We love labels. The world is complex, so our tidy monkey brains have to find ways to help us make decisions. Labels are how we turn assumptions into action, but they don’t always work. This is good because, paradoxically, we also love a surprise. And for Switch fans, there was perhaps no bigger surprise than this lowkey indie release that subverted two of the most popular genres.
Five years ago, Golf Story from Sidebar Games broke onto the scene and showed us that sports games are just RPGs — and vice-versa. With retro-style visuals reminiscent of the SNES era, Golf Story mixes a charming Earthbound style narrative with pitch-perfect golfing mechanics. It never feels gimmicky though; it’s always greater than the sum of its parts and remains one of the standout titles on Switch.
Your journey in Golf Story is a familiar one. You’re a scrappy young lad with something to prove, looking to win a prize that everyone around you says is impossible. The heart of your journey lies in your past. Your father taught you to love golf, but you haven’t played in 20 years. But there comes a time in every hero’s life when he must take on a journey for … reasons? If this seems incredibly simple, it is. But it’s not the plot points that makes the game feel like a narrative triumph, it’s the characters.
In order to make it to the pro tour, you’ll need to master your skills across a range of courses. As a result, you will encounter loads of silly, sad, or strange characters all of whom have something interesting to offer. Sometimes its just a quip or a joke, other times its a crucial side quest designed to teach you a new mechanic. The writing, aided by the best speech bubbles in any game ever, make the dialogue a joy to read.
Then there’s the golf! Most RPGs utilize turn-based combat to provide the action and this is no different. You quickly realize that golf mechanics and combat mechanics are incredibly similar and that swords and spells are just the fantastical cousins of drivers and wedges. You choose your equipment, aim carefully, and execute. Golf Story is a bit more action-oriented than many old-school RPGs, as it tasks you to time your swings and power levels using a meter. But the vibe is very much the same.
This isn’t your standard PGA tour, either. Course variety is a key factor in keeping the gameplay interesting. You’ll encounter unique challenges on beaches and haunted swamps alongside prep club fairways. There’s also disc gold and drone golf minigames, and a robust two-player local co-op mode for even more variety. The gameplay is squarely in the “easy to learn, difficult to master” camp, a sure sign of success for any sports game or RPG.
Five years is a long time in the game industry, especially when you’ve found massive success. Golf Story won over fans and critics alike, and it seemed Sidebar Games was poised to become a new standout studio. It even announced a promising sequel, Sports Story, that promised to bring the same approach to mechanics and storytelling to a wider world of sports. Alas, the game seems to be indefinitely delayed which is the perfect excuse to keep living in the past by playing Golf Story SMOKE.
Golf Story is available now for Nintendo Switch.