I can’t stop thinking about how good Golf Story is.
It’s a surprising turn of events, because my interest in the actual game of golf is basically zero. So how the hell did I get sucked into the world of this retro-looking golf game on the Nintendo Switch by developer Sidebar Games?
To understand what makes Golf Story so charming, you have to go beyond the elevator pitch, which is basically “an RPG, but with golf.” This game manages to make a world governed by golf a universe that I actually want to be a part of.
To get around the inherent boringness of golf as a game, Golf Story pushes the full 18 holes to the margins. Instead, the meat of the game is everything else: a full cast of characters with backstories to dive into, a handful of multi-tiered quests to complete and an abundance of characters scattered across every golf course handing out side quests. It feels more like an open-world adventure title than a golf sim. The overworld even resembles The Legend Zelda: A Link to the Past, complete with areas blocked off until later parts of the game.
And like any adventure game, Golf Story starts you off with a bit of history. You take on the role of a young golfer whose father is running him through the basics of the sport. This context serves as a tutorial, but these lessons from dad aren’t rote, paint-by-numbers segments. Rather, the mechanics of the game are tucked into the storytelling, both throughout the main story and optional quests.
The opening of Golf Story is as much about learning how to play the game’s unique version of golf as it is understanding the main character’s relationship with his father. And the game handles this tutorial in a way that oozes personality while sneaking in critical instructions about how to play.
Just about every interaction disguises a clever tutorial of some kind. As you enter the game’s second area, for instance, you’re immediately challenged by another character who claims you’re slow and couldn’t possibly run around the entire golf course in a reasonable amount of time. Since much of Golf Story is about the main character trying to prove himself, you might be compelled to take on this optional quest. However, the challenge itself is meaningless. It doesn’t matter how well you do. The point of the interaction is to find a clever way to teach you about that level’s unique hazards.
Since each new area has different obstacles to overcome on its course, the game needs to tell you about them. Instead of uninspired exposition from a character whose job it is to teach you about the game, Golf Story always takes the extra step to subvert the expected.
The only thing that might feel familiar to fans of golf titles is how Golf Story manages the gameplay aspect of, well, golfing. When you tee up, a bar appears on the screen that represents the strength of your shot and the accuracy of your swing. Your first marker determines distance, while the second tap locks in your accuracy.
I don’t have a wealth of experience playing golf games, but the gameplay is easy to understand. There’s a natural learning curve to understanding how wind and the angle of the course itself affects shots, especially with a 2D playing field, but mastery is not essential to enjoying Golf Story, at least not in the early hours. The whole package builds an incredibly charming experience; playing golf is just an incidental piece of the whole.
I’m not sure what lies ahead for me in the various courses that stretch across the world of Golf Story, but I want to find out. So far, the journey this game offers isn’t about reaching the top of some organization, or perfecting your swing, or becoming a champion. Instead, it’s a tale about finding yourself, realizing your potential and maybe making friends with some golf course misfits along the way. And yeah, you also get to play golf here and there.