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After 30 years in arcades and dive bars, Golden Tee is finally going mobile

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

My favorite part of Golden Tee, a video game series almost nearly 30 years old and still going strong is how, just like real golf, one must step forward, physically, and address the ball. The trackball.

Golf video games have grown up and moved on from the arcade to home consoles and now to mobile devices, and in them all a virtual player picks a club, considers the wind and the lie and lines up a shot. The stick you use to swing is also the stick you're using to aim or navigate a menu, so there's no special reverence for approaching this or that control to take a shot.

But in Golden Tee, for each of the past 27 years, if you touch that ball, you better mean business with it, just like real golf.

For drives and long shots, or anything from the rough, I'd grip the left side of the cabinet, stand like a miler getting ready for the starting gun, and lick my palm, ready to ram it over the trackball with all the force I could summon. For finesse approaches and putts, I'd balance on the balls of my feet, spread my hands and delicately roll the ball back and forth with both thumbs.

"I do all sorts of things," laughed Adam Kramer, who parlayed his skill at Golden Tee into a job with its maker, Chicago-based Incredible Technologies, eight years ago. "I do thumbs, I do palms,. But it's all about the ability to control where the ball is going, regardless of where I might be doing that."

"Golden Tee is a mass market product, and to deliver it to the masses, everybody had to have a smartphone."

This is why it has taken so long for Golden Tee — not only one of the last redoubts of arcade gaming in North America, but one of the longest continually published sports gaming franchises on any platform — to finally come home to users in a meaningful way.

In the past, Golden Tee has offered boutique editions outside of the arcade, ranging from luxury $1,000 home cabinets to flip-phone era novelties on the Symbian OS. There was a brief flirt with the PlayStation years ago. In neither case was Golden Tee using technology that both accommodated the game's unique, variable tactile control and also was available on a widely used, inexpensive platform.

'The thing that was very clear in the early 2000s was that, really, the technology wasn't there," said Andy Kniaz, a 17-year Golden Tee development veteran who left IT to start Happy Time Games, the company that is licensed to develop Golden Tee's forthcoming mobile version.

"We couldn't deliver as similar a game experience as we'd like to," in all those years since, Kniaz said. "So we really wanted to wait for the ubiquitousness of smartphones, in part, to really take off. Golden Tee is a mass market product, after all, and in order to deliver it to the masses, everybody had to have a smartphone."

The day is at hand. Golden Tee recently soft-launched in Canada for iOS, Android and Amazon Fire devices, and is eyeballing a North American release on those platforms over the next few months. Yes, it's a free-to-play title that observes two currencies, one earned in-game, another that can be bought with real money. Players can trick out their golfers with cosmetic upgrades and acquire better clubs to boost performance through in-app purchases.

But there is always a basic round of golf available to play and its basic gameplay remains true to the Golden Tee experience of the past three decades in dive bars and bowling alleys. Golden Tee Mobile, like its arcade forbear, accommodates a stronger shot, provided its shaping and setup are chosen intelligently. Fooling around with a pre-release version, I felt the same forgiveness of ramming the touch controls as much as I would on a trackball.

You'll still want to pay attention to the direction combinations Golden Tee Mobile offers, as the direction your finger traces needs to be more purposeful than brushing the side of a trackball with the heel of your palm. Draws and fades must start with a straight-back motion, then angling up to the direction you want the ball to take. You can intentionally slice or hook the ball, (with more precision than a trackball) by angling the backswing and foreswing to and from the same corners of the screen. This kind of trick shot is useful for navigating some of Golden Tee's notoriously crooked layouts.

"The constant is that pulling back and pushing forward determines where the ball goes," Kramer said. "What I do on a trackball is exactly what I should do on my mobile device. No, I'm not necessarily hitting the trackball (with the palm) or thumbing it, but I'm using my index finger to get that done. I think in mobile, we've been able to accurately deliver that."

Golden Tee Mobile will offer the means of challenging friends to an asynchronous round of golf — perfect for a commuter or someone flying that day, for example. It will also offer ranked competitions for in-game prizes, similar to the arcade game's long-running leaderboard system showcasing the best players nationwide.

Yet probably the biggest and most skeptical audience Incredible Technologies and Happy Time Games face isn't longtime Golden Tee fans, it's bar operators and the remaining amusement distributors who have seen the coin-op market on this continent nearly vanish over the past decade. Kniaz vows that the coin-op edition of Golden Tee will still feature the newest courses for the game. Players on the coin-op version can be transferred to the mobile edition as well, with all of their gear and appearance items. And the real-money tournaments for which Golden Tee has become famous will not be a part of Golden Tee Mobile, which they hope will preserve interest in playing the game on a cabinet, and not cannibalize it.

"Golden Tee was created in 1989, and it started really gaining popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s," Kniaz said. "Most of those people are over 21. If you imagine the people who were over 21 in the early 1990s, they're in their 40s today.

"It's feasible that a 50-year old who harkens back to their time with Golden Tee may not have a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One," Kniaz said, "but chances are he has an Android phone or an iOS device, and he or she does have that device in their pocket and are able to still play the game."

"It's critically important that we get this to feel like Golden Tee," Kramer adds. "We'll never completely mirror the bar experience, or the track ball either, but those are our roots and who we are, and we're opening this game up and making it as similar as we can."

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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