by Jed Pressgrove
When Golf Story focuses on golf, it’s one of the best games of the year — and not because of reverence for the sport it depicts. While Sidebar Games does pay tribute to the fun and reward of, say, chipping in a shot from a bunker of sand, the developer has also crafted a whacked-out vision, complete with balls strategically bouncing off turtle shells peaking out of the water and the freedom to tee up wherever you want and aim at whatever (or whomever) you want. This creative design renders a sport that most people find boring an electric concept full of possibilities. But when you must, for example, literally run around in a circle just to advance the story, Golf Story forgets why anyone would want to play it.
You assume the role of a young man trying to become a professional golfer. He wants lessons, but the coach he needs doesn’t seem interested in teaching him (partly because of the young man’s weird swinging motion), so the protagonist must prove himself worthy of the sport. This goal sets the stage for an unusual role-playing game experience, where relevant quests might have you driving a ball farther than an opponent or attempting to make the ball land on a small, circled-off spot on an island despite incredible wind. And as you complete these challenges, the denizens of Golf Story’s world begin to accept that, yes, you deserve a chance to compete with the best.
The catch is that many quests must be completed to open up the game’s world. If such requirements involve golf, they serve as necessary practice. You must learn different adjustments that can help you make good shots on the game’s eight major courses, which have different environmental threats, from the normal (areas with thicker grass) to the bizarre (moles that will pick up your ball and move it).
But when Golf Story requires you to engage in non-golfing activities, the game can become mundane and aimless. Some characters will demand you to fetch items within a time limit, which amounts to running toward red circles along a predictable path. Then there’s tripe like the Pac-Man-style mission where you collect balls in a maze while avoiding enemies with all-too-obvious walking paths. The dullest task comes when you must mine minerals by pressing a button, at least a dozen times or so, right as a cursor touches the same segment of a pop-up bar.
These distractions thankfully don’t change the fact that Golf Story, like no other video game, simultaneously draws attention to the beauty and absurdity of golf. The game’s strong sense of place — like Earthbound, the game utilizes almost every inch of its relatively small map — peaks at a setting called Tidy Park, a course that resists modern flash and style. The peacefulness of this location is infectious, with bird song and serene bagpipes, old men taking their time with every swing, and a more naturalistic type of landscaping.
Tidy Park also signals the point when Golf Story’s hints at golf’s exclusionary nature blossom into satire. As gorgeous as Tidy Park is, you can’t help but feel the uphill climb a lower-class outsider must perform for acceptance, particularly when your coach flatly states, “You’re on your own.” You then must befriend a lot of pretentious, stubbornly old-school fools while distancing yourself from where you came from.
Golf Story’s final location, the pro-tour course, adds insult to this social progression. Trash talk, envy, and competitiveness can color any sport, but Sidecar Games puts golf in a particularly unflattering light when all sorts of people, from players to media, accuse you of cheating your way to the top, despite all your hard work and the stupid hoops you had to jump through to “turn pro.” It’s a ridiculous status-based accusation that makes the final victory all the sweeter. The conclusion, like a great deal of the game, is accompanied by energetic and hopeful music, but it’s clear this optimism is a fantasy, and that’s why Golf Story resonates like few other sports games.