Review: Mario Golf: World Tour (3DS)

Hard to putt down

For a slightly out of shape plumber that very rarely seems to do any actual plumbing, Mario sure enjoys plenty of different sports. It remains an integral part of Nintendo's delightfully quirky games catalogue for its mascot and the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom to meet up for various extra-curricular activities, and golf is a slightly surprising favourite. With gameplay depth and fun to be found in its predecessors, Camelot's Mario Golf: World Tour arrives on 3DS under pressure to live up to high standards and provide a more substantial offering than the reasonable but rather lightweight Mario Tennis Open, the developer's previous effort on the handheld.

If Mario Tennis Open was solid but underwhelming in content, it's pleasing to report right away that this Golf entry avoids a similar pitfall. Especially in light of its DLC offerings raising suspicions, an initial point we want to emphasize is that the offline, single player modes alone have taken us beyond 15 hours of engaging, progressive play that never felt remotely like a grind. While we'll go into detail on what this sense of progression entails in its different modes, it's worth clarifying that there's an impressive volume of content on offer right off the tee.

When first firing up this title the opening screen points you towards either 'Quick Round' Mario Golf or the 'Play as a Mii' Castle Club. It's the latter that forms the core of the experience, early on, as it feels like the natural stepping off point as a career-focused option. Though you select a Mii for this campaign and it can be changed at any time, there is only one actual save profile per copy; even if you change your character mid-way you'll have the same statistics and progress as before, so that's a consideration for those considering sharing one copy.

Stepping into the Castle Club is endearing for the very simple reason that it is a living, breathing space. There are Toad characters behind desks that will jump and call for your attention and serve as an ongoing tutorial mechanic, but various other characters are simply walking around and having conversations. There are a number of rooms such as a cafe, gym and changing rooms that are meaningless in terms of functionality, but it's their very inclusion that points towards the level of detail committed to this title. Chatting to a Koopa Troopa in the cafe or getting some tournament tips from Birdo in the changing room are fun extras that add personality to the Club area.

Ultimately you'll be directed to an outside area, and you toddle with your Mii to the simplest course in order to, first of all, set a handicap. A forced practice round is a clever way to catch those trying to rush ahead, and it sets in motion the sense of progression that this area attempts to promote. Performance will set a handicap, and from that point onwards your task is to first win a handicap tournament and perform well enough so that it's not required, at which stage you're allowed to progress to a full championship tournament.

There are three full Castle Club courses at 18 holes each, and our initial instinct was to wonder whether that was rather over-committal for a handheld title. Such is the flow of play, however, that a full round can quite easily be completed in 30-45 minutes, though less experienced players may fall into longer sessions. For those that are confident gamers, however, it's impressive to see how Camelot has balanced its mechanics so that, while you're playing a full round of golf with a typical number of strokes, it can feel like a relatively high tempo experience. The balancing in controls is also clever, as it can be both incredibly simple or, should you choose, a thorough detailed and precise move-set.

Early on we suspect the majority of keen players will opt for the Manual mode, yet the Auto option isn't to be discounted for younger gamers or just those that need practice. Changeable at any point on the touch screen, a switch to Auto still requires the player to select their line and club, but the actual stroke involves just two button presses — or taps on the touch screen — to initiate the swing and then determine shot power. With Auto mode engaged there are still enough considerations to make the game a challenge, but much of the complexity is helpfully stripped away, albeit some of the lost control will make more complex holes and courses that much more difficult.

It's in Manual mode where the title truly comes into its own, however, and will be vital for those keen to conquer the toughest courses, challenges and tournaments. In the basic swing there is an additional button press for accuracy once power has been set, the familiar three-press power bar. Like in Mario Tennis Open, however, you can also apply four variations of topspin and backspin to the shot, allowing for an impressive sense of control and strategy when determining club choice. It's when doing this that the various other options available through button presses or touch screen tabs come to the fore — you have control not only over club choice, but a limited number of power shots and various camera angles. Within just a few hours you may be rapidly cycling through camera angles, gauging the hole's challenges, adjusting for wind, assessing the lie of the green before an approach shot and more. While your Mii hits straight by default, too, you can also hold the Circle Pad in one of four directions during a shot to determine where you strike the ball, giving you control over deliberate fade and draw angles — curving the ball, in other words — and the ability to give the ball more or less height in its trajectory.

It may sound like a complicated process, and there are still occasional moments when we'll apply super topspin when we intended the exact opposite, but that's a consequence of our own sloppiness. It's a system that becomes instinctive, and it also means that when a shot goes wrong only the player is to blame — on the flipside the ability to handle even the toughest course or scenario is at your fingertips, and when you do pull off a daring shot with perfectly judged backspin, for example, there's a genuine sense of delight. With Auto and Manual, in that respect, Camelot has absolutely nailed its primary mechanics to suit any audience — a notable accomplishment.

We would suggest, in order to get the most from the game, that only beginners should even consider the Auto option. Returning to the Castle Club, the early stages may be typified with some failures or runner-up slots, but learning the intricacies of the controls is worth the time it takes. In our experience, in actual fact, the early going wasn't too challenging. The Forest Course is a largely flat, calm course to help you settle in, and the requirement to complete at least three rounds to win the first Championship means that it's the perfect warm up.

Winning your first Championship is just the beginning, as you're then given the quest of completing a hat-trick by also conquering the tournaments on Seaside Course and Mountain Course. There's a natural difficulty progression, and while some may conquer the Seaside Course quickly, the final official challenge is tricky not just because of the windy conditions and hole design, but because of the standards you'll need to reach to top the leaderboard. The Mushroom Kingdom crowd have a mix of abilities, as the leaderboard shows, but at the top end you'll need to produce a strong under par round to be in the running. When you do win the third tournament, however, you may be surprised to see end credits roll; what we thought was going to be an epic career-based undertaking was anything but, as we'd wrapped it up in around six to eight hours.

Thankfully, even completing the hat-trick only really boosts your ego and gives your trophy room some nice decoration. There's much still to explore. The Castle Club includes challenges related to long shots, approaches and putting that help boost skills, while the Sky Island course is a one shot, one putt challenge in which nine consecutive holes must be cleared without any error; despite many attempts we're yet to conquer this. There are also special challenges for unlocked 'Mario World' courses to unlock costumes, which seem to be refreshed every 24-48 hours to add something new to tackle on a regular basis.

Those costumes are just a part of the ongoing Mii customisation that's part of this game. The idea will be very familiar to those that played Mario Tennis Open, as completing courses and challenges will unlock new items of clothing and equipment that you buy with in-game coins, which themselves are rewarded for pretty much everything you do. The economy seems nicely balanced, while shopping for items is simple and clear — while some items do little more than improve your golfer's fashion, some will increase shot distance or adjust your Sweet Spot and Control gauges. It's this that gives you the greatest control over how you want to play, as you can either shoot for terrific accuracy but limited distance, be a power player with less control, or strive for something in between. It can be a minor nuisance trotting to the shop to check out new equipment on a regular basis, but it's downright compulsive — finding an item that gives you the balance you've long sought is undoubtedly satisfying. There's a dizzying array of items that we've still not unlocked, while the previously-announced Callaway partnership will no doubt add dynamics of its own.

That level of customisation may lead some, as it did with us, to focus on using their Mii for most play, even in the alternative "Quick Round" mode. The roster of characters does, however, provide scope for some experimentation, and many of the single player offline options can be customised for short bursts, which nevertheless still reward the player with coins and equipment. Characters vary from all-round straight shooters like Mario, to hulking characters like Donkey Kong and Bowser that play with natural fade and have more power at their disposal.

There are four basic modes in single player — Stroke Play, Match Play, Speed Golf and Point Play. All can be customised in terms of choosing from unlocked courses and tackling 3, 6, 9 or 18 holes, while there are other variables such as determining the wind, whether coins will be located around holes and so on. It's also in these modes where items can become more relevant, which serve as limited use special shots either assigned to you or picked up around the course. While fun, few of these are actually useful in any way. The fire flower shot is perfect as it allows the ball to blaze through trees, the ice flower allows the ball to bounce on water, and chasing coins or targets is handy with the Bob-omb, which propels the ball high into the air at its end point. When actually trying to put together a great score, however, they can be tricky to use effectively and, in practice, we ignored them much of the time.

Those four modes are not the most important part of the Quick Play area, however, as that status belongs to the Challenges. These are short-burst tasks on unlocked courses, of which there are ten available on each. The challenges vary from shooting through all hoops on a hole while still making par, to doing likewise while collecting coins, timed rounds in which you beat three holes in three minutes and more. Our favoured options were those that required completing nine holes with a certain score or direct matches against other characters; if you win the latter you also unlock the Star version of that character for your own play, which has stronger abilities. This area is where you set about unlocking six extra 9-hole Mario World Courses, which have had much of the marketing focus for Nintendo due to their colourful designs; each has a target number of Challenge Star Coins that are required, so we devoted a good few hours to accumulate the necessary currency, with an average of four or so Star Coins from each course needed to unlock the full quota.

Outside of that single player there is a versus mode that allows two players, each with a copy, to take each other on in real time. The real treats are the extensive online options, and it's here that the title truly delivers on its potential with a mix of real time contests and scheduled tournaments. In the former category you can set up matches with friends — up to four players — that are in real time, while Community Matches allow you to setup these customisable contests with others in a similar manner to Mario Kart 7, perfect in this age of socialising online and an ideal way to avoid trading friend codes.

Tournaments are where this title truly excels, meanwhile, and the Mario Golf and Castle Club areas each take their own approach. Mario Golf has fixed tournaments based primarily around the aforementioned 'Mario World' 9-hole courses, and in the examples we played included a simple round shooting for a low score, right down to challenge-based contest of using items or collecting coins. In Castle Club the sample tournaments we played focused on the three 18-hole courses and even the challenging Sky Island course. Split into regional and worldwide lists, the latter featured one tournament on the Mountain Course shooting for the lowest possible score. The regional area, however, had multiple contests including some that were focused on specific challenges such as approach play and driving.

This online play, ultimately, does not fail to impress, and takes the content and replay value to another level. When competing you can see "ghost" golf balls with other Mii heads flying around the course, which constantly gives a sense of how others are progressing. Being in the winning group can bring a lot of in-game coins, but simply completing a challenge will reward you with equipment, so on top of the fact that it's terrific fun there is real incentive to take part. With the fixed tournaments you can enter as many times as you like, entering one score for each, and you can even setup your own tournaments — open to the public or locked down with a code — setting conditions on course, challenge type, items, and how long they'll run. We enjoyed our own private battles in team Nintendo Life in tournaments named "NL no score" and "deathfightbattle", for example, and there was a good list of others we could join; there are even quirky winner's ceremonies to watch when tournaments close,

In every respect, this suite of online features is one of the most rounded and substantial that Nintendo has delivered, so Camelot deserves huge credit. Should the scheduling maintain its volume of challenges for months to come, it'll make this title a regular treat for those that jump in.

That will involve playing a lot of the fixed courses, of course, so it's just as well that they're of a high quality; the core Castle Club courses are particularly well done. Of the Mario World courses, meanwhile, there are some particular design highs. They predictably increase in difficulty, and the final two have given us the most enjoyment. Each is full of character and design quirks, such as boost strips in Peach Gardens, bounce pads in the rather yarn-like Yoshi Lake, pesky wind blowing totems in DK Jungle and enormous bombs in Bowser's Castle. Some courses look good but flatter to deceive, however, such as Cheep Cheep Lagoon; while underwater, the only noticeable difference is slower ball flight and greater power needed in putts, but it does little to innovate the play.

That is one aspect that we feel is missing from Mario Golf: World Tour — true innovation and eye-catching, crazy design. On paper it's there, with underwater courses and a variety of items, yet the items feel like a fun diversion worthy of an experiment or two but little more, and the courses are still, despite some fun ideas, normal courses. The potential for concepts such as anti-gravity elements, circular 3D courses and puzzle holes are obvious, but these simply aren't part of the package. Aspects of this are there in the challenges, yes, as you have to manipulate specific items to reach certain coins or rings, but this could have gone further. With this in mind there may be a sense — after some time — of yearning for a twist or two to push the formula further, though for our part no damaging sense of repetition has been experienced.

What that shouldn't do, however, is detract from what is there. We've referred to the terrific mechanics and flow of play that Camelot has achieved, which with the unlockable courses and items drives the player onwards. The courses are nicely designed, after all, and the impressive balancing means that playing the same holes many times in pursuit of different goals doesn't become monotonous; we were constantly driven by a desire to improve and further master the courses. After the 15-16 hour point we'd exhausted much of the single player content, not counting DLC, but the online tournaments and features do then take the title to another level. For those keen to master the game and be the best, or simply to collect a lot of rad equipment, the online component is exceptional.

Conclusion

Mario Golf: World Tour delivers, most notably right out of the box, a lengthy and involving experience. There is impressive depth not just in the level of content and diversity of options, but in the golf mechanics themselves; the catered options for beginners and stronger players are impeccably implemented. A minor quibble is that attempts at zaniness with items feel rather superfluous, while well-designed courses would have benefited from some less conventional designs. Aside from that, however, this is a truly excellent addition to the 3DS library, and offers a fresh experience from its contemporaries. Whether you want to settle in for a 15 minute blast around some challenges, or a longer spell carefully constructing a new record score, this satisfies either desire. On top of that, it has possibly the most impressive online setup we've seen to date in a first-party Nintendo game.

There's little doubt that this is a long-tail game for 3DS owners. The core content and Mii customisation delivers the fundamentals, and then those with a love of the Links can keep going through pre-arranged online tournaments or simply by arranging their own. The round ends when you want it to, and that helps to make this a must have for the 3DS.