You could argue that the best part of many of the Mario sports titles is that they bring goofy, lighthearted aspects to those pastimes. Games like Super Mario Strikers and Mario Hoops: 3 on 3 all make dramatic changes to the sports they're portraying, capturing the attention of players who might not be interested in the sport alone. That being said, Mario Golf was effectively Mario's first foray into the world of professional sport - aside from Mario's Tennis on Virtual Boy - and is a much more sombre, serious take on the sport than many of his later games. Golf fans may find themselves enjoying the game's take on the sport, but anyone looking for Mario's unique brand of sports fun might not find much to get excited over.
Mario Golf 64 is a straight-faced golfing affair despite playing the game with gorillas, turtles, and dinosaurs. The game offers players a series of varied holes to play through, each filled with trees, bunkers, water hazards, and other problems you'd see in a real-world course. It makes the courses easy to learn as they can really only have a mixture of these hazards (along with hills and valleys), and you'll soon know what to take into account as you play. Still, this being a Mario game, it would have been nice to see some nods to the Mushroom Kingdom in the terrain. The game does have hills with eyes and the occasional bob-omb sitting outside the course, but otherwise the land is all quite normal.
If you want to sink that shot, you'll need to choose the correct club, which the game is a big help with. If you have no idea what each club is for the game breaks them down in terms of distance, often offering you a good club depending on your distance to the hole. It's not always perfect, but luckily it tells you the exact distance to the hole, helping you choose the best club for the situation. It also indicates wind direction and inclines with easy-to-digest visuals, making the decision as smooth as possible when you line up your shot.
Knowing what you're supposed to do is one thing; doing it is another. Each character has a certain curve they put on their ball that you'll need to take into account, creating an added level of strategy when you're going for those long shots. You'll also have to navigate the game's power bar to hit the ball correctly. A bar appears once you take your shot, filling steadily. The further the bar goes, the more power you put into your shot. After you've set your power the bar starts rolling back, and you'll have to hit the button again just as the bar reaches its starting point. Do this right and your shot will go where you want. Miss, even by a little, and it adds a little unpredictable curve to things; you can also attempt a Power shot - one of the rare concessions to wackiness - if you're feeling bold. It takes some time to get used to, but even if you mess up it's not usually too bad. It just adds a little margin for error to keep things interesting.
That being said, the computer doesn't screw up too often. The AI is hard to beat unless you've put in a good few hours, which is a drag as you don't start off with many playable characters and can only earn more by beating the AI in a character-unlocking mode. Expect the same kind of vicious play you'd see in Mario Party or 150cc Mario Kart, where the computer cheats so blatantly that it's hard not to want to smash your GamePad into tiny pieces. It is do-able, but again you'll want to be quite familiar with the game's mechanics before you try to unlock other characters.
Even as you fail, though, you gain experience. Experience is gained by playing any of the game's modes through to completion, although you get far more for winning than losing. Experience translates to new courses, so if you get sick of the main offerings you'll need to play more to unlock new places. It's nice that you can gain something even when you fail, although progress will be very, very slow at first. This does ensure that there are going to be new things to unlock for some time as you play, but it can be a drag that your rewards come at a glacial pace.
It'll take a bit to work through the game's various modes. There is regular tournament play, a mode where you can bet on certain aspects of your game (driving distance, strokes, etc…), the character unlock mode, and mini-golf, depending on what you want to do. They're mainly minor deviations, but they provide enough new requirements that they help the game stay fresh as you work on your skills. If any one mode gets too frustrating, at least there are others to play through.
These things all make for a solid, challenging golf game, but as a Mario sports title it can potentially be underwhelming. The various characters from the Mario universe add nothing to the gameplay, basically adding skins, sound effects and a few visual quirks. Even as far back as Mario Kart, bringing Mario into another sport or genre meant bringing along interesting aspects that made the game feel unique. Items, attacks, abilities and more would make the gameplay feel like more than just driving, playing soccer, or hitting the ball in tennis. The unique, fun quirks that Mario brings to these games is often enough to get people with no interest in those sports to play them, but there is little of that charm or innovation here. It's golf, but with Mario. Well, if you can unlock him, that is.
Mario Golf 64 doesn't look too bad for a game from 1999. The visuals appear to have been cleaned up so that they look nice on a HD TV, with none of the blurriness you'd see from just hooking an N64 up to your flatscreen. It's still from the early polygon era, though, so don't expect too much, but it really doesn't look too bad considering its age. Jaggy Luigis aside, it's pretty nice.
Mario Golf 64 is a strong, challenging golf game for anyone looking to play a few holes although, beyond nostalgia, it seems like a strange choice. There are other, far more serious golf games out there now, and with the Mario characters failing to bring in any interesting gameplay mechanics it leaves the game sitting in limbo. Serious golf fans may be turned off by the silly characters, and Mario fans will be left disappointed that the characters don't add anything to the sport. This makes the game occupy a strange place where it doesn't fully fit with either audience, and while it plays well it may not be enough to endear it to any audience save for those who have fond memories of the original title. It's a good game, but lacking the magic to make it great.