It's been a long time coming, but Mario and friends are finally back on the golf course.
Nintendo's moustachioed mascot hasn't actually appeared in a new golf game since the GBA's Advance Tour in 2004, meaning fans of this series have been waiting nearly a decade for that new instalment. Whether it's worth the wait will depend on what sort of Mario Golf game they were hoping for.
It all boils down to Castle Club, the game's main mode. Previous handheld Mario Golfs offered fantastic career modes that often resembled RPGs, with developer Camelot's experience with the Golden Sun series coming to the fore.
Players would take control of a generic boy or girl - not a Mushroom Kingdom character - and build their skills through a number of tournaments and head-to-head matches, levelling up their abilities and stats as they played.
Sadly, anyone expecting this sort of depth in World Tour will end up disappointed. Although players are once again in charge of a standard character - in this case their Mii - and still tasked with entering tournaments and taking on challenges, this time the feeling of progression and character development is sorely lacking.
Your golfer still has stats but they're no longer built up with experience points earned from playing. Instead they're merely based on equipment you can buy from the Clubhouse shop. The Blooper themed club, for example, adds an extra five metres to your maximum drive distance, while the 'Banana Combo' shirt and shorts improve your accuracy by making your 'sweet spot' slightly larger.
Although the act of constantly updating your Mii's outfit throughout your career may be visually appealing, it does negatively impact your sense of accomplishment too. It's not quite as satisfying when you're essentially being told the reason you're getting better isn't because of how hard you've been practising, but because you happen to be dressed like a Chain Chomp.
Once you're actually on the course these disappointments are temporarily forgotten. The Mario Golf games have always been praised for their solid gameplay and World Tour is no different. Once again Camelot has created a robust golf game and built the Mario universe around it rather than the other way round.
Hitting the ball is still, even after all these years, immensely satisfying. That may not seem like a big deal, but when it's all you do in the game it can make a big difference. Putting is similarly gratifying, and perfectly balanced so that impressively long putts happen infrequently enough to seem rare, yet often enough to prevent frustration.
The only real issue we had in terms of playing was the handful of pre-shot camera angles, which use a fiddly combination of the Circle Pad and D-Pad to move both the camera and your aiming target. This isn't really an issue when driving and during approach shots, where a zoomed out camera makes placing your shots reasonably straightforward. It becomes more of an annoyance once you're putting, with the available camera angles rarely providing a useful viewpoint to both line up your shot and see the arrows depicting the slope of the green at the same time.
Players have two control methods available to them: Auto and Manual. The former offers a simple two-press control method in which players press a button to start a meter going then press it again to set the shot power. The latter, meanwhile, acts more like traditional golf games and adds a third button press to set accuracy, adding the extra threat of players hooking or slicing the ball if they time their shot wrong.
Choosing manual controls comes with the added benefit of performing a number of special swings not available to Auto players. Topspin, backspin and 'super' variations of each are on offer if you play with Manual controls and press certain combinations of buttons at the right time... not that you'd know it if you just played through the game normally, mind.
Unusually for a Nintendo game, Mario Golf World Tour is not very user-friendly. The vast majority of the game's information and tips is only accessible through the manual. They are strikingly absent from within the game, meaning players may never discover these advanced techniques unless they actively go looking for them.
As a somewhat embarrassing example, we put around ten hours into the game before discovering the Manual control method allowed different shot types. The bottom screen does briefly flash up button commands after a shot's taken, but you're too busy concentrating on the shot gauge to notice.
It would appear Nintendo and Camelot are happy to assume players will read the digital manuals provided with every 3DS game, although we'd wager most 3DS owners don't even know these manuals exist.
The Clubhouse itself is similarly bewildering, at least at first. Dumping players in its main hall with only a handful of vague instructions, exploration isn't just encouraged: it's mandatory. With no map and no signs telling you where everything is, the first hours spent with the game can result in frustrating ten-minute hunts for the location of the next tournament, challenge or practice session.
"Dumping players in its main hall with a handful of vague instructions, exploration in Castle Club mode isn't encouraged: it's mandatory"
This confusion continues throughout - after winning the first three main tournaments, for example, you're given a premature credits screen and then no further instruction as to where to go next or what you're supposed to do to unlock the extra courses. The whole package is ambiguous and outright baffling, falling short of Nintendo's in-house standards.
It's strange, because over the years Nintendo has become synonymous with ease of use, with some going so far as to criticising the company for its excessive use of hand-holding. But allowing Camelot to produce a game that does the complete opposite is bewildering.
This is the first Mario game we've played - sports or otherwise - that doesn't follow a logical route of progression and makes no attempt to point players in the right direction. As a result, there's always a niggling feeling that you're only scratching the surface, that you're sure there are a wealth of challenges and competitions to take part in if only you could figure out how to get to them.
Bizarrely, the answer lies in the game's Quick Play mode. Rather than the throwaway exhibition matches the name suggests, it's actually hiding away a Challenges section complete with numerous short missions that earn you Star Coins. As you reach certain Star Coin targets, the game's other courses are unlocked - something you'd never know if you stuck with the seemingly 'main' Castle Club mode.
Thankfully, its online tournaments aren't quite as perplexing. Located in the Clubhouse's basement (but of course), players can take part in regional or national tournaments based on their handicap and post their scores to an online leaderboard to see where they stack up against the rest of the world.
Along with this, there's a number of other bonus regional tournaments to encourage different styles of play. A near-pin tournament challenges players to get the ball as close as possible to the pin with a single shot over nine holes, while Speed Golf tasks entrants with completing a round as quickly as possible.
Each contest is available for a set time, and at the end the winner receives a special piece of equipment and some coins. Naturally, the global competition gives out a bigger prize than the regional (in our case, European) ones.
It all works well enough and Nintendo, in an attempt to encourage people to try it out, is promising free unlockable Callaway Golf equipment for your Mii for simply participating in some upcoming tournaments.
Not all the DLC is free, of course. Three content packs offering a total of six 18-hole courses (each taken from the original Mario Golf on Nintendo 64) and four extra characters will be made available over the course of the coming months, with the first pack available on day one along with a Season Pass unlocking all three at a discount rate.
Gallery: Mario Golf World Tour's upcoming DLC packs
While it's appreciated that Nintendo has to earn extra income somehow, at the very least it's jarring to be associating day one DLC and season passes with Nintendo games.
This isn't Nintendo's first foray into paid DLC - New Super Mario Bros 2 offered extra Coin Rush courses for a fee - but charging an extra £10.79 to essentially double the game's hole count is uncharacteristic of a company whose president once said in 2012: "What we are not going to do is create a full game and then say 'let's hold this back for DLC', that's not our plan".
"This is the first Mario game we've played that makes no attempt to point players in the right direction"
Indeed, 'uncharacteristic' is probably the most apt way to describe Mario Golf World Tour as a whole: it just doesn't feel like a Nintendo game. Remove Mario and his chums and, gorgeous visuals aside, you'd struggle to identify it as a Nintendo title, with hardly any tell-tale signs that the Kyoto publisher had an influence on the game.
On the course, it's fantastic. Camelot's expertise in golf gaming shines through, building intuitive controls and creating depth whilst keeping things reassuringly simple. Sadly, the surrounding structure is anything but.
If you were hoping for another RPG experience like the Game Boy Color and GBA Mario Golf games, World Tour will disappoint. The Castle Club mode doesn't have that level of depth and its complete lack of guidance and direction will have you shouting a lot more than "fore" at it. If all you're looking for though is a solid no-nonsense golf game, then once you discover its Quick Round mode offers more than it seems, World Tour is worth a go.
A cracking golf game surrounded by a mess of confusing and contradictory modes. Get your head around its flawed structure and you'll eventually have a great time.
- Looks and sounds gorgeous
- Solid, satisfying gameplay
- Plenty to unlock
- Often vague and perplexing
- Castle Club mode lacks depth
- Day-one paid DLC is uncharacteristic