At one point early in Golf Story, the hero is asked by a panicked mother for help. Her idiot child sits on a tiny boat in a water hazard. Crocodiles surround him. She’s tried everything to get his attention — would you please give it a try before he gets eaten?
The solution to the problem turns out to be pretty simple. Size up the shot. Pull out a five-iron. Get the wind and trajectory right, tap three times to drive, drill the kid straight in the ear, and watch him yell “CRIKEY” before he returns to shore.
Go ahead and laugh. He turns out fine. (Mostly. The kid’s head wobbles, and his mother says “His head didn’t used to do that” before hustling out of frame.)
There might be other games where players can drill dim children in the head with golf balls. There are fancier golf games with more complex graphics, ones that didn’t just jump straight out of the processors of an ancient, smoking Sega Genesis. There are golf games where your character is not openly scammed and humiliated by his swing coach for the first quarter of play.
They all come in second place to Golf Story, an absolutely lunatic tale of an ugly-swinging underdog playing their way through golf’s heartbreaks and triumphs. Yes, this even beats any version of a Tiger Woods golf game. None of the Tiger Woods games have a scene where you have to hit a child in the ear with a five-iron shot in the name of heroism.
It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try. Golf Story is an absolutely cracked, manic, and supremely confident 16-bit banger for the Nintendo Switch. It sneaked up on me last year and vacuumed up whole days of my life despite me a.) not really liking golf, b.) not touching a golf game since Tiger Woods PGA Tour ended in 2013, and c.) the game flexing some inventive but still primitive 2-D graphics from 1997 and dialogue better suited for Flight of the Conchords than a sports game.
There is no reason any of this should work — something I would still admit after playing through all 20 hours of the game, getting deeply obsessed with figuring out how to golf on ice, and watching an entire golf-themed MC battle between Aussie teen golfers and crusty senior citizens in woolens rapping astonishingly hard about the virtues of wooden clubs.
It is, and has always been, absolutely barking mad. When Golf Story came out in 2017, it should have been dead on arrival. An indie game written and produced by a pair of Australian designers that billed itself as “a golf RPG,” Golf Story does pretty much everything wrong when it comes to making a sports game. The graphics are eight miles from the realism of an EA Sports-type game. There are no celebrities, no one resembling a real golfer, and no head-to-head play. Personalization is completely absent, as everyone starts as the same hopeless, delusional dreamer of a protagonist — a nobody with a ghastly swing.
That barely covers how little cheerful, Nintendo-style questing, with plenty of encouragement, there is in the plot of Golf Story. The protagonist’s wife leaves him in the first five minutes. His coach openly scams him and every other student for the first half of the game. Pretty much every NPC encourages our hero to quit — immediately, if possible, before further pointless humiliation. The first course in the story — “Wellworn Grove” — is straight muni course garbage, right down to the shirtless dudes talking shit at the practice range. It may be the only golf video game to contain authentic traces of actual Sad Golf Man.
It would be dark — if you weren’t too busy laughing at the dialogue or trying to master the sneakily good golf experience at the core of the game. The gameplay is just subtle enough, but still simple as hell. The three-tap drive with a power meter is a living legend of user interface in Golf Story.
There are also enough little tweaks and angles to capture the fiddly, maddening bits of golf, too. Overall there is a good balance here: Sometimes, with enough care, you can park the ball three feet from the cup, and sometimes you end up blasting the ball onto a sheet of ice and watching it roll eighty yards out of bounds.
Oh: Ice is a thing. It is one of the saner things in the game, actually. Golf Story is loyal to some perfectly expected standards of a solid sports game: Reliably challenging gameplay, leveling up through acquiring experience points, and unlocking new courses as part of the storyline. The rest is full-bore lunacy. Getting experience points might require feuding with surly frisbee golfers or solving an old-school Victorian mansion mystery. The courses have dinosaur bones, commando moles, and occasionally snowdrifts. Sometimes your kinda grifty coach tries to cook an entire roast with the aluminum foil on in the microwave.
Golf Story ate up a good three days for me. This happened in part because it’s a compulsively playable sports game, sure. I wanted to get better clubs. I wanted to beat other golfers. For some reason, I spent way too much time trying to unlock ancient clubs that hit the ball shorter distances, simply because they had cool names like “puddle wedge.” I loved the game’s steadily ramping difficulties. (The last couple of courses pleasantly surprise by being real challenges.)
Golf Story works so well because it doesn’t bother to consider anything about itself absurd — not even when I was trying to fight the winds and malicious birds at Cheekybeak Peak, or later when salty Aussie TV commentators openly made fun of my broke ass and terrible swing, as the hopeless underdog protagonist started playing in actual tournaments.
The wild, counterintuitive effect of the entire game cartoonishly doubting the hero — and by extension you— is building a crazy amount of emotional investment in the hero’s success. That drive went past me just wanting to win for our protagonist, a hopeless optimist of a hacker rendered in 1995’s finest graphics, fighting off the competition and what turns out to be some pretty substantial daddy issues. I wanted to beat the world for the little man, and every hater who doubted him.
To wit: I hated one arrogant, sponsored pro golfer so much, I played the tournament against him twice, blowing him out both times. Golf Story, a game that has no business being as good as it is, got me to engage in savage class warfare on a virtual golf course against an imaginary baron of the pro shop. Correction: It got me to do that twice.