Though Mario had made appearance in sports titles beforehand, 1999’s Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64 is the game that made Mario sports games a thing. These days, Mario sports titles are a common recurrence, but Mario Golf was testing new waters in its time. Playing Mario Golf today on the Wii U Virtual Console, you may find that some of its aspects hold up, but in a lot of ways, it feels like a limited experience, especially when compared to more recent Mario sports games.
As the game’s title suggests, Mario Golf is a golf simulation game that stars Mario and his friends (and enemies). In the case of being a golf title it works fine, but you may find the Mario characters are strangely misused.
Gameplay is simple enough for even those with little knowledge (or interest) in golf to get into it, but deep enough to make it a competitive and replayable package. The mechanics of the sport are streamlined, but you’ll still need to choose your shots carefully, and pay attention to the weather, the land, your swing and even the wind (represented by a Boo, being one of the only uses of a Mario element outside of the playable characters) in order to get the best score.
You can choose the strength in which to swing the club, and your shot’s power and distance is determined by pressing the A button at the right times as a bar moves through a gauge at the bottom of the screen. It’s easy enough to understand, but you’ll quickly find it’s difficult to master once you take your positioning and other conditions into account.
The core gameplay is still a solid golfer, but you’ll soon realize that there’s not a whole lot of “Mario” to it. The courses are all straight forward golf courses, with no Mushroom Kingdom locales or wacky gimmicks, and the game’s alternate modes, such as Ring Shot (similar to that from Mario Tennis), don’t reflect the franchise much either, fun as they may be. Even the mini-golf mode, which seems like a prime opportunity to bring out many of the series’ elements, feels rather bland, with shapes from the alphabet and numerical system being used in favor of any Mario-themed courses.
But seeing as those modes work just fine if all you’re looking for is a golfing game, you could potentially look past that. What’s less forgivable is the game’s character selection.
Five new characters were introduced here in Plum, Charlie, Harry, Sonny and Maple, with Plum being the only one anyone seems to remember (perhaps due to the fact that she’s the only one who actually looks like a Mario character). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that none of these newcomers have returned since, though it is something of a shame that Plum never became a recurring character. If anything, it may have spared us from seeing Daisy become a staying character in these spinoffs.
What really adds a big question mark to the character selection, however, is how the majority of characters, including Mario himself, need to be unlocked. That’s right, you don’t start out with Mario as a playable character in a game called Mario Golf.
The only starting characters are two of the aforementioned newcomers, Plum and Charlie, as well as Princess Peach and Baby Mario (this game also started the paradox-creating trend of having Mario play sports against his infant self). Everyone else must be unlocked in “Character Match” mode, with a couple of them unlocked via other means.
In Character Match, you are pitted against an AI-controlled character, and you must beat them in order to unlock that character. This process works one at a time, with every character showing up in a fixed order, with Mario himself not showing up until the sixth time around. And if you think this doesn’t sound like too big of a deal, it should be noted that the AI is not only pretty difficult, but you can’t even change its difficulty. Unlocking every character becomes a time-consuming, arduous process that only diehards will care to accomplish. It’s baffling to think that you have to go through so much trouble just to play as Mario in Mario Golf.
The worst part of it all is that Camelot, though proven to be a capable developer with these Mario sports titles, failed to work on the character balance. You’ll find that once you unlock later characters like Mario, Bowser and Metal Mario, you’ll probably never play as the starters again, unless you want to be stacked against all odds.
Also of note is that there were originally four unique characters that could be unlocked via connection to the Gameboy Color version of Mario Golf, but this feature is once again absent in the Virtual Console release, meaning that no matter what you’ll always have four shadowed out squares on the character select screen.
On the plus side, the core gameplay of Mario Golf holds up pretty well, so those who simply want to play a simplified golf game may really enjoy it (and it’s still up to four players, which makes for a lot more fun). But that same lot may wonder why there are Mario characters in this game to begin with. Mario fans will probably wonder the same thing.
That’s the thing, unfortunately. While Mario Golf still works well as a golf game, it’s not a very good Mario Golf game. And despite featuring the colorful characters from the Mushroom Kingdom, the game’s demanding nature will probably mean kids won’t have the patience for it. It’s hard to figure out what audience Nintendo and Camelot made this game for.
Later entries would better merge the game of golf into the world of Super Mario with fun level designs, gimmicks, and a stronger emphasis on the characters, while retaining the core golfing experience. But this first proper foray into Mario sports feels like a clash of unconnected elements. It’s not so much Mario Golf so much as golf that just so happens to have Mario characters in it.
It’s still a decent enough game for those enthusiastic for golf itself. But the fact that you have to jump through so many hoops just to play as Mario really says it all.