From the outside, golf can seem like a boring pastime designed for aging men in ugly pants. And actually, it can probably be seen that way from the inside as well. Regardless, the once-dreary sport becomes universally appealing with the right number of adorable characters. And that's where Mario Golf: World Tour comes in. Nintendo's return to the back nine brings with it the familiar arcade-style golfing the series is known for, and while it doesn't bring much new to the franchise, the dependable quality of the sports action warrants setting up a tee time.
The Mario Golf series long ago defined how fun simplified golfing gameplay can be, and World Tour gets back onto the fairway with ease. Swinging the club and sending the ball forth takes just three quick button presses, and it's this rhythm--swing after undemanding swing--that pushes you forward, driving you to best your previous scores. Add in a few easily performed advanced techniques--curving your shot or adding spin--and what you're left with is an undeniably engrossing experience. That said, this series found its sweet spot years ago, and World Tour doesn't mess with that formula at all. It's good gameplay, but at this point, heavily trodden gameplay as well.
Castle Club is the primary single-player experience you'll have open to you from the beginning, and it provides a fun, yet intense, tournament setting. Sure, you'll have a chance to practice your swing around the clubhouse, but it's the three 18-hole courses where you'll be spending most of your time. Those lengthy tournaments get pretty harrowing, and the drama is increased with the comical, impressively involved character animations that each golfer uses to emote frustration or elation. But after the credits roll on the final course, the game is just ramping up, thanks to a wealth of unlockable courses and items.
The premier post-game tournament content is the special bonus courses, and that’s where Mario Golf is at its best and worst. Here you find six themed fairways, with nine holes apiece, and you really get a sense of the creativity in the Mario Golf series. The underwater areas have unpredictable physics, you avoid massive Koopas on a level inspired by Mario’s many oversized worlds, and Donkey Kong’s stage has dangerous obstacles lifted directly from the ape’s tricky platforming titles. It’s all enjoyably unique because these stages make it feel more thematically like a Mario title, giving World Tour a chance to get creative instead of simply relying on the strength of its well-established gameplay.
All those Mario-specific areas are great, but they’re geared towards brevity, not the epic battles of the tournaments. The six special courses are nine holes long instead of the standard 18 that the starter courses lead players to assume they’d get when opening up a new course. No doubt some will feel shortchanged, as if the game doesn't fully commit to the clever gameplay concepts it introduces with each course. Then again, six sets of nine holes offers up more design possibilities than three sets of 18. Ultimately, the special courses are enough for hours of fun, but it’s hard not to imagine something more.
Playing every course in the game is your main goal, but there are a host of side challenges that extend your time with World Tour. Challenges take place on the three 18-hole courses, and introduce special rules like collecting coins, setting high scores, or completing under a set time. New unlockable items and themed courses come fast and furious when you're playing through this mode, alleviating any notion that these modes are simply filler. How could that last putting section be unnecessary when it rewards you with a sweet pair of shoes for your Mii?
Getting a spiffy pair of cleats is nice, and it’s even better when you earn them in the well-executed multiplayer modes. Playing Mario Golf either locally or online presents numerous options that range from a quick few holes to a lengthy tournament, all with friendly options for trash talk. By Nintendo standards, the online action is shockingly current, featuring leaderboards, asynchronous play, and enough DLC to warrant a season pass. The only real downside to multiplayer is that it doesn’t allow for single-cart play, making this one of those rare 3DS games that you can only enjoy with those who also own the game.
Mario Golf: World Tour is competent at its worst and excellent at its best. It keeps its gameplay tight and approachable, looks great in stereoscopic 3D, and finally has a modernized approach to online multiplayer. This isn’t a hole-in-one, but it stays under par throughout--and the fact that I can’t stop using golf terminology is proof that World Tour is at least an eagle in my book.