Released in 1999 to dovetail with the N64 game of the same name, the Game Boy Color version of Mario Golf is more than just a scaled-back, portable edition. In fact, it stands well enough on its own merits, and it's almost unfortunate that it shares a name with its console counterpart; it really does have an identity all its own.
Of course, we already have two Nintendo-developed golf games on the 3DS Virtual Console: there's the very good NES Open Tournament Golf, and the easily overlooked Game Boy game Golf. It's fair to say that no gamer needs all three of these, but it's always nice to have another option...particularly when that other option is as good as Mario Golf.
It's worth reading our review of NES Open Tournament Golf, because Mario Golf controls pretty much identically. Lining up your shots, swinging, putting...it all feels quite similar. What really feels unique is the presentation.
While NES Open Tournament Golf looked and sounded just fine for what it was, Mario Golf is just gorgeous. The art is colourful and fun, and a Mushroom Kingdom flair is brought far more to the fore. From small celebratory graphics to an adorable Shy Guy blowing across the course in high winds, Mario Golf makes a lot of its references to other games, without ever overshadowing the sturdy and basic sporting experience at its core.
In fact, if you choose to play as Mario or Luigi, you'll find the experience to pretty much be a prettier version of that NES game: you'll only be able to play through a course, or practice individual holes. Create your own character, though, and you'll find a whole world of new material, with a charming RPG-style approach.
It's this mode that really gives Mario Golf its identity. You'll be able to interact with NPCs, practice with them, challenge them, learn from them, get advice from them, play mini-games with them, and eventually establish yourself as their golf-club wielding savior. The story, as it is, sees you putting a no-name clubhouse on the map by gradually defeating the champs at rival golf courses. It's not a strictly necessary addition to an otherwise straightforward game of golf, but it's winningly fun and a welcome feature.
It also means that Mario Golf provides an easier learning curve than NES Open Tournament Golf. Here you can work with NPCs to develop your skills, and essentially engage in scattered, one-on-one tutorials. It's a nice touch, and margin for error when swinging has also been increased, meaning it's easier to keep your shots on course. Additionally, by playing games you will increase your experience points, and be able to upgrade your skills. Golf purists will want to play as Mario or Luigi to get away from all this dazzle, but everybody else will likely find a lot to enjoy here.
Unfortunately the game still does feel a bit limited. While that's not a complaint, it is worth mentioning that for as much as the RPG elements seem to add, it's really just unnecessary map walking instead of selecting options from a menu. It's certainly a unique feeling to be exploring a lovely, colourful world in a retro golf game, but at the same time the characters you'll meet aren't particularly interesting or funny, making them feel more like hint devices or mini-game triggers than individuals. A bit more in the way of an evolving storyline, or characters whose goals and advice evolved as the game progressed, or even something as simple as a shop to visit, would have made this a stronger experience. It would also have been nice to play Tournaments and Match Games as Mario or Luigi, just to add a bit more variety to their experiences, but that's hardly a major issue.
The biggest problem is that the game's two-player mode has been disabled. While this isn't exactly a new complaint when it comes to the 3DS Virtual Console, it's worth mentioning that the two-player mode in NES Open Tournament Golf is intact...so for gamers who wish to challenge their friends, that's likely to make their decision for them. It's also not surprising that the game's character transfer feature between this and the Nintendo 64 version is missing as well, but it's worth pointing out.
Regardless, though, this is classic Nintendo golfing action, and it manages to provide a unique approach to the game without losing sight of the core experience. How much the new features (or missing two-player mode) matter is a question of personal preference, but either way Mario Golf is a welcome addition to the eShop library.
The GBC version of Mario Golf is a lovely, fun little game to have on the go. It's all down to personal preference whether this is a step forward or a step back from NES Open Tournament Golf, but there's little to complain about here. The RPG elements are wisely optional, which means that they're here for anyone who might enjoy them, and can be totally absent from the experience for those who find it a distraction. Mario Golf provides a solid golfing experience with a stellar presentation, and should be worth a download for fans who don't already have an alternative on their 3DS.