Boston University News Service
In video games, September is sports-simulator season. That is, the arrival of fall coincides with the start of sports leagues around the world and publishers take notice. The latest “Madden NFL” came out in late August; then, EA’s “NHL” series in mid-September, with “NBA 2K” and “FIFA” in the following two weeks. And yet, the best sports game to come out last month was… “Golf Story”?
“Golf Story“ is a Nintendo Switch exclusive that came out Thursday, September 28 (a day before “FIFA”) and was developed by a two-man team at the independent Australian studio Sidebar Games. In its first week, it stood atop the Nintendo e-Shop’s best sellers list.
The game is an RPG, inspired by Camelot’s “Mario Golf” for the Game Boy, in which golf takes center stage. You develop your character, buy better clubs and play in tournaments to become a pro. You also fight zombies, end mole-rat infestations and even solve a murder.
That’s where “Golf Story” separates itself from realistic sports simulations like “FIFA” and “Madden NFL”. It’s not a game about playing a sport, it’s about the sport. Everything is designed around golf, its mechanics and its culture. You putt to open doors, hit long drives to feed fish and use a sand wedge to dig up treasure.
The game hits a different sweet spot than the average sports-sim does: it aims at the heart of what makes sports fascinating and fun, the childish naïveté of abandoning everything to dedicate your life to a game. “For the love of the game” is a common phrase thrown around in sports, but it serves “Golf Story” well. The protagonist is a man-child whose passion for golf overcomes his own shortcomings (according to everyone else in the game, at least). That’s a dream that anyone who has ever played a sport can relate to.
This passion is clear in the game’s tutorial, a 20-year-before prologue during which the young character gets introduced to golf by his father. Every fan has that moment when they fell in love with a sport as a kid, with a parental figure introducing us to a game that at first seems strange, but soon becomes fascinating.
In a way, average sports-sims falter by not aiming at that sentiment. Instead, they build their stock on realism; the player is “God”, or at least a sporting god that can directly affect the outcome of games and shape reality to their liking. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last season for the first time in over a century, for example, they had already won it a million times in the gaming systems of fans around the world.
On the other hand, that is where they can fail, too. The suspension of disbelief in sports-sims is incredibly tight, especially when it’s the AI and not the player making the decisions. Nothing can be more frustrating in “FIFA” than to see a mediocre real-life player dribbling like he’s Ronaldinho when controlled by the AI; or, in any career mode, have the AI trade someone like Aaron Rodgers to the Browns for Cody Kessler and Corey Coleman.
“Golf Story” escapes those flaws by doing the exact opposite. It doesn’t limit its sport to the restraints of realism. Instead, it prefers to open itself to fantastical situations that only a video game can provide, while keeping true to real-world mechanics of golf. The ball bounces like it should and the swings sound – and feel, thanks to the Switch’s HD rumble – great, but it all takes place in pre-historic ruins, snowy mountaintops or a haunted graveyard.
Many sports games today are strangled by the need to have licenses. “Golf Story” provides a nifty alternative. While franchises like “Tecmo Bowl” – which attempted an unsuccessful unlicensed revival on the DS – and “NFL Blitz” disappeared without their official license, “Golf Story” (like “Super Mega Baseball“) found success going the opposite way, embracing the sport they represent instead of the leagues their game is played in.
All that said, I don’t even like golf. But I love sports, and “Golf Story’s” love for its sport is something that any fan can understand. Developers interested in making sports games without the budget and licensing power of publishers like EA should take note.