The addition of light role-playing elements to the otherwise standard golf gameplay doesn't always mesh particularly well, but the game is otherwise put together well enough that such minor design peculiarities are easy to overlook.
When you combine Mario and sports, you're pretty much always guaranteed something a little offbeat. Those who have been following the Mario Golf games since the N64 shouldn't be surprised that Camelot's new Mario Golf: Advance Tour offers a pretty solid game of golf but with a few twists--the most prominent being its inclusion of a story mode that whiffs of a 16-bit role-playing game. The addition of light role-playing elements to the otherwise standard golf gameplay doesn't always mesh particularly well, but the game is otherwise put together well enough that such minor design peculiarities are easy to overlook.
While most golf games would suffice with a career mode, Mario Golf: Advance Tour takes it a step further with a full-on RPG-style story mode, complete with precast characters and lots of dialogue. Coming from another developer, this choice would seem especially peculiar, but considering that Camelot was also responsible for the Golden Sun games, which were themselves an homage to the 16-bit RPGs of yore, it kind of makes sense.
The game follows two young players, Neil and Ella, as they spend a summer at the Marion Country Club improving their games, entering competitions, and eventually facing off with the best golfer in this strange, little world: Mario. You'll be actively playing as either Neil or Ella, with the off-character being artificial intelligence-controlled during doubles matches. Winning tournaments, competing in match games against pros and other players, and successfully completing some of the skill-specific training camps that are scattered throughout the game will net you experience points, which you can distribute at your discretion between both Neil and Ella. One of the more curious design decisions even lets you give experience points you earn during singles play to either or both characters.
It's a little odd that you don't play as Mario in the story mode and that the story mode reserves the Mushroom Kingdom-themed courses, which feature much Mario-inspired topography and all forms of bizarre objects and obstacles that both help and hinder your game, for pretty late in the game. There's not a lot of depth to the actual story, and you get a little sense of disconnect between it and the gameplay. However, the story mode goes far to give some context to your matches, and it helps give the game a distinct personality. Still, if you stripped out all of the wandering around and chatting with other players that you'll do in this mode, it would stand nicely as a full-featured career mode in a more traditional golf game.
Playing the story mode is essential to getting the most out of Advance Tour, because it unlocks lots of players and courses in the quick game mode, which houses a broad selection of gameplay types for one-off matches. There are some fairly traditional options here, including match, stroke, and doubles games, as well as a near-pin contest and a speed golf mode, where you're scored on how quickly you can get through a course rather than the number of shots you take. The club slots mode gives you a small, random selection of clubs to play with, challenging your ability to come up with creative solutions on the course. Go-Go Gates is a good 2D alternative to the Ring Shot mode found in Toadstool Tour, challenging you to put all of your shots through a series of gates. The more straightforward modes seem to have a little more lasting appeal here, but the variety makes the whole package further appealing. Also, if you want to get your Mario fix in a hurry, you'll want to head for the quick game mode, which lets you play as Mario, Peach, Yoshi, or Donkey Kong right off the bat.
If you happen to have a copy of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for the GameCube, along with a GameCube-to-GBA link cable, you can also transfer your Advance Tour character into Toadstool Tour. It's not the most inventive or exciting use of connectivity we've seen, but it's a nice aside nonetheless. The multiplayer options in Advance Tour are far more interesting, and they let up to four contestants play any of the match types found in the quick game mode. What makes this interesting is that you can choose to play it on a single GBA (round-robin-style), with a GBA link cable, or with the soon-to-be-released wireless adapter for the GBA. Playing on a single GBA seems economically wiser, since each player will need his or her own cart to play otherwise. However, it's nice that all of these options are available.