Running between shots can be chaotic fun, but Mario Golf truly lives in its ever-soothing standard mode.
Why did Mario get the golf gig back in the day? I have thought about this often playing Super Rush, the latest instalment in the Mario Golf series. Mario Golf remains a fantastic idea, obviously: I begrudge Mario nothing. And in truth I struggle to imagine Link and co. finding too much inclination to go putting when Ganon has risen once more and the sky is on fire. Yet again and again over the last week I’d be playing Super Rush and thinking about Zelda. The classic greens of the starter courses have a Hyrulian calm to them, while a later course that introduces tornado spouts allow you to take to the air in a manner that put me in mind of Breath of the Wild’s loftier moments. The inevitable desert course is busy with Pokeys, but I suspect it would be just as happy with a goron or five. Golf is about the landscape and the horizon, I reckon, and those are both fine Zelda preoccupations too.
Perhaps the reason Super Rush made me think about this with particular regularity is because of the new Speed Golf mode that sees you not just knocking the ball about but racing after it too. Hoofing over a hill on the trail of a tiny white dot means this is a golf game with a real focus on the banks and meadows you play across. You live in the land in this mode rather than teleporting politely from shot to shot. At one point early in the game’s story mode I was playing a kind of cross-country golf, where I moved between challenges, teeing off for the next target from the hole I had just sunk. I had to plan my way across the landscape, to plot, figuring how to use tornados to overcome sudden elevation changes and chunks of grey rock. Someone sitting nearby observed that it looked a bit like a nightmare, but I was surprisingly unhorrified over all: It was tactical and playful and bucolic and prone to the whim of fate. It was Zelda to its core.
And yet, of course, with other players on the greens, Speed Golf is also hectic and pushy-shovey and filled with lovely Mushroom Kingdom business. Wario barges you out of the way, Yoshi rolls past on a giant egg, a grumpy lump of magma keeps you from snagging the row of golden coins you were aiming for on your way to your ball, which has been knocked off the fairway and into the rough, possibly by that bastard Luigi. Maybe Zelda was right to stay at home after all – at times, when it properly clicks, Super Rush can feel a bit like Baby Park, the looping bloodbath feared and loved by all players of Mario Kart Double-Dash. Mercy.
Back at the beginning though, and at its heart, Speed Rush is still a golf game, and at its basis it’s a golf game I like. The foundations are good! Choose your club, take a gander at the terrain, aim and then press a button to start the shot gauge. Once you’ve reached the power you’re after, another tap or double-tap will allow for backspin or topspin, and then you can move the stick while a second meter builds to apply curve. If that sounds like you’re entirely in control, remember that this is golf – little pixel blocks of whiteness in the big blue with all those attendant elements. This is why the top of the shot gauge includes a risk zone that can flair your shot unpredictably if you choose to land within it. The risk area grows if you’re shooting from a bunker or the rough, but the idea remains the same whatever its size: hit as hard as you can and chance comes into play. I know: chance, ugh. But it reminds me of something that Ed Beech, the designer of Civ 6, once said about a tabletop war game he liked that assigned the movement speed of your troops to a dice roll. A dice roll? Lot of variables in play. Lot of things that might surprise you. A dice roll isn’t such a bad means of approaching simulation when there’s weather and physics and the great outdoors.
Even before you add the Mario level furniture, the famous faces and the special shots, the courses are often quietly transporting. Bonny Greens lives up to its fabulous name – a summer’s day spread on the hills. Ridgerock Lake is craggy and vexed by elevation changes so you’ll need to work out how to use the tornados that can pick up a ball and loft it into the sky. Balmy Dunes might be my favourite, the desert seen as a series of sandy plateaus, sand archipelagos, with the odd duststorm sweeping through. Elsewhere Wildweather Woods is pure fairytale mixed with fiercely localised storms that impose lightning on you if you hit the ball too hard, while Bowser Highlands is your basic volcano course. Volcano golf. Why not.
With the furniture, things get a bit more on-brand, albeit in quite a restrained way. Those tornados and gusting clouds are joined by rolling meanies who will knock your shots aside. Piranha plants snake lazily across Wildweather Woods, while Thwomps patrol Bowser’s Highlands.
You can unlock each course by simply playing eighteen holes on the course before it, or you can chug through the game’s story mode. Story mode is a gentle treat for the most part, sending your Mii on a journey to golfing greatness, playing odd challenges – like cross-country golf – and leveling up as they go, chatting to Mario cast members and doing some limited exploring. It’s a Mario campaign with its own map! It has the odd difficulty spike – that might just be me and my general lack of co-ordination – but I still enjoyed the way the design regularly remixes the game and the things you have to keep an eye on, and the way that wild clubs and clothes with different stats allow you to tailor your approach to things.
The campaign’s decent, but it feels like Speed Golf is intended to be the main attraction here. The idea is that you shoot and then run to your ball, keeping an eye on the clock as well as your progress, on your progress as well as the clock (each shot adds 30 seconds to your time). Played by yourself it’s golf with jogging. Played with friends it can sometimes be carnage.
The reason is that each Mario character gets their own special shot but also their own special dash. So King Boo’s shot can haunt golfballs, but his dash summons a cast of Boos to go and give other players a hard time. Rosalina’s shot – it’s one of the best – turns other balls into starbits that roll around in funny physicsy ways, but her dash brings on Lumas who knock into opponents. King Bob-Omb conjures a bunch of Bob-Ombs to carry him. Wario has a sort of farty jet-pack. With all this going off as you switch between the relatively sedate business of aiming and shooting and then the hectic running, well, it can be chaos. Speed Golf is golf but with barging.
I’ll be honest: when I want to play a round of golf here, I often opt to turn Speed Golf off. Speed Golf is fine, and great with friends, but I find the rhythms of the basic Mario Golf template so soothing, I don’t really want Baby Park erupting all over the place. Luckily, Speed Golf comes into its own in Battle Golf, in which you play against a bunch of other Mushroom Kingdom dandies in a couple of nine-hole arenas, with the winner being the first to get three holes. Super shots and super dashes erupt constantly, as you have coins knocked out of you and get flattened while teeing off. It’s not really golf anymore. I don’t know what it is. But it’s wonderfully cathartic if you’re in a bad mood.
I haven’t been able to test online play, but Speed Rush offers local play for four players taking turns, or two-players on splitscreen for synchronous multiplayer like Speed Golf and Battle Golf. As much fun as the new stuff is, it’s the standard game that has been destroying evenings in our house, which suggests to me that maybe this is a slightly non-essential instalment at heart. (That said, free updates will add new characters and courses.) But it’s Mario, and it’s golf, and that still works a certain magic for me. Even if it does make me think of Zelda now and then.