Debuting right as game designers mastered translating the sport into video form, Golf became one of Nintendo’s more influential creations.
Japanese title: ゴルフ • Golf
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-GF-USA]
Japanese release date: May 1984 [HVC-GF]
European release date: 1986 [NES-GF]
Genre: Sports (Golf)
Alternate versions: Sharp X1 , PC-88 , PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1986]; Famicom Disk System ; Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [GBA, 2003]; Virtual Console [Wii U, 2013]
Expansions: Golf USA Course [Famicom Disk System, 1987]; Golf Japan Course [Famicom Disk System, 1987]
Considering they’d never produced a console game prior to 1983 and had relied on outside contractors for their earliest arcade creations, Nintendo managed to crank out some pretty solid creations during the Famicom’s early days. The best of these ended up arriving in the U.S. for the NES launch. But Golf, which shipped in Japan about 10 months after the Famicom’s debut, may well have been the best of them.
Granted, Golf looks both ugly and simplistic by today’s standards, but it was downright revelatory back in May 1984. It was, by far, the deepest and most playable golf game ever created to that point. Well, most likely—the specifics of golf’s video game evolution can be tough to pin down. The chronology of video games in general prior to, say, 1995 remains veiled in shadow and mystery, and the chain of golf evolution leading up to Nintendo’s take on the franchise consists of broad release dates and a great many generalizations.
1984 saw a sort of convergent evolution of golf games, as several different developers landed on the same ideas. Nintendo documents its own history in Japan with meticulous care, so we definitely know the exact day on which their Golf game launched for Famicom: May 1, 1984. However, that year also saw the arrival of two other games that looked and played remarkably like Nintendo’s take on the sport: Ayako Okamoto’s Match Play Golf for SEGA’s SG-1000, and Super Golf for the Epoch Super Cassette Vision. Alas, these consoles have not been documented anywhere nearly as well as Famicom and NES, even in the Japanese corners of the Internet, so we don’t have a precise date on those other golf sims—only the year. So the question stands: Did they launch early in the year and happen by coincidence (or perhaps through sheer inevitability) to resemble Nintendo’s Golf? Or did they show up in the latter months of the year, suggesting their designers were able to get a peek at innovations percolating at Nintendo and fold those ideas into their own work, arriving at a common idea not through convergent evolution but by imitation?
This nugget of game history has been lost to time. But, ultimately, several different developers arrived at similar conclusions about how best to simulate the sport of golf in virtual form at around the same time. Whether this happened by coincidence, collaboration, collusion, or inevitability doesn’t really matter. In the end, Nintendo’s Golf would prove to be the most important and most influential of the three, simply because it saw widest distribution. Neither the Cassette Vision nor SG-1000 platforms ever left Japan, limiting their audience to a small minority of gamers in a small island nation. Golf for Famicom and NES, however, would show up everywhere. Not only did it see release in all regions where Nintendo distributed their first console, it also put in appearances in several other formats. According to Nintendo’s marketing materials, Golf would be the third American release for the VS. arcade system, debuting in the West in October 1984—a full year before the NES itself first appeared overseas. Golf would also be one of several NES games Hudson ported to Sharp’s X1 PC, which turned out to be a far more faithful rendition of its source material than many similar conversions (like the infamous Super Mario Bros. Special).
As an early release for the most popular console of the ’80s, Golf sold quite well and has gone on to take an important place in Nintendo’s official lore; it’s appeared in the usual places (Virtual Console, as an eReader game, as an unlockable in old Animal Crossings) but despite its generic title and aesthetics it’s also provided cameos for titles like NES Remix and Captain Rainbow. Its DNA showed up in Wii Sports, with half of that game’s Golf mode consisting of direct polygonal conversions of the NES course’s holes. Additionally, Nintendo has revisited the fundamentals of Golf for NES through the years with a number of sequels, including NES Open Golf for NES and Game Boy’s Golf.
But then, they’re hardly the only ones to have built on the legacy of this release. More or less every golf video game since 1985 has had NES Golf as its basis. Subsequent golf adaptations would add embellishments, but no one has ever really been able to improve on the fundamental workings that Nintendo established here. In effect, NES Golf breaks the sport down into five variables, resulting in a format that manages to be simple enough to grasp intuitively but complex enough that every playthrough differs from the last. Golf’s five key elements consist of:
The course design
The player’s club selection
The angle of the player’s stroke
The force of the swing.
Of these elements, the course design is the only one that remains constant from session to session. You play the same 18 holes every time. They’re pretty good holes, too, gradually increasing in complexity until you’re working your way across a series of islands to a hole surrounded by water. All the hazards you’d expect are accounted for: Bunkers, water, trees, etc. However, everything else varies in replays. Only the environment could be considered partially fixed; the wind direction changes randomly as you drive the ball, but once you close in on the cup, the pitch of the green for a given hole remains the same every time.
The wind’s direction and speed have the same basic effect as the putting green pitch: They influence how far your ball travels, and how far it strays from the direction you hit it. Wind is the more complex of the two, as it can be hard to predict how much impact it will have on a ball in flight. Sometimes even a strong sheer doesn’t seem to affect a drive as much as a less vigorous gust. The slope of the putting green, on the other hand, is much easier to predict and to harness to your benefit. The pitch is denoted by arrows that indicate the downslope of the green, and the ball will very consistently roll along in the direction of the arrows.
The third play factor—club selection—is the trickiest, because it places a certain burden of expectation on players. As with Game Boy Golf [see Game Boy Works Vol. I] which is basically the daguerrotype version of NES Golf, the game expends no effort to explain how clubs work, or what anything means. The manual offers a cursory explanation, but that’s about it. This is the one weak link here—no pun intended—as it makes Golf less intuitive than other NES sports games.
On the other hand, what constituted a confusing learning curve for kids playing video games for the first time also helps give Golf real legs. There’s enough depth to this rendition of Golf that you can play it today and feel like you’re sinking your teeth into something meaty and substantial. By contrast, Tennis counts as merely functional by 2016 standards, and Baseball strains at tolerability. Golf has more lasting power, because it was a much deeper and more thoughtful take on its sport.
The real mechanical genius of Golf came in the final two play variables: Direction and stroke power. Most golf simulations to this point had included the former, but had never really worked out the latter. At their simplest (for instance, on Odyssey2 and Atari 2600), golf games worked almost like the early Ys games, with your golfer playing the part of Adol Christin in plaid pants, ramming into the ball to get it to move in their preferred direction. An important innovation came to the genre when someone had the idea of detaching the player from the on-screen golfer and presenting the game through more of a third-person simulation view. Still, aiming only amounted to part of the puzzle; swing power was every bit as important as accuracy.
Where club selection determines the angle of the ball’s flight, the force of a player’s swing determines distance. Only one golf sim prior to 1984’s explosion of more advanced games attempted to tread these difficult waters: The Blue Sky Rangers’ Golf for Intellivision. For a 1980, the Intellivision game was incredibly deep. If anything, it may have been a little too deep. That Golf made full use of Intellivision’s numeric keypad with its own in-depth custom overlay, and it offered a remarkable number of options for hitting the ball. You could select three different strokes (long, short, and medium), with the timing of your swing determining whether the ball would hook, slice, or fly straight.
It was an admirable attempt at simulating the sport, but it also presented player with an awful lot to juggle at once. Nintendo found a happy middle ground between the enormous complexity of Intellivision Golf and the idiot simplicity of previous console games, compacting all those swing variables into a single meter. Once players teed up, their virtual duffer—who was pretty clearly another Mario cameo, though the bizarre Captain Rainbow recast him as a separate character—would pull back for a swing. At that point, a small meter would activate at the bottom of the screen, with a small arrow icon pulling back to the left before reversing and running off the meter to the right. By matching your button press to the movement of the meter, you could determine the force of your swing.
Each club had its own unique meter setup, with a narrow band representing optimal timing. By hitting that small spot on the meter, your golfer would connect with maximum power. Of course, not every shot demanded maximum power, and you could decrease your shot’s force by timing your button press to fall while the icon was away from the hot zone. The further from the hot zone you struck, the less power your swing or putt would have. This simple arrangement, combined with the effects of the different drives, gives you extraordinary fine control over the ball with two presses of a single button.
The simplicity of Nintendo’s Golf arose as a matter of necessity, of course. The NES only had two face buttons, not the telephone keypad of the Intellivision, and everything had to be condensed down to work within the bounds of the console.
While Golf didn’t list credits, Nintendo producer Kenji Miki is listed in Wii Sports Resort as the original designer of the 3D NES Golf courses that show up in the Frisbee Golf mode. Miki is also believed to have designed Baseball for NES, and if so, he did a much better job of things here. Golf for NES perfectly straddled the line between simulation complexity and breezy simplicity, and its power meter concept became the standard for golf video games more or less immediately. It remains an integral component of most mainstream golf games to this day, outside of those that feature a significant physical element—for instance, Wii Sports with its motion controls, or Golden Tee with its trackball.
Again, NES Golf didn’t come into existence in a vacuum, and Miki’s innovations drew on a number of previous golf simulations, or at least suggested their influence. SEGA Champion Golf from 1983 was more or less the in-between step connecting Intellivision Golf and NES Golf. The existence of Champion Golf means that the similar timing of Golf for Famicom and Ayako Okamoto’s Match Play Golf probably was a simple matter of convergent evolution. In fact, SEGA’s 1984 game seems to have had some influence on Nintendo, who released a VS. System module called VS. Ladies Golf at the end of 1984. VS. Ladies Golf gave players a female avatar and switched up the course layouts, making it a sort of sequel or expansion pack. An NES version of Ladies Golf was teased in Nintendo of America marketing materials, but that version never actually materialized.
The NES had a remarkable launch lineup for its era, but Golf is the first creation we’ve seen to have truly lasting influence over other games. It distilled a lot of design trends and ideas that had been floating around in the genre for a few years, offering just the right combination of depth and ease of play to become the golden standard for golf sims for decades to come. Most other golf games by other developers would use the same rules and design concepts as NES Golf through the years, adding embellishments but preserving the fundamentals. Golf rarely sees much praise for what it accomplished, but unassuming as it may look today, this really was Nintendo at its best.