As a mascot, Mario's been a pretty versatile guy. Aside from his standard platforming duties, he's been a doctor, the star of an RPG, a go-kart driver, and a multitalented sports star. Now, he reprises the role of golf pro in Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. The game is rich with Nintendo personality and delivers a solid game of golf, though players who have spent serious time with Mario Golf for the N64 may find it a bit too similar to that game.
At its core, Toadstool Tour is fundamentally no different from most other golf games out there. There are plenty of modes of play to keep just about any golf fan happy. The standard tournament, match play, and skins play modes are all present, and there are several modes that are a bit more unique. There's a doubles mode, where two players play as a team, alternating turns at taking swings at the ball. The character match mode puts you in a match game against a computer-controlled character, and winning a game in this mode will reward you with a "star character" for the character you beat, which gives a little extra kick to the character's swing.
Ring shot places large floating rings around the course, and you'll have to put your ball through them in order to win. Club slots is much like a regular point tournament, where the number of swings you take over the course of several different holes determines your standing, except that you'll use a slot machine to determine which clubs you'll have at your disposal--this mode is an excellent challenge for well-seasoned players, as it forces you to improvise under unusual conditions. Coin shoot scatters coins across the turf, and you have to hit your ball at them in order to collect them, with the ultimate goal being to collect more coins than your opponent. In speed golf, the amount of time it takes you to complete the course is as important as the number of swings, creating a much more manic pace than you'd usually find in a golf game. Finally, there's a small collection of side games, including one that challenges you to get as many birdie shots in a row as you can and another that requires you to get your ball as close to the pin as possible. The variety of gameplay modes in Toadstool Tour, as well as the number of unlockable goodies you'll earn along the way, is amazing, and it guarantees you'll get plenty of good play time out of the game, whether it's against some friends or by yourself.
The play mechanics in Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour are fairly simple to get a hang of, though they're deep enough to provide a satisfying experience for expert players. Before you tee off, you can adjust where your club will make contact with the ball, which influences the arc of the ball and whether it slices or hooks. While in recent years some golf franchises have decided to do away with the classic three-click swing mechanic in favor of an analog swing mechanic, Mario Golf keeps it digital, though you can choose to use an automatic or manual accuracy mechanic on the fly. When preparing to swing, an initial press of the A button will start your power meter, and a second press of the A button will stop the meter, then put the ball in motion. However, if you instead press the B button to stop the power meter, you'll have to press a button a third time to determine the accuracy of your shot. You can further influence the ball on the third click by double-tapping the A or B button, which will add extra topspin or backspin, respectively. Once you've made it to the putting green, the interface changes slightly, and you'll only be pressing the button once to put the ball in motion. And though they are present throughout the game, the grid lines that help amplify the contour of the turf become much more important when putting, since precision is key to sinking birdie and eagle shots.
The screen is always jam-packed with information, such as the lie of your ball, wind conditions, and the altitude where your ball will land relative to where you're swinging from. The better your understanding of this information and how it affects the ball, the better your game will be. The manual gives a surprisingly well-detailed explanation of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of how golf works, and there's a pretty helpful in-game tutorial as well.
Aside from letting you choose between an automatic or a manual swing on the fly, the gameplay mechanics in Toadstool Tour are very much standard for the genre and should be almost instantly familiar to players who have spent much time with just about any modern golf game. There are a few things you'll encounter on the course that help set the gameplay in Toadstool Tour apart from other golf games and that give the game a little extra Mario flair. You'll regularly encounter patches of "fast fairway," which make your ball roll faster and further than it would on regular fairway turf. Certain courses are peppered with Super Mario Bros.-style warp pipes, and landing your ball in one of these will cause it to pop out of another warp pipe further down the course. There are also some aggressive obstacles you have to watch out for, including chain chomps and thwomps, both of which will do bad, bad things to your ball if they get hold of it. Though it would have been nice if an analog swing option had been included, the system that's in place works, and it works well.
The presentation of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour is just about what you'd expect from a top-tier Nintendo title. Though the first few courses you'll play have the look and feel of regular real-world golf courses, they quickly diverge into wildly themed courses. The first real taste of this you'll get is on the Peach's Invitational course, which is modeled after the first few levels in Super Mario 64, and it captures the feel of that game flawlessly. And though the game gets deep into the fantasy settings, the realism of the turfs you'll play on keeps the game anchored in some semblance of reality. The characters you'll play as, which include a good dozen or so recognizable Mario-related characters, including Wario, Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, and Luigi, look great--in fact, they've arguably never looked better. The overall level of detail is great, from the grass that will cling to your club after you swing a shot out of the deep rough, to the impatient boos that will float across the screen, urging you to hurry up if you take too long to play a shot. Though it doesn't throw around jazzy lighting effects with reckless abandon, their limited use is effective. Whenever you execute a swing at maximum power, your ball will explode off the tee, and, depending on your character, a different crazy effect will trail after your ball while it's in the air. Mario's shots get a fireball effect, Wario gets a blue-tinged electrical effect, Birdo gets a rainbow effect, and so on. What it lacks in cutting-edge technology, it makes up for with a lot of heart, and ultimately, it just feels like a Mario game.
There's only one significant problem with the graphics in Toadstool Tour, and it's the camera. When you're setting up a shot, you're only allowed to move the camera along the path that the ball will travel, which simply does not give you an adequate perspective on the lay of the land. The camera issues are even more taxing when you're putting, since your character is always visible, forcing you to move around to the side, or switch to an oncoming camera angle. And, from an aesthetic standpoint, the game just does a poor job of framing the shots while the ball is in motion, giving the game a disconnected feel. These aren't game-breaking issues, since you can work your way around them, but that fact doesn't make the inflexible camera less disappointing, and players who have experienced the slick production of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003 will likely find these camera quirks especially irritating.
The game sounds about as good as it looks, dusting off just about every Mario theme, from the original Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario 64, and interpolating them into an easygoing, golf-friendly instrumentation. There are a few original tunes thrown in there as well, and the blend of old and new works seamlessly. Each character is equipped with a small library of shouts and yelps, which are used liberally throughout the game. The sound is fundamental to selling Toadstool Tour as a Mario game, and in this regard, it succeeds.
When you stand back and look at Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour on its own terms, you'll find an excellent game of golf that provides a different experience from that in other golf games currently on the market. But, as a sequel to Mario Golf for the N64, which was originally released four years ago, the game doesn't make too many enhancements to the basic formula established back in 1999. If you haven't played the N64 game, you need not concern yourself with this. But, if you have, you may want to give Mario Golf a rental before you take the plunge. Unless, of course, you're eager for more of what made that game as great as this one.