If there's one specific niche of which there is no longer any shortage, it's sports titles featuring Mario. The iconic plumber's unlikely prowess at just about any athletic challenge is now extensively and frequently documented, with the likes of Mario Tennis and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games gracing home consoles on a regular basis. This was not always the case, however – beyond cameo roles as an umpire or a referee, Mario rarely featured in Nintendo's sports games – but NES Open Tournament Golf brought the plumber into the action.
That's not to say NES Open Tournament Golf features any of the zany, hectic tomfoolery one would expect from Mario sports games of recent years – the game features no items and no ridiculous Mushroom Kingdom obstacles, but is instead a reserved, almost generic approximation of the sport with a quick splash of Mario paint. The brothers Mario adorn the title screen along with their caddies, Peach and 'Daisy' (hard not to notice you look identical to Peach there, Daisy), large and detailed sprites that give the game a light-hearted, inviting flair. The game's presentation is undoubtedly its strong suit, each hole interspersed with short cutscenes of Mario retrieving his ball and reacting appropriately to his score. It's unfortunate, then, that this charming and characterful display is incongruent with the somewhat basic gameplay.
This is played from a birds-eye view, with pertinent information such as wind speed and direction displayed along the left of the screen. The landing point of the ball is not shown, but rather the general direction the player will be swinging in – this leaves it to the player to discern an approximate point of landing using both the club's maximum distance and the remaining distance to the hole, which makes for a more realistic portrayal of the sport if not a more entertaining one. After selecting direction, a choice can be made between a slow, medium, or fast swing, modifying the maximum distance of the shot but also altering the difficulty of timing, a novel idea that adds some level of ingenuity to the game.
After applying topspin or backspin a timing meter is displayed, tasking the player with maximising their shot by hitting the ball as close to two points on the gauge as possible. Putting mode is similarly simple, with arrows displaying the lay of the green to facilitate carefully calculated shots. That's not to say a new player won't constantly overshoot their early putts due to a lack of distance context – they will – but there is a knack to putting successfully, an acquired skill based on experience and knowledge of the game's mechanics; that comes with practice.
The game features a standard Stroke Play mode as well as Tournament functionality – here Mario competes for prize money, with the hilarious visual of Donkey Kong serving as his accountant, shirt and all – but it's essentially the same experience regardless. NES Open Tournament Golf does feature the ability to save the game, useful although made somewhat redundant by the Virtual Console's Restore Point functionality, a feature which is easily abused to allow the player to strive for the perfect shot. It's tempting, but removes a lot of the entertainment factor, and NES Open Tournament Golf doesn't have an abundance to begin with.
The chirpy soundtrack begins to grate fairly quickly, at least in part due to the music pausing every time a shot is made, an irritating intermittent jingle that serves to annoy more than entertain. Beyond the previously mentioned cutscenes, there's very little to see in NES Open Tournament Golf – there's only so much you can do with an 8-bit golf sim, admittedly – and as such the Mario license fails to carry it beyond anything other than its base functionality.
That's the key word when describing NES Open Golf – 'functional'; the game's mechanics work and the title is a fair representation of the game of golf, but has few frills or gimmicks to ever ascend its trappings of a generic sports sim. While the likes of Camelot have since crafted fantastic games such as Mario Golf Advance Tour (a title that will hopefully find its way to the Wii U Virtual Console service shortly), it's hard to get excited for this one. Ardent golf aficionados will find a reason to enjoy NES Open Tournament Golf, but those with a passing interest in the sport won't necessarily find themselves any more enthused after playing this one. If you don't own a set of novelty club covers, this one probably isn't for you.