind, which can blow your ball off course if you're hitting it far at all. There's also rain to worry about, and obstacles such as trees and cliffs. Because of these outside factors, the game also provides players with six power swings. To access these, the player presses the 'B' button before beginning a swing. If the swing is made perfectly, you'll still have six power swings left when it ends. If you don't time things well, you lose one of the six. Clearly, a good goal is to keep at least a few left throughout the tournament, for risky situations. Expert golfers will be able to hit perfect shots almost each time.
Of course, there are times when you don't want to swing with full power, or you'll overshoot the hole that is your target. So playing Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour means performing simple math in your head at almost every juncture, and considering all those little details like wind, the general way your golfer's swing causes the ball to move, and so forth. None of this is new to anyone who has played the original. However, there is an important change.
Let's go back for a moment to the point where you've just pressed the 'A' button to start a golf swing. As the meter fills toward the left, you can press the 'B' button instead of the 'A' button. This is a subtle but very important difference. While pressing 'A' causes the game to hold you by the hand and automatically give you a good swing, pressing the 'B' button puts the control more directly in your hands. While you are more likely to slice the ball and send it into a nearby bunker, you also have additional options. As the meter arrives back to the right where it started, you can press a combination of several different buttons. These determine how the ball behaves when it lands.
Suppose you see that the ball is going to land just short of the hole. You know it's going to bounce a bit after it does, which is likely to carry it past the destination. Then you'll have further to putt, and you will be more likely to miss. The solution? Quickly tap the 'B' button twice when it arrives within the optimum area of the gauge. When the ball lands, it will bounce a great deal less, and may even roll back slightly. This puts you in a much nicer position to make that final putt. Conversely, you can press 'A' twice to give the ball a top spin that causes it to roll a few extra feet upon landing (great when all you care about is distance). You'll find other button combinations, too. This tiny change adds a whole dimension to the game not only because you need to aim better, but because knowing when to give the ball a certain type of spin can be the difference between victory and a narrow loss.
Of course, there are other changes to the game, too. The courses this time around are all-new, for example, and it seems to me that there are less of them. There are a total of six courses to unlock, each with the requisite 18 holes. The first three of these are pretty generic golfing fare, with only bunkers, trees, rough grass and steep hillsides providing any sort of hazard. The fourth course introduces the 'fast fairway,' blue-colored grass that causes your ball to roll much more quickly (sometimes into bunkers or off cliffs and into the water that surrounds many of the holes on that particular course). From there, things take a dramatic turn for the mushroom. By that, I mean that you'll see warp pipes, chain chomps, flying fish, bombs, and so forth. There are constant reminders that the tournament is held in the Mushroom Kingdom.
These new courses are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's neat that there are warp pipes to send you speeding along the course. On the other, the gimmick isn't used so fully as you might imagine. Frequently, a hazard presents no real change from what you've seen before except that it looks different. Send your ball into a pit of lava and you still add a stroke to your total; the penalty is no worse or better. The same is true if you land near a sleeping chain chomp; you get pushed off to the side just like you would have when knocking the ball into a forest on an earlier course.
Even so, I'm not going to complain about the inclusion of such elements. They really do a lot to make Mario and crew look at home. The result is that this game's visual presentation stomps all over what we saw in its predecessor. And there's more than just the warp pipes that contributes to that. Textures here are much sharper in general, with more color depth and variety. The water looks a lot more like the stuff that comes out of your faucet. Trees have more variety, too, and the landscape you'll notice in the difference even seems to have improved. From a technical standpoint, the early courses aren't necessarily doing a lot more than the ones for the Nintendo 64. They just look sharper with less haze as you're making those distant shots. It's the later areas and their sinister turn that makes the game a looker. Even then, this isn't a title that you'll pop into your GameCube to show your friends that the system is powerful.
I'm willing to forgive the lack of extraordinary polish for two reasons. The first is that nothing ever looks ugly. I love the vibrant colors, the distant landmarks (look for Mario and crew forming a slight twist on Mt. Rushmore), and the way everything finally feels like it belongs together. More importantly, the sparse visual effects are likely the main reason this game has virtually no load times. In fact, the only time you'll be sitting through a load screen of some sort is when your progress is being saved to the memory card (or accessed as the title boots). Even then, your wait is only around three seconds. Between matches, menus, and games, there's no other delay. When a course loads, there's a black screen as the music starts playing, but it lasts only a split-second, and is the perfect way to mask load times. As a result, it often feels like you're playing a cartridge-based game, only with the production values one would expect from the GameCube.
Those production values extend to the sound department, as well, though with mixed results. A logo on the back informs the potential consumer that the game runs in surround sound. Indeed it does. However, moments where you'll notice it are extremely rare. There isn't a lot of ambience that I noticed, other than the barking of a chain chomp if you draw near, or birds chirping in the distance when you first access a hole. In fact, you'll most frequently notice surround sound when you least care to. As was the case in the previous game, your fellow golfers can heckle you. This is quite distracting, not only because their voices will come out of the various speakers, but because text appears on-screen.
Fortunately, the computer-controlled opponents never resort to such cheap tactics. Your friends, however, are bound by no such code of honor. It's terrific fun to play against a pal and fill his screen with inane comments as he's trying to line up his shot. Then he punches you in the arm, and you're sore and angry. Taunts tend to grow old quickly for that very reason, but they are fun at odd moments and I would have missed them if Camelot had chosen to give them the ax.
Speaking of multi-player, the game is really built to take advantage of it. Up to four friends can play a single game at a time, and there's really no better way to play. With a good selection of courses that caters to almost any style of gamer, there will almost always be a desire to play 'one more round.' And if you're caught in the middle of a game and someone has to leave, there are even three save slots so you can pick up where you left off once someone grabs more soda pop and chips. Or whatever (there are more than a few people who play this game under the influence).
If you don't happen to have many friends, though, the developers still don't leave you out in the cold. A single player needn't worry only about tournaments, but also about special modes that are making their return from the original. The ring challenge is back and tougher than ever, for example. Tournaments themselves must be unlocked (which requires more alone time), and birdies must be gleaned if you hope to have access to the four hidden characters Camelot kindly included. The only real complaint here is that unlocking everything takes so long. The average player will likely end up spending somewhere close to fifty hours in the endeavor, if not more. There's an almost endless amount of challenge, as each golfer has his or her own set of rings to unlock and matches to win. Unlock all six courses and suddenly you'll access the Star Tournament, which allows you to play against the opponents all over again on a higher difficulty level.
As if increased challenge was ever requested. One of this game's biggest potential flaws is that it's so difficult. Though the original certainly had its fair share of hair-pulling moments, the sequel elevates that. Computer-controlled opponents know each hole like the back of their hand (or paw). They are capable of making birdie shots far more frequently than they should be, so that even a perfect round of golf is likely to result in a tie. And while the computer is content to keep playing perfectly for hours on end, players may have difficulty duplicating that success. If you played the original, you may remember how easy it was to get eagles on some of the early courses. Play this one for fifty hours and you still may not have gained one. The courses are quite deviously designed.
Of course, some players will welcome the added challenge, so it's hard to strictly consider it a flaw. Something a little more clear-cut is the camera problem. Normally, the view of the course is just fine. As was already mentioned, it's generally quite easy to get a good view of what's happening. But there are moments where the ball winds up against a cliff, and finding where the flag is in relation can be downright discouraging. The camera has a tendency to overcompensate at such moments. Not only that, but lining up a difficult shot can become a nightmare when you want to nudge only slightly to the left or right, but a tap of the stick sends you flying in the indicated direction, rather than smoothly gliding as you had hoped. Correcting such things takes longer than perhaps it should. Nowhere is this more evident than when putting. As the camera finally decides it will let you gain control, you swing your club and anxiously watch. Only the perspective switches. The hole is nowhere in sight, your golfer watches the ball roll, and it goes off-screen. Disappointing music indicates you've missed, and the camera flashes to the new perspective, where you see the ball just to the side of the hole. The game seems to be laughing at you, telling you that you missed but failing to provide evidence.
Fortunately, such flaws tend to be spaced a few hours apart. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour really is quite the polished package in almost every respect that truly matters. Aside from role-playing games, it doesn't seem that there are many games around that so effortlessly provide more than 50 hours of solid gameplay. Whether you're the lone armchair adventurer or the life of the party, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour is just what the doctor ordered. Next time, though, make sure you bring that water bottle. Wouldn't want another uncomfortable scene on that eighteenth hole, now would you?
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 01, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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