Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour
Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour doesn’t take itself seriously. Seeing as how last time I checked, Nintendo was still aiming for the fetal-to-crawling demographic, there’s no reason why it should. The first game it reminded me of was the excellent Hot Shots Golf on the original PlayStation. That was the first game I can recall that made a cartoon out of the sport and yet still succeeded in being a magnificent simulation of the real thing. Now, here we are more than half a decade later, graced with a sequel to Nintendo’s surprise N64 hit Mario Golf. The trademark Nintendo cutesy feel is set firmly in stone, but the outward appearance totally belies the steep learning curve and frustration factor. This results in an awkward idea of the audience this game should represent; it’s too hard for kids, and is smattered too heavily with chubby, falsetto-voiced characters and blinding pastels to be presentable for adults.
It starts innocently enough with a gleeful and emotionally edifying introductory movie, the likes of which made me laugh in a way that I haven’t since I was probably five years old. Its silent comedy is uproarious, what with Waluigi continually missing short putts, Wario whacking a ball directly into Bowser’s eye, and all the while Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Daisy (from Super Mario Land) peacefully and obliviously playing their 18 holes as a quiet group. But, like most suspiciously cheery entities, this second iteration of Mario Golf has a doozy of a dark side.
Though it reminds me of the venerable Hot Shots Golf – one of the select few golf games I have ever enjoyed – the fact still stands that Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour is a golf game, and a problematic one at that. It initially imbues its infectious joy and whimsy within your open soul with its exemplary presentation, but the emotions that you will feel when playing its light-colored courses are far from these. Depending on how unbridled my rage was at the time, I may or may not have damaged my precious Wavebird controller, which in turn denied me the freedom to flail about rabidly in anger like the Tasmanian Devil when I was again tripped up by the game’s unbearable learning curve.
It is difficult to warm up to a game that flat-out lies to you the way this one does. Take for example the simplest of putts on the most level green possible. Your golfer of choice is eight feet from the hole. At the bottom of the television is the backswing meter, standard to all golf games. You push the A button to start the meter and again almost instantly to tap the ball in. It would be understandable if you had to adjust accordingly to putt up an incline, but when you’re on perfectly flat ground, IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. I had to train myself to learn to go beyond the marks designated for what they deemed a perfect putt, and I most definitely learned the hard way in several cases.
The game has no intention of telling you any of this. It derives sadistic pleasure from seeing you writhe and stew in your own short temper. To make sure you reach your optimum level of tempestuous screaming and console blasphemy, it kicks off the game by indulging in the recent grand Nintendo tradition of holding your hand every step of the way and making doubly sure that even squirrels of above-average intelligence can turn in a passable performance. Unlike recent games’ inability to wean you of this insulting habit, however (Wind Waker and Metroid Fusion, to name a few), MG:TT is the most merciless of wet nurses, shoving you off into the real world while you are but still comfortably suckling at its teat. To be fair and honest, if you can’t beat the opposition by a good nine or ten points on the first few courses, you really do stink at this game. But this same runaway lead caused me to make the grievous mistake of thinking I was actually good at it. As I gradually unlocked courses, it would slowly yank another security from me, to the point where I could not often trust its default choice of clubs for me.
This is a horrible thing to do, especially to small children hoping to hit the links as their favorite Nintendo mascots. I picked up the later mistaken habit of hitting blindly where the game told me to with a well-placed “Nice Shot!” (what the color commentator says if you line up both parts of the backswing meter exactly), only to find myself attempting to hit the ball into the hole from fifteen yards away on the fringe – always with disastrous results. This is a weird way to set up a golf game. Pin shots (where you chip the ball and hit the flag in the hole) are more common than eagles; obstacles exclusive to the Mushroom Kingdom, like Chain Chomps leashed to poles in bunkers and ball-transporting pipes, are introduced informally and abruptly must be figured out through trial and error as you proceed through the later courses; and to the best of my knowledge, pro golfers – or any outdoors sportsmen, for that matter – often take a rain check when it starts to downpour.
With this system of unbreakable difficulty in place, none of the side challenges offered up in addition to 18-hole tournament play are any fun. How am I supposed to be any good at the Birdie Challenge (which tests you on how many consecutive holes you can score one under par on, for the golf-illiterate) when it is a relief to my soul just to score a double bogey sometimes? The Coin Challenge draws coins to your ball as you whack it near them, and you can keep them if you successfully clear a hole – provided you score par or better. The tournaments themselves are no better, placing in you in the compromising positions of sometimes hitting your durable Titleists directly at a wall or into water (with the former sometimes resulting in the latter). How small children, the age group which this game is clearly aimed toward, are supposed to master this game is beyond me. If a game makes me come close to destroying my best controller, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anybody, really.
Patience is rewarded in time, however. Tournaments are easier to win once you are able to mentally connect with the lay of the land and have a good idea of where to hit the ball. Once you figure out that the default path of the ball will send it careening off a cliffside and into the eternal abyss below, which is as obvious an out-of-bounds as I have ever seen, it becomes easier to collect trophies and unlock courses. Characters can also be discovered by the droves if you able to out-perform individuals in mano-e-mano battles to see who can score lower on a given course. If you can think of a character from Mario’s past – most notably his more recent RPG efforts – they probably have a function in the game in some manner. If you can stick with the game long enough and get good enough at it to give Mario and Luigi an old-fashioned schooling, you will be treated to a plethora of hidden characters the likes of which the most secretive fighting games would cartoonishly drop their collective jaw at.
Mario Golf is a lavishly produced game, with the opening cinema being one of the greatest testimonies yet to the graphical power of the Gamecube. The golf courses are all designed with nary a shard of pop-up polygons and a healthy amount of colors other than green. Many platforms, obstacles, and types of terrain come straight out of the 2D days of Mario. You’ll surely be able to recognize the vertical finger-like domes of Super Mario World and the haphazard layout of everyone’s favorite pipes all over the field. There is a stunning amount of light effects shimmering off of surfaces and worming its way into tiny, incovenient crevices. All the “Nice Shots!” are quite polished, and every character only shares his or hers with maybe one or two other people. The graphics are one of those rare cases in which familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; the game is always a treat to look at and will never cause problems with regard to its vivacious scenery.
The sound also carries the game along on a remarkable wave of aesthetic excellence. Most notable are the songs and the way they have been arranged. At any given point, the music will sound sporty and full of the driving keyboard work and generic sense of atmosphere surrounding golf. While your ears are hearing it and conveying the sense that you should be on the golf course in plaid pants and a white beret, however, the music will suddenly switch gears and launch into a masterful remix of some song located in the annals of Mario history – the most delicious of these examples occurring at Peach’s Invitational when the music makes a silky smooth transition from the golf feel to a reggae mix of the Super Mario 64 castle theme. Aside from the excellent music, however, MG:TT suffers from lack of variety. The color commentator can be considered less that and more someone who compliments you on a clean whack. As the worst case, the golfers seem to have had vocal chord transplants across the board, making noises and possessing voice samples that veer uncharacteristically toward the puerile. Donkey Kong may hurl a barrel when he finally makes the putt for a double bogey, but no amount of his weird ape chittering will convince me of the immediacy of any threat.
In the end, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour isn’t really a golf game for anyone but the fiercest golf sim freak. It will coddle you in the nest for a while and then send you off to fly with clipped wings; it will give you a map and then shove it down the paper shredder; it will tell you it loves you in a voice dripping with cold, cruel dishonesty. As a result of the fundamentals lacking, nothing else in the game is worth the investment of time to discover for yourself. Fortunately, a diagnostic check on the Wavebird now shows that its vital signs are intact, and I can now set about swinging my limbs in erratic anger when a game makes me angry, but that does not bring back the healthy level of blood pressure or the time I lost playing this game. And so, having concluded that the time that could have been spent doing other constructive things (mowing the lawn, unloading the air hockey table from the back of my truck, sleeping) was stolen right out from under my nose, I have a message for Nintendo today.
Crime doesn’t pay.