I'm playing Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for Nintendo GameCube right now. I plan to write a review of it, maybe tomorrow.
Right now, though, I'm wondering: why the hell am I playing this game, right now? What's my motivation?
I just sent an instant message to Chris Kohler. Maybe he has some idea:
[19:35:39] me: i got mario golf on GC over here
[19:35:43] chris kohler: fuck you
[19:35:44] me: yes
[19:35:49] chris kohler: I'm still waiting for it
[19:35:53] chris kohler: Mario Golf
[19:35:55] chris kohler: Is it good?
[19:36:01] me: it's GOOD
[19:36:05] me: it's just . . . is it NEW?
[19:36:08] me: is it NECESSARY?
[19:36:13] me: no, and . . . not really
[19:36:17] chris kohler: Hmmm.
[19:36:22] me: it feels just like hot shots golf
[19:36:25] me: and with good reason!
[19:36:39] me: hmmm
[19:36:44] me: you can be a part of my review!
[19:36:51] me: so, chris kohler, why do you want to play mario golf?
[19:37:25] chris kohler: To see if somebody's finally invented a golf game that I don't hate.
Really, Chris Kohler? Do you really want to just play a golf game you don't hate? Do you even like golf? Do you? Surely you've got the figure for it. Does that mean you like it?
Most likely, no. Chris Kohler does not care about golf.
Do I? Well. Well, I played a little bit in high school and college. I own a set of clubs, which stands next to my television. I used to hold odd little claustrophobic skins games in my college dorm. We'd use the plastic cups from our favorite pizza joint as holes, and play with practice balls, in the hall. No clubs barred. We sometimes restricted the game to pitching-wedge-only. Which was never a problem.
I once scammed $300 out of some frat boys that way. It was great. All it takes is a bit of charisma and a tablespoon of golf talent, and you too can hustle plastic-cup golf in your college dorm-floor halls.
You had to be really gentle with your swing, so the ball wouldn't hit the ceiling, and screw your approach up beyond recognition.
The dorm was a really weird shape, too. Kind of like a capital letter "A." The top of the cross of the "A," the part that faces the apex -- that's where the elevators were. Yes, the ninth hole required starting in the floor four lounge, and putting into the third floor lounge. This required operation of the elevator. Like a good caddy, someone would stand by the elevator door, holding it open for the (very) tricky drive.
I remember the night I kicked those two frat boys' asses. We're standing in the elevator with our pitching wedges, I key the third floor, our sister floor -- we were the only male floor in a female tower -- and I says to one of the polo-shirt-and-khaki'ed kids, "This your first time in a key-operated elevator, chief?" Scared him half to death.
The ninth hole was a pink cup. It was the only pink cup we'd received from that pizza joint -- maybe the only one they ever gave out. It was under the far table, behind a row of ancient computers. My friend -- a Chinese girl half my height -- waited with her floor's lounge door open. She was grinning. I pitched the ball right over a table on which two computer-science girls (yes, they do exist) were playing a game of Risk, their fresh-from-the-shower heads wrapped in white towels. I birdied the hole -- it was a par-four.
It was in that lounge, smelling of air-conditioner and hair-conditioner, that we relaxed with some fine beverage and cookies smuggled out of the cafeteria. We talked about some things, like business -- these guys' major -- and predictions for the upcoming Indiana University Little 500 bike race (the one chronicled in the Academy-Award-winning 1979 film Breaking Away, yes). The conversation wasn't something I cared about. Yet, I kept it up as long as I could. This was valuable time. This was entrepreneurship. This was the game I played throughout college.
After that night, I never played the dorm-hall skins game for money. Me and a few gaming friends kept up the tradition, and enjoyed ourselves regularly. Just a year later, I was living somewhere else, and one of the guys I'd played golf with came over every couple of nights to play Mario Tennis on Nintendo 64. By then, I'd buckled down and become more of a focused student -- which meant a slight drop in my grades. I played videogames like it was something I had to do. I had schedules planned out in my head. I'd write two pages of my sixty-page paper about a twelve-line Chinese poem, then I'd pick up my Dreamcast controller and play a hundred and twenty minutes of Skies of Arcadia, get into two hundred and forty battles, scream four hundred and eighty times, and finally let my girlfriend back on Phantasy Star Online.
I'd maybe make a phone call from my roommate's phone, and maybe someone would come over to play Mario Tennis with me on the other TV. We'd sit in the sofa-less living room on the millimeter-thin carpet, in the dark, drinking root beer and playing videogame sports. We liked sports that were conducive to conversation. Baseball or golf worked well. NHLPA Hockey 1993 for Sega Genesis was a real conversation-killer -- in a good way, though. Sometimes, we'd pull out the PlayStation for some Hot Shots Golf, and on one not-so-special night, this friend of mind once asked me, "Remember when we used to play golf in the halls?" And I told him, yeah. "Remember those frat kids? My roommate's friends?" I told him, yeah, I remembered. He then spoke lowly, and quietly, like remembering not to forget something.
"That was fucking awesome, dude."
That, right there: that, to me, is golf. That's what it's always been. I'll admit -- on the links, I'm no Tiger Woods. The best drive I ever hit was a hundred and sixty yards, and that was by accident. Still, I used to like to play -- enough to have a wallet full of "Free Bucket" coupons earned from a driving range in Carmel, Indiana. I spent two of my last three months during my first time in Japan looking for an excuse to hitchhike to Hokkaido -- and the best excuses I came up with always came back to golf.
I like golf.
That, however, is not the reason I am playing Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for Nintendo GameCube.
I'm playing it because it has Mario on the box.
Camelot's Minna no Golf ("Everybody's Golf"), also known as Hot Shots Golf, for Sony PlayStation, was something of a revelation. I played for the first time on a demo disc that I'd gotten God-knows-where, and was shocked by its ease of playability which, matched with cute atmosphere, caused the realistic physics to stand up like pleasing images in a pop-up book.
I'd spent a dubious portion of my dubious youth tooling around with various PGA-Tour-logo-emblazoned EA Sports golf titles on Sega Genesis. My brother's friend Zach would come over, and we'd boot the game up, and load our career golfer profiles. We then hit one of eight thousand perfectly rendered real-life golf courses, all of which looked the same. With no more information than a wind indicator and the graininess before us, we selected clubs, debated about what would work best, aimed in cryptic directions, and shot. The game told us nothing until it was telling us where our balls had landed, and how much farther we had to go. It was all speculation. This was a golf game in a flight-simulator vacuum, minus the heads-up-display. We played it because we liked creating our own character profiles. We liked changing our golfers' clothing. We liked the bragging rights when one of us beat the other, even if the winner between us lost to sixty-two other invisible competitors. We never stopped to wonder why we didn't just go down to the driving range and hit some balls for real; we weren't playing the game to play golf. We were playing it to interact with something not human. We, the interacting people of the modern world, need a siphon sometimes.
Times came and went that we did go to the driving range to hit balls. At those times, we enjoyed ourselves. The day came when Zach got a PlayStation, and brought it over, and we played Resident Evil. Soon enough, I had my own PlayStation, and that demo disc. That demo disc changed our lives -- Zach bought Hot Shots Golf the day he first played the demo. We then played the game, and very well.
I was a natural at Hot Shots Golf from the start, perhaps because of my combined experience with EA's golf-ball-flight-simulators for Genesis and odd quirky titles like Kirby's Dream Course. Hot Shots Golf offers a ball arc indicator, showing you approximately where the ball will land. It lets you adjust a slider on the power meter so you can get a basic idea where to press the button when swinging the club, and how far it will go. In the lower-right corner of the screen is a ball-lie indicator; it shows on what kind of surface the ball lies. You can adjust a cursor to indicate where you want to hit the ball -- hit it on the top to send it spinning forward; hit it on the bottom to tweak its upward arc. Take into account wind speed and the location of the pin, and think deeply, and a player who triple-bogeys (that's three strokes over par) every hole in a Genesis EA PGA title can hit birdies (one under par) right off the bat.
The PGA games, one can say, were made
A.) By hardcore elitists who wanted players to work for every impressive feat accomplished.
B.) By normal, honest people underequipped to carry out their vision of making a universally appealing golf game.
If Camelot's Hot Shots Golf is for "Everybody," EA Sports' 16-bit PGA series could have easily been renamed "Close-to-Nobody's Golf." It turned out as a game for egomaniacs, or else kids who liked any game that let them name their own characters.
I'm not ashamed to admit I fell into the second category. I liked creating a persona who, triple-bogeys or double-bogeys be damned, might just have been a better golfer than me.
I liked Hot Shots Golf, on the other hand, because it is a fun game. Never mind that it didn't let me name and create a character; its packaged personality is the perfect complement to its "dumbed-down, funned-up" gameplay. It was a revolution of the happiest order. And we gladly played, and recommended it to people.
And close to no one touched it. Electronic Gaming Monthly listed it as one of the most "underappreciated" games of its year.
Why was this little gem "underappreciated"? Well, it has something, believe it or not, to do with the following semi-absurd statement:
Because the Hot Shots Golf cast didn't star in Mario Party.
I'm going to go out on a limb here when I say I don't remember a single name of a single Hot Shots Golf character. There's a guy in a white polo shirt, I'm seeing, in my head. A girl in a visor? I think there's a guy with a mustache, a guy with reflective aviator sunglasses, and a guy with a checked orange-and-yellow button-down shirt and cartoon chinos. Maybe they're all the same guy? It would seem to fit, wouldn't it?
Yeah, the game has personality -- the guy in the checked shirt strikes us as a shyster lawyer on a five-day weekend. The girl in the visor is soft and vulnerable when she bogeys a hole, and says "Oh, noooo!"
Yet they are not people. They are not old friends. They are not even new friends. They're just avatars we choose to represent ourselves in the company of real friends, in real life.
"I'm gonna be the shyster again."
Hot Shots Golf relies on a push from outside the game to get us inside the game.
Mario Golf's god-damned box-art exerts a pull. We're into the game before we've even booted it up.
It makes sense that Camelot jumped at the chance to make the original Mario Golf on Nintendo 64. Nintendo, perhaps in times of trouble, was farming out their franchises. Capcom was rumored to be working on a Zelda game, of all things. Hal was putting together a Nintendo-All-Stars-ish fighting game known as Smash Brothers. Hudson cut a sweet piece of the pie with Mario Party. Camelot jumped in, and vowed to make Mario Golf -- a golf game anyone could enjoy, especially if they liked Mario.
I had a friend back around those times. He had never played a Final Fantasy game, because he hated them, and there was no way any of them could be better than Panzer Dragoon Saga. He found the excessive Mario-ing despicable. He claimed that he'd rather play Hot Shots Golf, because he liked the characters better. He wasn't a Mario fan. He hated Super Mario Bros. 2 is why. He suggested -- maybe it was a joke (my God, I hope so) -- that Camelot make the game for Dreamcast, and make it Alex Kidd Golf.
He didn't like Sonic, either. Such was his l33tness.
I had to break it to him gently: he was outnumbered. Mario Golf was, as they say in the business, a success. A hit, even. The game shop where I worked was swamped with rainchecks and orders. Parents were buying it for their children. Grandparents were buying it for their grandchildren. Religious websites condoned the game as safe family fun, despite some mild magical elements.
Everyone was happy.
Years later, I've fallen out of touch with videogame golf. I mostly ignored Hot Shots Golf 3 for PlayStation2 because of my experience with Mario Golf, and because I have, as of late, almost stopped playing videogames that I don't love immensely. I keep a Super Famicom in the middle of my floor, equipped with Goemon 2, and a Super Nintendo equipped with Earthbound or Super Mario All-Stars. Soul Calibur II is inside my GameCube, even though I always mean to put the Freeloader back in after turning off the console, to facilitate future rebooting.
I came across Mario Golf, and I decided to start playing it because it had Mario. My Soul Calibur II case is now full of both Soul Calibur II and the Freeloader. Thank God those Japanese GameCube case spindles are built to hold two discs. It's a nice perk.
"A nice perk" -- that's the inverse of what Mario was in Mario Golf, and that's what he is again in Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. Much as you don't buy a Japanese GameCube game thinking you're going to be able to fit two discs in its case, because that really has nothing to do with the actual game's actual gameplay, chances are you do buy Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for the Mario, even though Mario doesn't change the fact that the game is still just Hot Shots Golf with Super Mario wallpaper.
If I'm sounding negative: be aware, it's only meant to add to the effect of what I'm going to say next:
I don't ever want it any other way.
Insert Credit's own beloved fiancée, SNK, got it right once, long ago. The game was Baseball Stars, on NES. It was an arcade-styled, "dumbed-down, funned-up" baseball game that let you name your team and all the people on it. It let you pick a uniform, and a logo. You earned money for winning games, and upgraded your players. The personality of that game was the personality you brought to the table.
People aren't willing to work that way anymore for an arcade-style sports game. If Baseball Stars' personality belongs to you and you only, Hot Shots Golf's personality seems to belong to someone else. Mario Golf's personality belongs to Super Mario, and by virtue, it belongs to everyone.
People wanting more Hot Shots Golf -- well, either move to Japan and play the new online version of the game -- or pick up Mario Golf. If you want Hot Shots Golf and don't enjoy Mario -- ignore the Mario. Your core gameplay is still there. If you like Mario and are tempted to play this game -- play it. Hot Shots Golf is very fun. It's one of those great games you play, and immediately want to show it to everyone else. You'll surprise yourself by how easily you pick the game up, and you'll love it. Camelot's tactic in releasing this game, at this time -- it's perfect. Update the play for old fans, rope in the newbies with a familiar characters.
Three days into my Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour experience, I'm ready to write a review. I'll do that in a moment. First, I'd like to say a little more about characters in videogames, a little more about combinations of franchises, and why I think, as of yet, "selling out" isn't a sin in the realm of videogames.
Some called Kingdom Hearts a sell-out. Some called it "Hell of a bizarre concept," yet still appreciated it. Some were able to see through its Satan-mask of evil, and find the bad game that existed independently of the unsuccessfully combined genres and universes. Some of us walked away with a little philosophy. I was one of the latter. Let me share that philosophy a little bit, by saying that
I REALLY DON'T CARE FOR THE CHARACTERS IN SOUL CALIBUR II
I've logged a hundred and eighty-something hours on Soul Calibur II. My GameCube has come close to overheating a few dozen times. Yet, it hit me, just today, on a break from Mario Golf, while playing as Korean-saber-wielder Yunsung, that I don't care who Yunsung is, or what his mission is. I don't care if he has a dead brother or whatever. I just care about the game. I care about the mechanics. Juggles, and air-controls, and deflections, and parries -- the clicking feel of my Hori joystick beneath my manicured hands. That sort of thing. I skip the cutscenes. I never look at the character profiles.
Soul Blade, for PlayStation, grabbed me, and pulled me in, because it promised a fighting adventure in "The Stage of History!" Each character had his or her own back-story, and his or her own quest in the quest mode. Each character had multiple, 3D, voice-acted endings. The game was compensating for the holes in its play (slow combat, yawn-worthy dial-a-combo fight tactics) with personality, and the trick worked. When Soul Calibur came around, all the quirks were hammered out; now a perfect game where the play was concerned, the sequel to Soul Edge/Blade didn't need its predecessor's personality to be hailed and loved and played.
The sequel to Soul Calibur didn't have its predecessor's predecessor's personality, and that was maybe its problem. It was missing something large. I can't tell you how many times I walked into an arcade in Tokyo, and saw the Soul Calibur II machines standing untouched in favor of everything NeoGeo, Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, or even House of the Dead III. The truth of the matter is, Soul Calibur II needed something. So Namco whipped up the idea of putting console-only characters into it. Xbox owners get demonic comic-hero Spawn; PlayStation2 owners get Tekken's Heihachi; GameCube owners get The Legend of Zelda's Link. Namco then commit an act of crime by putting these characters on each game's respective box.
Years ago, something similar came up. Namco put Final Fantasy VII's hero Cloud Strife on the box art for their mediocre fighting game Ergheiz, which needed the boost. Yet, not even the inclusion of Final Fantasy heroes Cloud and Vincent, and villain Sephiroth, could save the game from mediocrity. I shook my head, thinking: For shame.
Playing Kingdom Hearts, years later, it struck me what needs to be done. It finished striking me today, after playing Mario Golf and then switching over to Soul Calibur II. It's my rule for pasting popular characters over another franchise:
All or nothing, Tex.
Here's what I want. I want Namco to make a game called Final Fantasy Fight. I want it to use the Soul Calibur II engine. I want it to be full of heroes from the Final Fantasy series. I want the Edge Master mode to reward my individualized quest to and from familiar towns with weapons that actually exist in Final Fantasy games. Unsatisfied with the stages in Soul Calibur II (really, what does the windmill have to do with anything? who, if anyone, has any affinity with this . . . Indian temple?) I want my stages to be picturesque 3D renderings of classic Final Fantasy locales: a field within view of noble Baron Castle, the dark streets of steam-engine town Narshe, the broken-down Blitzball arena in the ruins of Zanarkand.
I want remixed, familiar music. I want to be able to select classic, arranged, or super-remixed techno tunes from the options menu.
Maybe I want to be able to make my own arenas, or set my own handicaps and hazards, too?
I want to complete quest mode as Nightmare-clone Cloud, and earn a shining blue Ultima Weapon zweihander from the final boss, a Namco-invented beast known as "The Final Fantasy."
In a fit of cruelty, I jumped into an IRC channel that loves all things Final Fantasy. I spilled a rumor that Namco might be making the game I lay out above. Everyone wanted to buy it. I wonder how many of them have played Soul Calibur?
The rule, then, in this day: don't be like Ergheiz, or Kingdom Hearts, and try to boost your mediocre something-new with familiar characters; rather, combine the beloved familiar characters with something proven to be solid. This gets people's attention. This makes people's money. This boosts the industry's economy.
Adding Final Fantasy to Soul Calibur, is good for the world, even just on paper.
So is adding Mario to Hot Shots Golf.
Let's see how the game does.
[Next: Yes, let's.]