Zen Studios is undoubtedly best known for its pinball games and 'platforms', honing online systems and gameplay over the years. It's a company with an eye for stylish representations of some of the most simple but addictive pastimes, and its latest effort is Infinite Minigolf. Thankfully the name isn't suggesting questionable randomised courses, but relates to the core hook of the experience - user created stages. Beyond that, it aims to provide a fun and quirky minigolf experience.
Most have played minigolf at some point in their lives, but for those that have not it's very simple; take out all of the complexity in golf shot-making, as all you do is putt. The key is in the courses, which even in real life are typically full of twists, turns and moving obstacles. It's as simple as it sounds, though of course bringing that into video games opens up the possibilities for bizarre happenings, which Zen Studios heartily embraces.
Infinite Minigolf gradually introduces various items, hazards and quirks through its fixed tournaments; you'll see drones pick up the ball, a reindeer kick it and more besides. There are three environments - Giant Home, Nightmare Mansion and Santa's Factory - and each has four tournaments of nine holes each. Beyond that you also gradually unlock higher difficulties for these events, which use the same broad course designs but add more challenges to dodge.
It's a decent amount of fixed content to work through, and it's designed to slowly introduce you to the various mechanics at play. You come across a variety of power-ups - such as a Rocket or Spring - and learn how they work, while also figuring out how the course layouts need to be navigated. Charming characters sometimes interact with the course, too, often directing your ball in a helpful way. Playing solo or with a buddy, these Zen Studios-designed courses do the job nicely and are certainly entertaining, albeit the difficulty balancing felt slightly off on one or two occasions in our playthrough.
It's worth working through these tournaments for a few reasons. Firstly for mastering the controls - in this case you set the power and release your shot by pulling back on the right stick. Though you can play around with sensitivity settings it's not quite as easy as it sounds. The power gauge can be particularly sensitive (regardless of settings), so you need to take care to get the shot you want. While more experienced gamers will be fine with this, we played with a gamer that likes the genre but doesn't play a huge number of games; they found it difficult to get the power they wanted on shots.
As we say, relatively experienced players will work on subtle adjustments with the right stick, but there's no nod to accessibility with an alternative control scheme (such as timed button presses). In addition we found it easier on the Pro Controller, as those analogue sticks are larger and have more 'travel' - the Joy-Con sticks are a little more awkward when trying to find that perfect spot for a weaker shot. It's worth emphasizing that the controls do work, and with patience to master them you can pull off any shot you want, but they are fiddly initially and could be frustrating for young or inexperienced players.
Secondly, playing through the fixed Tournaments helps you level up your avatar quickly, in the process unlocking new customisations and goodies to change their look. You're often rewarded with 'cards' that actually serve as a currency (of sorts), while you also try to earn coins through in-game missions / challenges that you can spend on packs of cards. It's slightly convoluted in practice, but if you focus on the basics you can still give your avatar some geeky specs and multi-coloured clothes without too much effort.
Beyond the fixed courses you can jump into Quick Play or browse through thousands of user created courses, which includes content from across multiple platforms; at the time of publication the game boasts of 8500+ courses. You can either pick an environment and have the game drop you in randomly, or search for yourself with some filters to help you choose the kind of course you want. You can also see what rating (if any) others have given courses - these take the forms of various emojis to give a sense of whether a course is fun, clever, or obnoxious. Once you clear a course you can give your own feedback, and your score (based on number of shots, how stylishly you cleared it etc) goes onto an online leaderboard. Hitting a specific score target gives you more rewards, too.
As with any game that opens up level creation to players the quality varies wildly. We've played some pretty good courses, but others are either very basic or downright inscrutable. That's the nature of the beast, but it does mean that there's plenty of content to explore either way.
Creating your own course is also a big option, of course, though you'll need to commit the time to figuring it out. The impressive dynamism of the stages in the game means, of course, that the tools to create new courses are varied and relatively complex. You need to figure out track types, then place items, and thankfully everyone has to clear their own course to verify it to be uploaded online. The Editor can look overwhelming at first, but it does at least provide the tools to make genuinely interesting courses. The challenge is getting past the "how the heck does this even work?" stage, as there's little to no useful instruction given.
In fact, that brings us to the game's main drawback, such as it is - the user interface (UI) is average at best. We often don't directly notice the UI in a game because it's intuitive, either through its design or helpful prompts. Infinite Minigolf seems to revel in making its UI rather fiddly and at times confusing, especially if you haven't been playing Zen's pinball games for years. Icons and button prompts don't always make clear what they do, and it took a few failed attempts for us to clock how special items worked, for example. The game doesn't do a great job of communicating features or controls, opting instead to drop you in the deep end. To be fair it can all be figured out after a bit of experimentation, but the needless convolution of menus, the achievements system and so on is a bit of a pity.
Once you've figured it out, though, there is a fun experience on offer. Multiplayer is naturally accommodated with local and online options, and you can customise rules and even setup private online matches that use a pretty decent Invite system. When playing locally you can use two pads or, if you're short, pass one back and forth (you need two analogue sticks to play). Some of the attention to detail that clutters the UI pays off in terms of a solid feature-set.
Presentation is a high point too, and this is an area in which Zen Studios has often fared well. The different 'lands' all look charming, and the graphical quality is rather impressive whether playing on the TV or on the portable. All told it's a colourful and good looking game, with chunky and appealing character and stage design. The music and sound effects can be rather forgettable, but they're certainly not bad.
Infinite Minigolf is another solid arrival on the Switch eShop, and most importantly adds to the steadily growing variety of genres and themes on the store. It does a very nice job of delivering over-the-top, entertaining minigolf, with plenty of official and user-created content to keep players busy. The downsides are slightly baffling systems and a crowded user interface, and the fact that some less experienced gamers may find the required precision for shots a little too demanding. Overall, however, this one is definitely under par - in a good way.