Back in 2017, the Switch library was still in its infancy and this relative lack of competition led to indie projects like Blossom Tales and Blaster Master Zero having far more visibility than they perhaps would in the current, more crowded marketplace. Another big early winner on the eShop was Golf Story, a goofy and quirky take on a golfing RPG that brought to mind Game Boy Color's excellent Mario Golf and proved to be surprisingly appealing to a wide audience. To capitalize on this newfound success, Sidebar Games soon announced a sequel, Sports Story, which would be expanding the gameplay to other sports like BMX biking, soccer (no, it’s not called football), and tennis. After over five years, this hotly anticipated sequel has finally arrived, shadow-dropped two days before Christmas, and… well, it’s alright. Sports Story isn’t a bad game by any means, but it is a supremely disappointing one considering what it could have been.
Sports Story follows your character from Golf Story going on a scenic trip with their coach and friends to an island that evidently has a lot of budget for sporting activities. Though you come there to play golf, it’s not long before you start getting swept up into academies and competitions in a whole host of other sports.
The plot barely makes sense, but then that’s kind of the point. The dry and silly writing that catapulted Golf Story to popularity is on full display here, and though some cutscenes can feel a little long in the tooth, we generally found ourselves enjoying the banter. Whether you’re helping a band of axe enthusiasts find a fabled woodchip somewhere on a golf course or getting shanghaied as a grown man into attending a children’s tennis boarding school, there’s always something interesting driving events forward.
As we mentioned, Sports Story has gone far beyond golf to incorporate a whole host of other sports. Though it feels like this is still a golf game first, the diversity of ideas on offer certainly helps to create a much more varied gameplay loop. BMX, for example, plays quite a bit like Nintendo’s classic Excitebike, while tennis trades the more measured and calculating pace of golf for something fast-paced and tactical. You’re sure to find something in the mix here that clicks with you well, and for the sports that don’t, you can rest assured that you won’t have to put up with them for too long before the focus changes to something else.
The underside of this, however, is that it can sometimes feel like the gameplay loop is overcrowded. Early on, for example, you play a brief (and rather confusing) introduction to volleyball, but you’re then whisked away and don’t get the chance to play it again for several hours. And while tennis feels like the most in-depth of the newly added sports, others like soccer feel shallower and more superficial. In many ways, we wish that Sidebar Games had cut down to just one or two new sports and focused on making those as enjoyable as the golf in the original game. The ambition is certainly admirable, but it feels rather wasted when there are many gameplay concepts that are nowhere close to being properly explored.
Another unfortunate trend we noted in the game design is a heightened focus on fetch quests and other tedious, miscellaneous tasks that are only somewhat related to sports. Sure, one of the biggest selling points of Golf Story was how off the wall it could get at times with alternative objectives, but Sports Story feels like it takes things too far in this direction. Most people probably don’t pick up a game like this hoping they’ll spend swaths of time running to and fro to fulfill basic, needless errands for NPCs, yet Sports Story revels in forcing the player to do just that. Busywork can be cute in moderation—and to the game’s credit, it does feel like it becomes slightly more focused on sports after things open up a bit—but Sports Story would have benefited from some overall streamlining and slimming down of its laborious quests.
Related to the annoyance of completing quests is a general lack of direction. You’ll often be given a vague objective and not be told where to go, how to do it, or if it’s even something you can do at this point in your progress. Sometimes there’s another subquest or objective you first have to complete before you can even start the quest you just got. Sometimes there’s simply an obscure NPC or poorly marked area bottlenecking your progress. Eventually, you can figure it out through blind trial and error, but we felt a lot of time was wasted trying to work out what to do next rather than simply playing the game. RPG staples like quest markers, more helpful NPCs, or a journal that gives you more details on objectives are desperately needed here. Failing that, even a simple map would be nice. Make no mistake, Sports Story is certainly enjoyable once it gets in its groove, but we found that there are often lengthy deserts of tedious backtracking and confusion interspersed between the enjoyable gameplay bits.
As for presentation, Sports Story borrows the same 16-bit art style from its predecessor, but notably adds some nice detail to flesh things out more. Whether you’re exploring dank caves, autumn-tinged forests, or rainy marshes, the retro aesthetic feels well-executed without being overly gimmicky; this is one area where it feels like Sidebar Games absolutely built upon the strong foundation laid out by the initial release.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is a little less impressive, but it still does an excellent job of setting a quirky and somewhat laid-back vibe through its usage of 80’s inspired synths and overall EarthBound-esque tone. There aren’t many tracks here that stood out to us, but the audio overall felt like an effective match for the visuals and gameplay.
Unfortunately, Sports Story suffers quite a bit in the performance department. Frame rate drops, visual bugs, softlocks, and occasional crashes are par for the course here. For example, we encountered numerous instances where a frame rate hitch would pop up when we were trying to time a golf shot, completely throwing off the shot and sending the ball into the bunker. In another case, pressing the ‘Y’ button—which normally causes your character to line up for a shot—suddenly didn’t do anything at all. For some reason, pressing ‘A’ afterward did cause them to line up for shot, which meant that we couldn’t interact with anything or talk to anyone anymore until we reset the game. Another time, we needed to step onto an outlined portion of the ground to start a minigame, except the outline never appeared and we found ourselves trapped in the room.
Sidebar Games has indicated that an upcoming patch will sort out some issues, but the truth is that the studio certainly has its work cut out. The experience here—while playable—feels distinctly subpar and sloppy, we’d advise waiting for a patch or two before picking this one up.
Compared to the unexpected highlight that was Golf Story, Sports Story is damningly mediocre. Although the writing is as good as ever and the visuals have received a nice upgrade, the performance issues, tedious fetch quests, and occasionally confusing gameplay all hold this one back quite a bit. Despite its shortcomings, there’s certainly still an enjoyable game on offer here, but you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the negatives, especially given that the Switch eShop is lousy with great games these days. If you loved the original, you'll likely find Sports Story to be a fun-enough follow-up, but there’s no denying that it feels like quite a letdown after years of waiting. Assuming Sidebar can sort out the worst of the technical issues, we’d give Sports Story a light recommendation to anyone looking for a quirky take on a sports RPG, but this one doesn’t deserve a spot at the top of your list.