Mario Golf wasn't Nintendo's first foray into sports, but it was the first 3D outing for what would eventually become a series norm. Released in 1999 for the Nintendo 64, the game showcased the titular plumber as he stepped out of his heroic skin to become a professional golfer. Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, Wario, and even Bowser were just a few of the characters who came along for the ride. At the time, it was a great spin on the Mario formula, and it was cool to see these characters in something other than a platformer. More importantly, Mario Golf was just a really enjoyable game.
Even today, the mechanics presented in this golf tour across the Mushroom Kingdom are deceptively deep and superbly engaging. Teeing off alone or with some friends is still fairly intuitive, and progressively getting closer to the hole is a total blast. Speaking of which, while the game has a nice Tournament mode and is fun for solo players, getting together with some friends is the way to play Mario Golf. This is especially true when you take into account the game's taunt button, which prompt characters to utter different phrases while a player's trying to focus on making a difficult shot.
This isn't just some mindless non-sim that has you hitting golf balls with no strategy. There are various systems to take into account such as wind direction, wind speed, geography, and so on. If you approach Mario Golf without taking advantage of its overhead map, multiple button commands, and character strengths, you'll play a horrid round and score Bogeys more often than not. Take the time to plan a solid shot, though, and you could find yourself truly entertained by the game's slight complexities.
If you're looking for straight-up golf simulation set in realistic courses, you'll be glad to know that Mario Golf has a bit of that. The game's initial courses are set across lush parks with trees, ponds, and bunkers. Later stages, however, get joyously bizarre and fit the traditional Mario mold much more closely. There are burning desert courses, tropical islands decorated with giant fruit, and even a cliffside valley. While the “normal” courses are certainly fun to go golfing in, it's these specialty courses that truly shine and test your mettle.
There are a few gimmick modes included to add to the ridiculousness. Speed Golf challenges to clear each hole as quickly as possible. Ring shot places rings in the sky for you to hit your ball through. Most interestingly, Club Slots lets you take a spin on the slot machine to see which clubs you can use on a hole. There's also Mini Golf, which is a lot of fun and a slightly different take on the game's main formula. These modes are all pretty cool, but with the exception of Club Slots, it seems like there was a missed opportunity for crazier modes.
Since the game was released in 1999, it's heavy on polygons and low on textures. That's to be expected of these games, but some hold up better than others. While much prettier Mario Golf games have released since this Nintendo 64 gem, there's still an inherent amount of blocky retro charm here. The game doesn't look bad, though it's certainly dated. Worth noting is all the weird use of 2D graphics seen throughout that's pretty ugly including trees, fruit, and even the pin itself. All of these things look out of place in what is an otherwise decent looking Nintendo 64 game.
The verdict: Mario Golf is still a great party golf game despite the inconsistent graphics
What makes Mario Golf so special is that it's hugely inviting and easy to just pick up and play. Once you do get your hands on it, however, you'll soon find out that it's littered with deep mechanics and enthralling elements that really require a little time and practice to master. Inconsistent visuals notwithstanding, this is arguably the best game in the series on account of its superb course design.
Best of all, the game's available on the Virtual Console, so you can play it on the Wii or Wii U (via the system's Wii menu option). It's not Tiger Woods levels of deep (or sleazy), but it's still a surprisingly profound experience that's absolutely packed with classic Nintendo charm.
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