It seems slightly odd that, nearly two-and-a-half years after it made an appearance in the big reveal of Wii U at E3 2011, we now finally get to play Wii Sports Club: Golf. Perhaps unlike its contemporaries to date — Bowling and Tennis — this is the first of the new download-only series that feels like an entirely new experience, rather than a slightly better-controlled tweak of the pack-in phenomenon on Wii.
Golf in the original Wii Sports was, in the context of the sport being represented, a rough and tumble affair. You could get into the spirit of it and swing the Remote like an actual club, sure, but it was almost as easy to slouch in a chair and waggle your arm for the same effect. The technology was primitive, as were the visuals and mechanics, but it was immediately accessible and fun which, ultimately, was all that mattered.
Wii Sports Club: Golf, on the other hand, is the polar opposite in almost every way. It's accessible in the sense that anyone can pick up a Remote and copy what the players do on TV, and it has basic visuals by modern standards; yet the technology is not as primitive, and this new entry demands more of each player. It's possible, in theory, to dupe this one with waggle while lounging on the couch, but the likelihood is that your shots will ping off into the rough or out of bounds. No, this needs to actually be played like something resembling real golf.
And it's impressive from that perspective. Not only does this version employ the Wii Remote Plus accuracy like the golf in Wii Sports Resort, but utilises the GamePad impressively, in what is possibly its stand-out application to date. The controller is placed on the floor and represents a virtual look onto the course, with your ball resting in the middle. You set your stance and, when ready, use B to centre your remote — at this stage a virtual golf club appears on the GamePad screen and it not only gauges power, but gives you a greater real-time visual indicator of the angle of the club head and, impressively, where you struck the ball. The effect is the game laying down the challenge to hone your technique, keep a straight wrist and play golf properly. In this reviewer's case that exposed some shoddy technique early on, but the literal interpretation of keeping your eye on the ball and then following it once hit — in this case focusing on the GamePad and naturally swinging into viewing the outcome on the TV — never got old.
In the case of everyone who played this for the purpose of this review, the outcome was the same — an initial round was typified by a struggling performance, before a second round showed the player naturally learning and adjusting their technique. This is impressive work from Nintendo, showing how its Remote Plus technology, aligned with the GamePad, can further enhance the experience. This feels like a more legitimate, accurate representation of golf than its Resort predecessor, so achieving a top score is a satisfying moment.
That accuracy is a strength and a weakness. The issue, perceivably, is that it'll make this all-but-impossible for some that are either not familiar and skilled with the technology, have no idea how to swing a golf club, or both. We did see — as mentioned earlier — one example online of a player tricking the title with short swings of the wrist (as evidenced by his Mii's motions) yet that seems very tough to do accurately. Yes, players can learn as they go and improve, but such is the nature of golf that this demands patience and persistence, and you may have been on the course for an hour or two before you start to master the intricacies of play. This is an issue in context, as Wii Sports is a brand representative of simple fun, whereas this is challenging, relatively complex fun.
Rather oddly, and the opposite of Nintendo's standard approach, this title doesn't offer much help, either. The tutorial is short and mainly teaches you how to interact with and use the GamePad screen, but tells you nothing about how to play golf — unlike the repetitive nature of tennis and bowling, this is a sport of nuance, which is actually represented to a startling degree. In fact, the game has little mercy at all, offering little help to those struggling — it even posts the same slightly snide 'Pro Tip' repeatedly that says, and we paraphrase but kid you not, "it's hard to play out of the rough, so just land on the fairway". Nintendo's gone from making golf super-easy and pinching you on the cheeks, to making it more realistic and telling you to get out and practice, with a hint of a growl and sneer. We love the challenge and clever technology in place, but wonder whether this game will simply be out of bounds for less experienced gamers; the lack of real assistance for these weaker players is a peculiar oversight.
If you do get into the swing of things, there is a decent amount to do. For starters there are two nine-hole courses. The Classic option recreates the original Wii Sports course, familiar to millions and charming in its slightly cleaner HD remodel. The new Lakeside course is apparently based on the good old 8-bit Golf days, and it shows in its ways; there are some devious holes here that test your skill and luck, and we'll admit to resorting to a few hit and hope strokes. These courses are tough — the top scores in Europe were just -5 and -6 for each at the time of writing, like we said, it's fairly realistic — and we're happy to finish level par or just under. With each round scores may improve, but the game giveth and it taketh away; sometimes the wind will support a bold shot, and other times it's punishing and cruel. For our part, we love the challenge.
Those courses can be played in full one-at-a-time, you can take on all 18 holes — in which case trail the GamePad charger wire to the controller, you'll need it — or you can play three holes of choice. Those are the options in local play, whereas online the formula is shaken up for shorter formats; you can play just one hole in a friendly that doesn't affect ranking, three competitive holes or nine competitive holes. Like in Tennis and Bowling you can filter searches, and in our experience we always found an online match within a couple of minutes. Due to the methodical, slow-paced nature of the sport an online game can take a little while, and in our matches opponents were often struggling to play the game properly — like we said, it's pretty difficult — while, in one case, they started messing about until they'd hit the +6 limit for each hole. Apart from the latter case the games were enjoyable enough and, as it's a turn-based affair, the online connection held up well. This experience is, we'd suggest, more suited to local play just for the sake of conversation, while we couldn't find a way to recalibrate our Remote Plus online, unlike in a local play game, which was irritating when it became erratic on one occasion.
There are also opportunities to practice in some excellent Skill Shaper games, even if they don't actually teach you how to play. Putter Madness gives you 10 balls and 10 holes to aim for on the green, and your points are based on the distance of each successful shot; it's a surprisingly strategic affair. Bingo Clubber tests your short-range pitching abilities, as you have ten shots onto the green from a variety of angles — the challenge is to successfully target areas of the scored grid on the green, completing a row of numbers for bonus points. Finally we have Target Shooter, which tests your driving ability; this challenges you to be quick and accurate with your drives as you aim to hit through a target and land near the centre of the green. All of these practice games are fun and useful for improving your range of shots.
This release also has the standard Wii Sports Club treatment with Miiverse integration, club rankings and the ability to edit custom call-outs for use when playing online. It all works as expected, and is a welcome touch that encourages players to be supportive towards each other.
Wii Sports Club: Golf is, taken as a whole, a peculiar beast. It looks unassuming and cute on the outside, yet has the challenge and complexity of a more realistic sim. We were going to complain that, with some challenging courses and greens to hit, we needed a button option to apply backspin, for example; we then realised we had to apply it ourselves with a shorter, more cutting style of swing. Impressive software and technology, again, but a million miles away from the cuddly generosity of Wii Sports.
We're not going to penalise Wii Sports Club: Golf for being realistic, well designed and challenging to play. Despite its smiling Mii aesthetic this game has the core functionality to be put to use in a more serious, full-on golf title, and that's impressive and a delight to experience; it shows what the Wii U's controllers can do when in perfect harmony. That makes clear, however, that less-skilled players will need plenty of patience and practice to improve, necessitating the ability to find fun in constantly struggling for respectable scores early on. While acceptable in itself, this game simply doesn't do enough to guide and help those that don't really appreciate or understand golf, which is a peculiar failing to attribute to Nintendo. This isn't a "just wave the Remote around" experience like the iconic Wii game.
Yet if players know what they're getting into, this is a more than worthwhile experience on the Wii U. The use of the GamePad on the floor is clever and is a must for future golf games on the system, and this is the closest you're likely to feel to actually playing golf from the comfort of your living room. Despite its light-hearted appearance this goes some way to showing the delicate balances and intricacies of the sport, an entirely different experience from the repetitive natures of tennis and bowling. For those seeking more challenge and less waggle, this is a must.