Golf Story, from Sidebar Games, is exclusively for the Nintendo Switch and is available for purchase through the Nintendo eShop. There are also physical copies of the game available via Limited Run Games.
There are so many little things in Golf Story that I could talk about, but I fear that laying them all out here would ruin the experience for the people I am actively trying to persuade into buying this wonderful game. So, what I decided I’d do is approach this review a little differently than ones I’ve done before. I’ll discuss the plot and the basic mechanics of the game, and then I’ll touch on a few aspects of the game that I found to be exceptional, along with a few that surprised me with how much it seemed like the writers of this game were inside my head.
WELLWORN GROVE: HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Golf Story begins with flashbacks of your childhood spending time with your dad on the links being taught the art of golf, while a curious goose follows your progress like a fan would do at an actual golf tournament. When you sink the final putt, you taunt the goose, until your father tells you to quit showboating. He thinks to himself, “I certainly didn’t teach him that,” showing that your dad taught you proper golfing etiquette.
The camera will soon glide around the Wellworn Grove, picking up slice-of-life moments with characters we don’t know yet, but will. These short visual introductions draw your attention to characters you’ll either grow to love or dislike. You never hate anyone in this game, even the people out to get you are struggling with their own insecurities and issues that are not so unlike your own. The tone of the game is cynical but in a lighthearted and easy going way.
You’ll notice some standout foils right away, like childhood nuisance Lucky, who goes from stealing food from the food truck while taunting the vendor, “Sucked in!” as he flees the scene, to becoming the owner of Wellworn Grove, the course you played with your dad as a child.
Once the game time jumps to the present, you wake up in your home and observe dad’s old golf clubs beside your bed. Your dad has apparently passed on in the last 20 years. You receive a call from your ex-wife (most likely), who mocks and belittles you. This conversation spurs you into action as you decide to win the big golf tournament. And for spite. You’re clearly also doing it to stick it to this gal, at least partly.
I said that your dad apparently passed on, and that the woman on the phone is most likely your ex-wife or former girlfriend because Golf Story doesn’t rely on heavy exposition, and allow you to fill in the blanks as to your relationship to most people, which cuts down on conversations where two people tell each other things they clearly would’ve already known about each other.
Your nameless protagonist is not a hero, not a chosen one, not someone destined to succeed; he’s just a guy who wants to honor his father’s legacy, despite being met with derision and doubt at every turn.
Even when someone does show faith in you, it is merely an opportunity for them to take advantage of you. Almost immediately, you find yourself under contract with Lucky, who does not have your best interests at heart. Once you find another agent, she’ll attempt to get you out of your contract with Lucky, telling you to agree to whatever terms Lucky sets. Again, this doesn’t serve you in any way. Not to mention, once you get out from under Lucky’s thumb, you quickly turn into a shill for whatever products your new agent wants you to promote.
I found it comical the way your character goes from situation to situation, playing the go-along-to-get-along type, being a total pushover, and rarely giving back any of the grief people subject him to. This isn’t a game where people believe in you, or inspire you to persist unless you serve a purpose that is also in their best interest. Frankly, I love that because it resonates.
Speaking as someone who is a bit of a pushover himself, I can relate to the main character, and have enough self-awareness to laugh at how he finds himself in situations he doesn’t want to be in that could’ve easily been sidestepped had he merely spoken up.
Nevertheless, your character’s inner monologue reveals that he isn’t unintelligent, and often knows he’s being taken advantage of, he just doesn’t have the self confidence to speak up. I related to that even more. Silence is often taken as a lack of intelligence, and as someone who knows the double-edged sword of being “quick with a joke”, oftentimes it’s best not to speak at all, rather than expose your own ignorance.
This is just my way of saying this game’s dialogue is clever, biting, satirical, true to life, and often deadly accurate in its portrayal of human nature. If you pay attention to the characters and the dialogue and truly invest your time in the story, you are rewarded with some big, genuine laughs.
Sometimes you can be forgiven for not knowing just how invested you need to get into a game’s story. Do I need to hear any of what this person is saying or can I just button mash and pray for a Skip button? So I will tell you now that one of the reasons I think this game is so wonderful is because of its story, and more so, it’s dialogue. The characters are the most three dimensional 16 bit NPCs I’ve ever seen.
It’s not just the words; it’s the way they’re displayed into the talk bubbles. Sometimes the sentence is broken up into dramatic pauses. Other times the words will cause the talk bubble to rock back and forth. The size of certain words will expand, and bold text is not simply reserved for things you need to pay attention to for quests. Your thoughts appear in semi-transparent thought bubbles and are often filled with smaller sized words as if you’re quietly contemplating the true intent of those you interact with. Other times, there is cross-talking, or multiple characters speaking at the same time, giving the game a Robert Altman vibe.
QUEST FOR THE CUP
Don’t worry. It’s not all about the cup. That being said, if you came here for a good golf game, you will not be disappointed. I’m old enough to remember the game Golf, the NES sports game that was one of the systems few good early sports games. Golf Story manages to pay homage to that game in several ways I will get into in a bit, but first, I want to talk about the game’s learning curve and pacing.
You’re free to explore the world, although some areas are initially off-limits, the game always keeps you moving in the right direction. You have a notebook to keep track of your active missions, and exploration is encouraged. The game basically allows you to set the tone.
Sometimes I wanted to go off and explore new areas, or take on a side quest, and no one stopped me unless I explicitly needed to do something else first. I never felt like I had to get to the next tournament unless I wanted to experience the next part of the game’s storyline.
You are allowed to play rounds of golf whenever you want, providing you have some cash so that when you enter the tournaments and play versus either one other player, or the entire field, you have a decent shot at winning.
I’m a casual video golfer at best. As a kid I played with my parents and grandparents as we battled for supremacy on the 18 courses of the original NES Golf. I never picked up a pretend club again until my friends suddenly got into Tiger Woods games in the early aughts on the PS2, where I had to learn that whole controller scheme, only to still lose every round by a stroke or two.
Luckily for me, Golf Story hews closer to the NES game and it’s follow up NES Open Tournament Golf, a game whose name just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it? Plus, the game teaches you the rules through fun side-challenges that double as tutorials. The difference between these and your usual tutorial is that you have a good chance of actually retaining the knowledge. I learn by doing, and I also hate leaving a challenge unfinished, so if I have to bounce golf balls off the heads of hippos in the water to win a challenge, that means I’m going to keep trying until I get the hang of it, learning the new and valuable technique along the way. Not to mention playing the actual courses is more fun as well, because you actually have the tools and knowledge to compete in the tournament.
You can also level grind by playing solo rounds anytime for cash and XP. Leveling Up allows you to boost your stats for accuracy and drive and other upgrades. Holes can be completed with a touch of flair, not just for scoring a birdie or eagle, but for chipping in a shot off the pole, or just Slam Dunking it straight into the hole. You gain medals for holes where you get birdies, eagles and albatrosses, and the game keeps track of these medals, and even shows you them as you replay the courses. That means you’ll want to go back and beat your best score. I know a lot of people say that, but I truly did. Knowing you’re going into a hole where your high score is a birdie, certainly makes me try just a little bit harder to eagle it.
As much as I enjoyed the golf part of Golf Story, it’s the little story beats that I was drawn to the most.
POSTERS VS. A MINT CONDITION BOX
There’s a scene in Golf Story that seemed like the creators had gone inside my brain Psychonauts style and extracted a real neurosis of mine. You’re in the game room, and you’re giving your friend one of the Galf game cartridges you find in the game. There’s three in total, and they’re actual golf games you can play.
Each one comes in its own box, along with a full instruction manual, complete with an overwrought futuristic story meant to explain why you’re playing a simple game of Galf. It’s absurdly unnecessary, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
When you give Galf Seasons to your friend, she freaks out about the poster that is inside the box. She excitedly hangs it on her wall. You ask her if she wants to keep the box and she scoffs at you.
“No,” she says, “Why would I want to keep the box?”
“You might treasure it someday,” you say, turning away sadly, “I would have taken it off your hands.”
So much of that scene was me. Some kids hung Nintendo posters on their walls and considered posters to be the second-best thing next to the game. Me? I preserved my game boxes. Whenever I let someone borrow one of my NES games, they got the game and the sleeve, the old NES cartridge holster, but they did not get the box. They’d crease the box; they’d rip the cover, there’d be a weird stain somewhere. Even if they didn’t do anything to it, I’d still probably look obsessively for some imperfection that wasn’t there before. You could damage the sleeve, hell, sleeves are a dime a dozen. NES cartridges? You could drop them in a toilet; they were indestructible. But the boxes, you can’t replace the boxes. I still have them. And the instruction manuals. I could go on about the instruction manuals as well, but instead l should just laud this game for having an actual NES style instruction manual in the game.
Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact they sort of had to call it Galf because if they named it Golf they’d go from loving homage to straight up forgery.
WE’RE THE WEIRDOS, MISTER
It’s little things like that where it’s something so seemingly off topic, when in fact, it’s part of this whole games overall theme. We’re all weirdos here, with our strange little hang-ups and irrational set of rules for ourselves and others. I found playing a character that lacked agency, was kind of a pushover, could be easily manipulated, yet was smart enough to know all these things and still willingly chose to do them anyway, refreshingly real. Not every game needs to be a pep talk. A game can poke fun at the human condition, and if we have the capacity to laugh at ourselves, we’re most often better for it.
Characters have cold exteriors, and false bravado, chirping at you constantly. Your character is basically passed around by NPCs who spend most of their time either undercutting you at every turn, or underplaying your success. Your protagonist is undervalued and shoved to the side. However, that’s pretty much how life goes most of the time, and instead of getting angry, your character puts his head down and keeps moving toward his goal. Your dad certainly didn’t teach you to be a showboat.
THE 19th HOLE
I purposely left out all the cool moments in this game because I wanted to drive home the point that this indie game is worth it. The indie game industry is a wonderful thing, but just like any other genre, it’s filled with a lot of imitators and quick buck cash-ins. Golf Story is a true original.
This is a game that sidetracks itself with a high stakes dinner party mystery and a full-on rap battle. You never know what these characters are going to say, and that is one of the prime reasons why you are so compelled to speak to each and every person twice, sometimes three times.
If you own a Nintendo Switch, you have to buy Golf Story. It’s exclusive to the system, and it’s a unique game that manages to draw you into a story where things often get very real and very weird, often at the same time.
- I never played Mario Golf games; they always looked like those Nintendo party games that exist just to provoke controller smashing.
- Despite the fact the answer to almost every puzzle was “Hit it with a ball” there were still moments where doing it made me feel like the smartest man alive.
- The game has humor that is clever and subversive. I just realized that a good way to describe the writing for Golf Story is to say it reminds me of the Paper Mario series. The connections you can make with some NPCs is also reminiscent of that series.
- I didn’t talk about the ending, but it’s a sublime homage to what A Link To The Past did.
- There is multiplayer and online and all that, but I’m a man with no friends, especially of the online variety, but I’m sure it’s wonderful.
- Sometimes the game rewards you for being a jerk. HINT: The snowmen.
- There’s a full-on mini-golf course inside one of the buildings in the game. There are mini-games all over the place.
- This game is cheap and always on sale. Indie games are so prolific on the Switch right now that it’s hard to tell the gems from the duds, but this was one of Nintendo’s indie hits. Keep in mind being an indie hit just makes you a game most people still don’t know about.