The basic premise of King of Clubs is simple enough: An enterprising down-and-out gambler has set up a crazy golf (or minigolf, if you prefer) course just outside of Las Vegas, trying to bring some Vegas style to that humblest of sports. He's created five different zones with themes typical of some of Las Vegas' over-the-top establishments: prehistory, ancient Egypt, medieval, tropical, and sci-fi. They all have an intentionally run-down feel to them, but that doesn't add to their charm. Just because the course you're playing on is meant to have been put together on the cheap doesn't excuse the fact that the game itself seems to have been as well.
The gameplay is simple enough: You choose your club and ball then point your character in whichever direction you please. Next, you press X twice to take your shot--once to start your swing and a second time to set the power level. You only start with one club and a standard ball, but as you progress through the single-player mode, you gradually unlock more of both in the game's shop. Using this simple mechanic, you traverse the game's 90 holes to slowly unlock all the balls, clubs, and extras. The extras include new character models (one per zone), as well as new colours and styles for your ball, such as an eyeball or an eight ball. You can also unlock the ability to change the sound effects used in the game. While these seem like nice additions, none of them add anything significant to the game.
In between you and the hole on all the courses are a series of obstacles. These are either ramps, blocks or boards in a shape to reflect the zone--lava spouts in prehistory, robots in sci-fi, knights in medieval, and suchlike. These often move, and are there either to get in the way of, or in some cases, help you on your way to the hole, by providing you with a target off which to bounce your ball to get it to the hole faster than simply shooting through gaps. While graphically the obstacles vary from zone to zone, functionally they're all the same and there's no real difference in the way they play. While the zones look different, they all play in the same way and have no real difficultly scale. The holes are either very easy or fiendishly difficult, with no coherent scaling up as you play through the courses.
The look of the courses present another missed opportunity. The decorations around the course's edge would capture the on-the-cheap Vegas aesthetic quite well if most were not rendered so poorly. The courses themselves are a letdown, with only a couple of the 90 courses standing out in any way. Some of the level design is also suspect: With a clever club choice, it's possible to complete par sevens in one or two strokes. Some of the courses also manage to be a little too ambitious for the game's rather limited engine, with collision-detection problems and plunging frame rates destroying what little fun there is to be had on a number of holes.
The graphics are universally poor, falling far short of the PlayStation 2's capabilities, despite the fact that the game's art direction does manage to maintain the on-the-cheap Vegas aesthetic throughout. For example, the more detailed balls are a nice enough idea in the shop, but once you're on the course, the differences become very hard to spot. The new character models are also good in theory but fail to deliver in practice because of technical issues, as well as the apparent lack of effort put into them. For example, you need to manually swing the camera around to one side to see the ball's path when playing larger characters. Each character has a few postshot animations, but these are very basic.
In addition to a different aesthetic for each zone, there is different music. This is perhaps the game's weakest feature, but luckily it is relatively easy to turn off. Each zone has a single loop that repeats every 15 seconds or so, ad infinitum. The loops themselves are not offensive, but repeated over and over for 18 holes, they are enough to drive the most reasonable golfer crazy, especially when combined with the game's very limited sound-effects library.
Once you have played through the courses in single-player, it is possible to go head-to-head with a friend on the same console (though not online) over any number of holes. This is a mode with some appeal because the simple gameplay lends itself to quick matches with almost anyone, but it is beset with a number of problems. The most significant is the loading times. Considering how simple the courses are, the wait for each one to load is simply unacceptable, even for a PS2 game, and is enough to drain most of the little fun there is out of the experience. One missed opportunity here is the option for a match-play multiplayer mode: The only options presented are time- and shot-based multihole tournaments, with the aim of trying to finish with the lowest total. While the time-based mode is an interesting idea, it manages to be even less fun than the standard shot-based format because unless you know the course very well, you're likely to end up taking far more shots than you will in the standard mode. This means you'll spend lots more time watching the same postshot animations, over and over again.
Ultimately, King of Clubs takes an interesting premise but undermines it with poor graphics, dire sound, and limited gameplay. Even if you like crazy golf, this game is one to leave in the clubhouse.