If only I could upgrade my armor.
Unlike other sports games, video golf is a predictable experience. Every golf game on the market is basically a simulation. I mean, just read the boxes - "Real-life physics! Actual PGA Tour courses! Play against your favorite PGA pros!" The only thing missing from most golf games is the option of getting kicked off the course for not following the 500 or so 'rules of etiquette' (no yelling, no coughing, no breathing, no golfing, etc...). The emphasis on realism in golf games is getting so prevalent that the genre has become one-dimensional.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not looking for a golf version of NBA Jam or anything ("Whatta putt!!! Shamana!!! Is it the shoes?!). I'd just like to see a golf game that understands that it's a video game.
So when I started hearing about an arcade style golf game making serious waves in Japan, my ears perked up. By the time it landed in the Game Revolution office, it had sold over 1.5 million units in Japan, a pinnacle that few games ever reach. The game is Hot Shots Golf, and while it doesn't quite revolutionize links, it definitely breathes some fresh air into a tired genre.
The first thing you'll notice about Hot Shots Golf is that it has no PGA license. In fact, none of the characters or courses share any similarity with any real-life golf stuff. This is purely a video game, folks.
The graphics are good, and the fast loading time really moves the game along well. The 3D courses are cartoony, though they work well with the general look. As this is a Japanese game, the golfers are all anime. Thankfully, we have been spared any kind of ridiculous anime plot involving heroes with spiky hair, giant robots, overweight sidekicks, fish-bird-dragons, and golf (hey wait, isn't that the plot of Final Fantasy 8?).
The gameplay is pretty basic. You choose a golfer, you choose a course, and well, you golf. All the standard rules apply: aim for the fairway, avoid the bunker, putt ball in hole. You also must account for random variables like wind, weather, and different ball lies. You select your clubs based on distance and the type of shot you want. You use a typical three click swing meter, and you can put English on the ball. Again, nothing new here.
What is new, however, is the strange RPG element. You start out with access to only two golfers and one course. Over time, you gain experience from playing well. For instance, on Course 1, hitting the pin on an approach will give you 1 experience point, a birdie will land you 3, and an eagle is worth 5. Accumulating enough points opens up a new and tougher Course, which in turn gives higher XP rewards. This system gives the game a unique role-playing quality - you need to play the game to get better, and you actually get rewarded for your efforts. I give high praise to the designers for trying to add something new to video golf.
Another bright spot in Hot Shots Golf is the variety of play modes. You can practice in Training mode, take on friends and/or the CPU in either Stroke or Match play, you can go for a trophy in Tournament mode, or even give Miniature golf a shot (don't get excited, it's not very good). Of course, playing with only two different golfers is no fun, so make sure and check out Vs. Mode, where you play against the CPU and try to win new playable golfers. Each character has different skills - one hits hard with poor control, another hits controlled but tends to slice. You'll find that certain golfers tend to match your style as well; those of us with a tendency to jump the gun and slice the ball will want to counteract by using a character with a hook. In all, having to release characters is a fun and invigorating way to up the replay value.
Yet another point of interest is the killer free floating camera. You can move the camera up, down, backward and forward to get a better view of the hole. This really comes in handy when you're trying to avoid fairway bunkers or slopes.
So with all this innovation going on, you'd figure that I'd give this game my highest rating. The thing is, while Hot Shots Golf covers new ground and is definitely a nice change of pace, it's still just a golf game. The gameplay is basically the same as you'll find in any other golf title. In fact, this aspect has barely changed since the 8-bit Nintendo golf game (called "Golf."). I really would liked to have seen some more interesting gameplay factors. There are just not enough new elements to keep you interested if you don't like this sort of thing.
But most of you will. Hot Shots Golf is a good game for fans of golf who are a bit sick of ultra-realism. Some of you, however, will find the gameplay a little too familiar. Either way, you're not going to be disappointed...