The testament of a great game: Even if you don’t care about the subject matter or genre, a player can still appreciate its quality and refinement. So it goes with Golf, a game that revolves around the topic of its very literal title and does so with far more style and panache that its generic name would suggest.
Like Baseball and Tennis, Game Boy Golf appears to be an adaptation of the NES title by the same name. But it’s miles better than the NES original, while at the same time building on its foundation. That’s no minor factor here, given that Nintendo’s NES Golf basically established the template for modern golf games. The stroke/power meter it introduced remain a key element of the genre to this date. That’s 30 years of history it created right there… and as with so many pioneering works, everything that surrounded that innovative idea was fairly mundane.
Golf, on the other hand, renders the concepts laid down on NES with greater detail, smoother play, a better visual layout. It’s a pleasure to play… and this from someone who doesn’t know or like Golf, and barely comprehends the sport.
Don’t expect Golf to hold your hand if you don’t know the nuances of the real-world sport. You’re given a standard array of clubs and sent out onto one of two courses (USA or Japan) without so much as a how-do-you-do. The clubs you can select from run the standard gamut of wedges, irons, woods, and putters, but unless you understand the proper use of all those different devices you’ll need to do some due diligence to get properly up to speed.
I suspect that’s the developers’ biases (or interests) showing. Unlike most sports games, Golf stands a pretty good chance of being enjoyed in real life by its designers. Whereas game programmers probably don’t indulge in a lot of professional soccer or hockey, golf is the great equalizer. Anyone can learn to hit the ball properly and read the wind, provided they make the effort… and Japan does love golf. Baseball game designers generally get into that line of work because they like watching baseball, but golf designers actually stand a good chance of playing the sport themselves.
That makes for a higher barrier to entry in this pre-tutorial-era portable title full of abbreviations and truncated text, but it also makes for a richer, more satisfying adaptation of the sport. It’s remarkably detailed for an early Game Boy release, forcing players to contend with a number of variables. Besides the fancy club selection, you also have to worry about the direction of the wind, the layout of the course — sand traps, water hazards, rough grass, trees rising into the y-axis — and even the three-dimensional pitch and friction of the green.
As if that weren’t enough of a case for Golf’s quality, consider the fact that it’s the first Game Boy title to include battery back-up. Players can save their progress at practically any point and resume later without needing to worry about toting around a notebook full of passwords. We’re still in the ’80s, here, and battery back-ups were generally a sign of a particularly intricate game into which its developer had invested a fair amount of effort and confidence. Golf was no mere fly-by-night take on the sport; it was meant to be an engrossing, involved rendition.
Like many Game Boy titles, Golf lacks proper credits, either in-game or out. Intelligent Systems claims credit for Golf on its website, making this another Intelligent Systems/Nintendo R&D1 joint venture, but aside from the music credit to “Hip” Tanaka there are no other staff credits available for Golf. On possibility for lead designer is Kenji Miki of Nintendo R&D2, who developed both NES Golf and NES Open Tournament Golf in 1991. On one hand, Miki has only ever been directly affiliated with Nintendo R&D2 and EAD; on the other, he has been listed as a manager or producer on several Nintendo golf projects since NES Open Tournament Golf, and he’s overseen several Intelligent Systems projects such as Paper Mario.
While we may never know the full details of Golf’s origins, the game does feel like a perfect midpoint between NES Golf and NES Open Tournament Golf. It’s detailed enough to appeal to dedicated duffers while being simple enough that a links novice can pick it up in a few rounds.
Of all the Game Boy sports titles we’ve seen to date, Golf is the first that remains entertaining decades later. It’s a bit primitive compared to modern golf titles and lacks the RPG elements of Nintendo’s more recent takes on the sport, but it’s not that much more limited. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.
Japanese title: Golf • ゴルフ
Developer: Nintendo R&D1/Intelligent Systems
Release date: 11.28.1989 [JP] | 2.1990 [US] | 1990 [EU]
Genre: Sports (golf)
Super Game Boy: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Previous in series: Golf [NES, 1984]
Next in series: NES Open Tournament Golf [NES, 1991]
Similar titles: Ultra Gold [Konami, 1991], Sports Illustrated: Golf Classic [Unexpected Development/Malibu, 1993]