Friday, January 16, 2015

NES Open Tournament Golf - The Shaw-Shanked Redemption
Nintendo's seminal golf title spent the first half of its life rummaging around in the deep rough until making a big rally in the back nine.


Part of the magic of video games is their ability to open your mind to subjects or activities in which you previously had little to no interest. At least, that's what I told myself in late 1991 when I impulse-purchased NES Open Tournament Golf, which appeared to be a sequel to a game I pretty much considered an unplayable pile of junk. Indeed, there was nothing I could point to in 1985's Golf, which I played a few times at my friend Dominick's house, as having aroused any curiosity about the sport or how it was played.

So what, then, was I doing when I grabbed that ticket in Toys R Us' games section and promptly dumped fifty bucks on Nintendo's latest golf outing even though I was rightfully suspicious of its quality? Well, you can chalk it up to an instance of my growing acquisitiveness and gullibility combining to create the perfect storm for the kind of heedless purchase that was becoming all too recurrent in my life; mainly, my interest in NES Open Tournament Golf was born from (a) my insatiable appetite for new NES games and (b) my being successfully sucked in by the marketing--specifically the box art's sell-itself convergence of Mario's iconic frame and the game-title's inclusion of the term "NES," for which I had an obvious affinity. 

I didn't feel too good about doing so, but I'd just bought my very first golf game.

As I made my way home, I debated with myself as to whether or not it was possible to enjoy a golf-themed video game when, really, I had very limited knowledge about the sport in general. I'd played my fair share of miniature golf, sure, but that represented only one particular aspect of the sport (putting) with a simplified scoring system. Also, I had some experience with hitting golf balls over long distances thanks to my repeated visits to the driving range, but I had to give up the practice when I developed an inability to hold on to the club and got tired of making that embarrassingly long walk to retrieve my repeatedly helicoptered stick. At no point during any of this did I learn what a "birdie" was or how woods were different from irons. 

Oh, it's not that I didn't have a whole lot of time to wonder about such things as friends and I made our usual expedition to the range's parking lot to find my club; it's just that my interest in golf never stretched beyond "hit the ball really hard and hope for the best."

Tournament Golf, surprisingly, did a good job of quickly making it accessible to me without demanding any of the advanced knowledge that I'd otherwise come to possess in time. In fact, it was superior to 1985's Golf in every way: It had a more attractive presentation, the courses' colorful, well-detailed maps filling the screen where the original's were in a constant state of being swallowed up by a black void. The course conditions were helpfully displayed in lieu of bafflingly vague number readouts. Mario actually looked like the "Mario" we knew rather than your normally proportioned local deli owner. There was catchy music in place of failure-punctuating silence. You could rotate the aiming reticule 360 degrees rather than choose from three predetermined, rarely desirable trajectories. And it featured an impressive collection of golf mechanics that might have been overwhelming had the game's SNES-style manual (which I enjoyed re-reading) not done such a good job explaining all of them.

For a while, I found myself becoming immersed in the game as I explored its impressive collection of modes and soaked in its impressive aesthetic values, which went a long way toward convincing me that I'd made a good purchase. That I wasn't particularly any good at it wouldn't become an issue until a bit later on.

I mostly stuck to 1-Player "Stroke Play" (you stop that right now), since I had little faith in my competitive acumen and was intimated by the idea of playing against unseen CPU players; as per my nature, I found it unnerving whenever I wasn't able to keep constant track of what the other participants were doing, which is an issue that still haunts me today (not that I'm paranoid ... much. W-what have you heard?). Still, it was inevitable that I'd have to move on to the additional game modes if I hoped to continue justifying my investment, so I reluctantly prepared to enter my first tournament. First, though, I had to attend to the important business of renaming the entire tournament roster after Nintendo characters, which I thought might somehow improve my chances. It didn't help--I didn't come close to winning the big prize. 


I tried again and again, but my totals of +4 or +5 were never enough to even land me on the top-six leader board, and I just didn't feel that I had the capacity to get better. I had a pretty good grasp on how the three-point power-accuracy meter worked, but I could only pull off straight shots and hit desired fairways when using the slowest speed, which guaranteed that I'd never hit par-5 greens (and sometimes even trickily placed par-4 greens) in less than three shots. It was clear that I'd have to hit the ball much farther off the tee if I hoped to really compete, but forget it--I was absolutely incapable of learning the timing for medium and fast shots, which led to nothing but wild hooks and slices. 

Also, the putting aspect, as it tended to be in most golf games, was its own brand of nightmare and the main reason my stroke-totals would always pile up; the arrows represented different degrees of surface sloping, I knew, but I just couldn't properly determine their range of influence or the speed needed to utilize/resist their curvature. My only hope was to avoid long putts by getting lucky and landing within inches of the cup.

Somewhat dejected, I decided to give Match Play (available in both single and tournament modes) a try, thinking I'd have an easier time of things, but I only wound up more frustrated, since the mode was set up like a hustle. I could beat the starting opponent, Luigi, with little effort, but then the challenge-level suddenly spiked out of nowhere. Oh, I was led to believe that I had a chance of competing with the second opponent, the more-seasoned Steve, when he performed poorly on the first hole, but that was just the set-up; from then on, he'd birdie just about every hole and make ridiculous long-distance putts without even doing anything to adjust to the greens' slopes. This made me angry because my attempts to replicate his putt-attempts only resulted in my ball skipping the hold. I had all of the same issues in the Tournament Mode's "Bet On 1 Hole" sub-category but with the added indignation of having to fork over what little money I was earning elsewhere.

NES Open Tournament Golf's difficulty "curve" was looking more like a 90-degree angle.


So I was faced with a difficult conundrum: I found Tournament Golf to be a well-made game, and I liked playing it, but every session seemed to end with me feeling angry and dispirited. I'd put together a good run and feel like I was finally figuring things out, but then I'd hook a ball into an out-of-bounds area twice over and wind up right back at par. I'd cleanly hit fairways and greens but then get eaten alive by the latter's unreadable slopes. I'd luck into a final score of, say, +2 but still lose because the entire field decided to finish at par or better in that particular tournament. 

What had been established was a love-hate relationship with the game, and hate eventually won out. After revisiting it infrequently over the next year or so, I couldn't put up with its abuse any longer--I said good-bye to NES Open Tournament Golf. There were simply too many great titles on the release-schedule for me to consider putting in any further effort to get better at a game  that apparently hated me.

I managed to avoid Tournament Golf for 20 years until it was re-released as part of the 3DS Ambassador Program, as a part of which Nintendo gave away 10 NES games. The game's inclusion on the list was groan-worthy to me, since my opinion of it was still shaped by old memories, which over the years had slowly transmuted to fit the profile of a game I couldn't remember ever liking. But it was free, after all, so I gave it a shot, expecting to be steamrolled by its remembered difficulty; instead, I performed pretty well, Tournament Golf somehow feeling more natural to me two decades later. Before I knew it, I'd spent more time with it in that first week than I did with any of the other NES titles, whose group included beloved classics like Metroid, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Wrecking Crew.

My sudden aptitude made sense when I thought about it: I'd since been weened on a lot of high-caliber golf titles that worked to evolve and perfect the standard three-point striking system and the formerly problematic putting mechanics--most notably the sterling N64 version of Mario Golf, which I'd played to death--so everything about Tournament Golf was coming easier as a result (also, it should be noted that my reflexes and general gaming skills had improved since I was 12). I remember thinking that it would join Donkey Kong Jr. and Ice Climber among the selection of least-played Ambassador titles, but I instead found myself returning to it on a daily basis, addicted to its fast-paced, entirely satisfying take on golf. While I attained "Pro" status rather quickly, my true goal was to win as many tournaments as I could and pull off a feat I previously thought impossible: To earn $1,000,000 and witness the congratulatory credits sequence.


I was able to accomplish that and much more. For about six months in following, I played it constantly, earning in excess of $10,000,000 as I continued my pursuit of mastery. To add a touch of nostalgia to the experience and make it feel like a true recommencement, I even went in and edited the names on the tournament roster to create an all-Nintendo cast--specifically to align the character roster as closely as I could to Super Smash Bros. Brawl's, since it seemed appropriate to match my opponents to those in the latest of the company's big mascot mash-ups (though, I left the originally named "Iwata" in there, because, well, he's sort of a staple of the experience, as I'll explain in a bit). 

Looking at it from my current perspective, I think it's a shame that I ignored Tournament Golf for so many years. I can admit now that I cheated myself out of not only a great golf title but a great video game in general. My problem was that I was scared off by its strategic depth, which I mistook for "needless complexity." Mainly, it's difficult to truly improve at a golf game when your only instinct is to attempt to brute-force the ball onto the green by smacking it with the longest-distance club no matter the lie. It would have taken only a bit of experimentation to learn that you could, say, effectively dig out from the deep rough and reach the green by using an iron that measures 30 yards greater than the calculated distance to the hole (20 yards greater if you're using a fast shot). With a little observance, I might have realized that you could compensate for a 9MPH headwind by executing a low shot and tacking on an extra 25 yards' worth of power (a bit less for fast shots depending upon the remaining distance. I rarely use medium-speed shots, so I'm uncertain as to how much force is required to nullify headwinds).


Once I had a solid understanding of the different lies and the best methods for hitting out of them, the only true hindrance to my continued success was the havoc sometimes wreaked by those pesky wind conditions. All I had to figure out was how to apply my Mario Golf knowledge to a more simple game and, for example, correctly re-angle shots to combat the flight-influencing crosswinds (maybe a pixel to the right or left for each knot). I knew that I could account for tailwinds by cutting distance off shots or utilize their carrying potential by hitting high shots and picking up yardage beyond what the club was said capable (considering first that hitting high shots also doubles as an application of backspin, which might lead to some unfavorable english on closely mown surfaces). Also, I could best counter the more troublesome diagonal currents by putting to use my combined knowledge of vertical-current- and crosswind-neutralization.

Even from back when I was a kid, I was always a fan of those two randomly occurring "Contests" that would pop up over the course of any tournament. I've been pretty proficient at capturing the prize for "Longest Drive," though I've never had the best of luck with "Closest to the Pin." Still, they're a nice way to grab some extra cash to compensate for any potentially lost earnings when the tournament difficulty begins spiking in response to your ever-increasing wealth (early on, a score -2 or -3 will be enough to win it for you, but a ridiculous effort is required as you move into the millions, whence you'll have to finish somewhere between -10 and -13 if you want to realistically win it all).


That Tournament Golf featured this level of mechanical depth didn't surprise me once I read through the elusive credits sequence and saw the name "Satoru Iwata" listed as the Chief Programmer. I'd never heard of the guy before 1998, but suddenly there was his name showing up like clockwork in so many of my old favorites--not surprisingly in those I felt were technically advanced compared to other games from the same systems. Iwata has been described to be a programming whiz, and his magic touch is evident here. I still wonder about what type of calculations (read: voodoo) he had to conjure up to create that suspenseful cinematic 3D view that displays whenever a ball nears the cup.

Playing Tournament Golf was a great way to unwind after a long, stressful day, but I got a little burned out on it after replaying it so many times, so I put it down for over a year. Recently, though, it's come back into my life full force due to my complete disinterest in currently released retail games, both those already purchased and shelf-lurkers that failed to grab my attention. Instead, I've turned mostly toward smaller digital games like Xeodrifter, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, and Azure Striker Gunvolt, to which Tournament Golf is a great complement.


Truthfully, I'm still trying to find ways to improve: I've become fairly adept at connecting on Super Shots, which require a certain rhythm in addition to a high degree of concentration, but I need to be more consistent. Some days, when I can keep my mind from wandering, I can pull off one Super Shot after another; other days, when my energy-level is too high and I can't focus, I'm all over the place. On the other hand, I've totally got the formula down for making the majority of chip shots, which has allowed me to cover for all of those mishits that fall just short of the green. I'd like to pick up more albatrosses (which I find are tougher to get than even holes-in-one) if I could, if only to displace one from that group of five "Hall of Fame" entries that have been there since the start. 


Above all, I'm still aiming to achieve a score of -21 or better, which is best accomplished by getting birdies on all par-3 and par-4 holes and eagles on the more rare par-5 holes. Until then, I'll have no problem with settling for my usual $60,000 first-place prize, awarded to me most graciously by Larry Csonka. And of course, if you're going to have a choice of how you'd like to receive your payout, you'll always want to go for the ol' giant stack of bills, because, really, getting home alive just isn't that important. But don't worry--the organizers of Tournament Golf were nice enough to set up a pay window, manned by a giant gorilla ("The smaaaalllll details," as Ed Norton of The Honeymooners fame would say), for you to deposit your winnings. Please don't ask me to explain how any of this works.

For the purpose of padding this piece out a bit more, I'd like to share with you my processes for dealing with certain holes in NES Open Tournament Golf and sort of give you a taste on how my brain operates. 


My approach to US Hole 3, as our first example, shows that I don't always feel the need to hit fairways if a shorter route exists; I'm fine with hitting out from the rough. Though, it's common that unfavorable wind conditions cause the ball to drop right in front of a tree, forcing me to turn my trajectory sideways and pull off a crazy westward/eastward hook or slice, wind currents be damned. I tackle Japan Hole 14 the same way, using a 2-wood to cut my way over the out-of-bounds area so I can settle for a short-distance approach shot from the rough.


US Hole 8 always makes me nervous because I have a natural tendency to hook fast-speed shots, which wildly arc westward. Doing so here typically lands me out of bounds; since I play for the best score, which entails sinking an eagle on this hole, it takes only one mishit to ruin the entire effort. Instead, I'm looking to cut through the woods and hit the upper portion of the second fairway, which is only possible with a Super Shot. Making it more difficult is that it seems the wind here is always against me. It's the same story with Japan Hole 16, where accuracy with a fast shot is a must. Also--and I don't know why this is--something about its design causes my shots to come up short, which is another fine way to land in the drink; I have to tack on an extra ten yards' worth of driving power if I want to even reach the green, which is so small and frictionless that even well-placed shots seem to bounce off it and into the surrounding rough. I usually have to settle for par on this hole.


US Hole 16 continues to be inexplicable to me. Nothing about any other hole in the game suggests that large water hazards act as vacuums, cutting off at least 20 yards on any shot, but it's apparently the rule here. Nothing other than a perfectly straight shot lands me on the green, the slightest hook or slice arcing the ball into the surrounding drink. Even what I feel are well-placed shots tend to land anywhere but on the green. For that reason, this hole is always my biggest stumbling block.

Japan Hole 9 is among my least-favorite. I want to hit the center of the second fairway, but doing so requires another of those highly precise fast shots. If I'm off just a bit on either the accuracy meter or the chosen trajectory, it turns into an unintended game of "pick your poison," with the options being a sand trap or a penalty stroke for landing in the out-of-bounds area to the right. I don't even mind if I hit that tree on the fairway's left side, since it guarantees that the ball will fall dead to the fairway and in following have none in the way of obstructions (when you hit a tree during the overhead animation, the game is nice enough to credit you with being in front of it).

I don't have much to say about the UK course other than that it appears to be the game's "Hard Mode," its holes featuring large-scale out-of-bounds areas and cruelly placed sand traps (like on Hole 9, which has circular sand traps embedded even on the fairway!). I can perform decently enough on this course, but I have trouble hitting the -10 mark or greater. You're going to have to give me a while for this one.


And I'll have plenty of time to figure it out, since I have no plans on moving away from NES Open Tournament Golf, which has taken an unconventional path to becoming one of my favorite NES games. It's certainly high up on the list of my favorite golf games, second only to Mario Golf, which back in the day I dumped as much time into as the obsessively played Super Smash Bros. Likewise, Tournament Golf is truly something special, and my only disappointments are that it doesn't feature more courses and never saw a worthy NES sequel. That's really the best compliment I can give it: 20-plus years after its release, it still leaves me wanting more.


In the end, love ultimately won out. NES Open Tournament Golf proved that you could emerge from even the deepest rough and make a big comeback in the second half of life.

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