NES Open Tournament Golf
A throwback to simpler times
I’m probably not the best possible reviewer for this title. I’ve played mini-golf a few dozen times and pitch&putt exactly once (I was absolutely terrible). I neither watch nor follow any professional sports, and I could probably count every legitimate video sport I’ve ever played on one hand, no kidding.
On the other hand, there have been a few cartoony Mario-sports style games that have caught my attention (for better or worse) over the years, though I would never count these games in the same class as the Madden or FIFA series that attract serious sporting gamers. I’ve put in over 100 hours of Mario Strikers Charged (one of the hands-down best games for the Wii), but on the other hand, sold the abysmal Mario Super Sluggers after only perhaps 10 hours of test-play (one of the worst games to pollute the system . . . seriously, that game is fucking awful).
Anyway, Mario has a well-established history as a golfer, having hit the links on NES, N64, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, and Gamecube–he even appeared in a Virtual Boy golfing title. NES Open Tournament Golf (1991) was Nintendo’s second NES attempt at the genre, perhaps having realized that the original black-box Golf (1985) was a pretty poor game all around. Based on the number of official Mario golf outings, it’s clearly his favorite non-turtle-stomping activity by a long shot, tennis and kart racing notwithstanding.
This 1991 cartridge clearly benefits from the fact that Nintendo had been making titles for the NES since 1985; many of the improvements (including sophisticated menus and a variety of game options) would soon become standard in sport and adventure titles alike. But while Open Tournament definitely shows us a Nintendo who’s learned to wring maximum benefit out of their hardware, modern players (perhaps accustomed to motion controls in Tiger Woods, or real-time in-game weather effects courtesy of the internet) will likely find Open Tournament to be an antiquated take on the sport.
The improvements over the original NES Golf are many (I own it, and can attest it is a really tedious game), and I’m betting that Open Tournament pleased a lot of players in it’s day. The most critical enhancement is the ability to save and continue one’s game, a feature that we take for granted today, but without which none of the now-standard features (such as cumulative personal stats and grueling, multi-tournament seasons) would be possible. Perhaps most impressively, the game auto-records epic shots (birdies, eagles, etc) and allows players to replay those hole-in-one moments at their leisure. Again, completely standard stuff in 2011, but I can only imagine how revolutionary this must have seemed to an audience raised on Atari hits like Keystone Kapers or Vanguard. If I’d been playing a lot of sports games in ’91, I think my brain would have exploded a little bit. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall any equivalent feature in any other NES game.
Other clubhouse options include the ability to make minor adjustments to the clubs in your bag (though the choices are really limited), and you can review statistics from previous games and tournaments. You can also check your running total of cash, though there doesn’t seem to be any way to actually spend your winnings. I guess money, as in real life, is the scoring system to decide who’s best. . . kind of disappointing, honestly. I would have loved the chance to save up for a fancy golf KART or buy Mario one of those awesomely tacky golfing hats. One suspects they might have intended to add this kind of feature, since the money seems to serve no other purpose than reminding yourself how much time you’ve wasted playing this game. I kid, I kid!
In honesty, a portable system may be the perfect venue for this game, allowing one to replay the tournaments forever (and thus amass insane hordes of pointless cash winnings), while the bite-sized nature of a single hole is a perfect diversion for moments on the bus or waiting in line. If I were playing this on NES, I’d have to play through an entire round at a sitting–and the tedium would squelch any chance of enjoying the game.
At it’s core, Open Tournament represents the lowest common denominator of standard golf sims. The basic play is as straightforward as possible; you’ll orient your shot via overhead map, adjust for wind and hazards, choose the overall speed of your swing (this affects the distance of your drive and the speed of your swing meter), and make minor changes to the spin of the ball. The shot itself is delivered via the standard left<->right power/accuracy meter, with the primary challenge being the delivery of full-blast swings while nailing the ball straight-on. There are bunkers, water hazards and wooded areas to avoid; most holes range from Par 3 to 5 but are largely identical beyond the wind influence and varied placement of obstacles. Even someone like me–definitely not a golfer–was able to get the gist of the game within only a minute or two.
One of the more frustrating things about Open Tournament–initially, anyway–is the way you’re forced to guess how far your shots will fly. You’ll know that a club, for instance, has a maximum range of 286 yards, but you have no easy way to know what this represents on the map. You’re given the distance to the hole from your present location, so presumably you’re intended to estimate your potential shot based on the distance to the hole. This can feel like needless guesswork, considering that modern golf sims provide the player with a virtual trajectory based on your club selection. On the other hand, if you play through a few courses, you’ll become more adept at estimating distances and usefulness of the clubs, so you may end up liking this low-tech approach (though it will probably take a few hideous shots into water hazards and woody areas before you get the hang of it).
When I first set out to write this review, I was originally planning to give it very low marks. My first impression was of a terribly boring, laughably outdated 8bit non-classic. But I always make a point of replaying the game during the process of writing the review, and I was surprised to find myself getting oddly fond of this rudimentary golfing game. The obvious flaws are many–the putting system is learned by blind trial and error (lacking any scientific way to gauge distances or required speed) and going out-of-bounds does not deduct a stroke from your score (this is actually very helpful to someone as terrible as myself). However, as my skills slowly improved and I began to have a “feel” for distances (putting in particular) I was suddenly making par and even the occasional birdie. And I was reminded again, as it always has been–and always shall be–good Nintendo titles are almost always entertaining for even amateur players.
If you just love everything that was ever published by Nintendo, or happen to be the kind of player who finds modern sport titles oppressive in their countless options and overwhelming attempts at realism, NES Open Tournament Golf may flip your switches. I’m surprised to admit it, but it works for me.