Indie Game of the Week 126: Golf Story

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There is a quote, popularly attributed to Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens, that states that golf is "a good walk spoiled." I refute this: I would instead argue that it was a bad walk to begin with, as there's barely anything to see besides manicured grass and a remote though still possible chance of getting beaned on the dome by an errant slice. Suffice it to say my animosity towards golf also extends to golf games in most regards, however I have this weird affinity for Ball Chess whenever it happens to appear as a side-activity in a decidedly un-sportslike game with less than conventional rules governing it. A perfect example of what I mean is Spheda in Dark Cloud 2: a mini-game that has you play through the procgen dungeon floor you just defeated with a randomized "hole," "ball," and par score to meet.

Sidebar Games's Golf Story, though deferential enough to the eponymous sport as evinced by the significant amount of terminology you pick up while playing, aims to be a 16-bit-inspired RPG that just so happens to use golf mechanics almost exclusively (there's some brief interludes for disc golf - never say "frisbee" - and lawn bowling) and is built around challenging nine-hole courses based within incongruous golfing environments like a beach, a dinosaur bone-infested mesa, a set of clifftops, and the grounds of a haunted mansion. The game is armed with a witty script and no end of imagination when it comes to creating little golfing challenges that the player character takes on for the cash and XP required to turn pro.

Even Abby shows up to help out. She's way into her frisbee golf.
Even Abby shows up to help out. She's way into her frisbee golf.

Unfortunately, actually playing the game can feel like an uphill struggle, playing with Sisyphus's boulder rather than a Titleist. This is due to an unexpected dearth of quality-of-life additions that would normally be present even in an Indie, suggesting that this game was perhaps a freshman effort that didn't quite enjoy a full QA cycle. I took to jotting down all the annoying inconveniences and player-unfriendly design decisions as they happened, because there was getting to be so many:

  • Most significant is that you cannot restart challenges or golf tournaments without either quitting to the main menu or leaving to the world map. This occurs even in challenges where you have a specific number of attempts to complete a goal and a set number of successful attempts required. Let's say you have ten attempts to chip onto the green five times. If you miss the first six shots, the challenge is clearly over, correct? You can no longer make the target goal of five. So, obviously, the game would then automatically terminate the challenge with a "you failed" prompt, and perhaps provide a "start over/quit" menu. Not so in Golf Story. You can either quit to an inconvenient spot - walking back to the challenge from the world map might take as long as the challenge itself - or sadly and shamefully waste the remaining shots to get to the failure screen faster. After which, you have to go talk to the same quest NPC again.
  • You also have to click through all the dialogue windows every time you re-attempt a challenge, but can skip through it with the B button: however, B is also the button for denying the challenge when offered a "yes/no" choice, so you can't press it too much or you have to start the dialogue over.
  • Quitting to the main menu, meanwhile, can be very capricious with what it chooses to save. I've lost around half an hour of progress after rage-quitting a challenge via the only option I had other than "wasting all the subsequent attempts in bitter resignation". Once I came back, not only was the current challenge not in view but all the challenges I'd completed up to it had returned, the game having reloaded from the last time I exited a building. Why would you choose to have the auto-save activate at buildings and not immediately after a successful challenge? The mind truly fucking boggles.
  • There was a silly little fetch quest where you had a chain of trading - like that part in Link's Awakening where you have to keep trading items between NPCs before you got something you'd want to keep - only when you get to this one guy he wants "something sweet" as the hint. You have an ice cream on you at this stage of the chain: however, he doesn't want the ice cream. What he wants is the candy you trade for the ice cream. Maybe should've thought that one through a little more.

In addition to this "death by a thousand cuts" legion of minor annoyances, there are times when the golf physics seem to have a mind of its own. As a 16-bit approximation of golf, Golf Story is usually pretty fair; there's a "precision mode" that indicates where certain shot power levels will take the ball - so, you can see exactly where you'd land if you hit the ball at 60% or 75% power, and will leave a shadow of that amount on the power gauge to make it easier to hit. You can also tweak where you hit the ball - top, bottom, or sides - to direct it around obstacles or reduce the distance it bounces. However, there are times where the ball seems to go a lot further than advertised, with no particular reason included: wind is a common culprit, but not always. The fact that it's perfectly accurate 95% of the time just makes that 5% of the time when it isn't all that more irksome, especially if you're eight holes into a tournament and don't want to restart the thing because of a single water hazard.

The almost unplayable game-within-a-game Galf, based on NES Golf, has an era-accurate manual for you to peruse at your leisure. Unfortunately, that
The almost unplayable game-within-a-game Galf, based on NES Golf, has an era-accurate manual for you to peruse at your leisure. Unfortunately, that "Note from the Devs" turns out to be a little too self-referential for its own good.

To be fair, a lot of my irritation with Golf Story can be levelled against the sport itself. Golf has a habit of turning on you when you least expect it, and the lack of any kind of checkpointing in its longer challenges - the 9-hole matches in particular - can result in a lot of sighs and replayed content. As for the rest of the game, there's definite potential in an irreverent 16-bit RPG spin on golf - it's certainly more successful in that regard than Battle Golfer Yui, perhaps its closest peer - but it could've used some more fine-tuning, I suspect. The golfing isn't bad, except for the rare times when it is, and like I said previously I think the script is really solidly funny and the game's cast of eccentric and mostly obnoxious rival golfers are a hoot, but I find myself annoyed at the game equally as often as I'm delighted. It's the video game equivalent of a beautiful chip onto the green, and then having the ball stop an inch away from the hole - almost worse than having it fly right over and dropping in the bunker, just for the way it turns your joy into ashes in your mouth.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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