This may come as a surprise to those of you who last picked up a video game controller to play Wii Sports bowling with your aunt, but we’re living through a renaissance in virtual golf.
Take-Two’s PGA 2K21 is the reigning traditional option, with millions of copies sold since its release last August and a partnership with Tiger Woods on the horizon. EA Sports is mounting a challenge by reviving its PGA Tour series, which means exploring Augusta National and St. Andrews from the comfort of your living room. There are plenty of non-traditional options as well: gentle story-driven games like Golf Story, zany experiments like What the Golf, grab-and-go mobile options. While each of these games offers its fair share of pleasure, this year’s most important event in the golf gaming sphere is unquestionably the return of Mario Golf.
Nintendo released Mario Golf: Super Rush in late June, making it the first Mario Golf entry in seven years and the first console-based release in almost two decades. Like any other sports game in the Mario universe, Mario Golf takes the game we know and love and stretches it like saltwater taffy: more color, more whimsy, looser application of the laws of physics. Toads and Goombas give you advice on shot-shaping and escaping from bunkers. Wedges spun into a tight pin scorch the green, the grass magically healing after a few seconds. You learn to execute “special shots” from a wizened old Koopa named Master Stinger. It’s the perfect game for casual golf fans who want to play with their friends but don’t feel compelled to spend virtual currency on a SIM2 driver.
What I didn’t anticipate is how much this version of Mario Golf appeals to avid golf fans who haven’t kept up with the gaming world. It could’ve settled for charming fluff, but it actually has something to say about golf’s most pressing issues, which might be why I keep hopping in for occasional rounds weeks after the game’s release.
I was immediately surprised by the game’s seemingly progressive stance on the topic of distance. There’s no way to confirm this assertion without comment from the Mushroom Kingdom’s governing bodies, but I’m confident Mario Golf: Super Rush is taking place in a post-rollback world. When using his standard clubs, Mario—a solidly built plumber with a languid, Louis Oosthuizen-esque move—averages 220 yards off the tee without a tailwind or elevation change. Bowser is 10 feet tall and maybe 1000 pounds, and he can only add another 10 yards of distance. (Not that swinging one-handed with his lead arm helps.)
Each character can unlock more powerful clubs through extended playtime, but hitting the ball farther is coupled with a considerable accuracy penalty. If you want Mario to drive it 250 or 280 yards (with his “star” and “super star” clubs, respectively), you need to accept a higher margin of error. It’s a nice contrast with the current pro game, where players have been incentivized to wallop the ball as far as possible.
It’s also worth noting how that accuracy penalty is administered. Mario Golf: Super Rush deviates from the two most common input methods associated with golf video games. Many players are familiar with mimicking a swing using the analog sticks—pulling them back to initiate the backswing, then flicking forward to move through the ball—or controlling one using three button presses: one to start the motion, one to dictate the power, and one to determine the shot’s accuracy. In Mario Golf, you only need to press a button twice; power is the sole variable over which you have direct control.
Some players have criticized Mario Golf for oversimplifying the swing and removing player agency, but I like the random element introduced by this design choice. The range of outcomes is dictated by your chosen club set, individual club, and lie; you can try to crank a 3-wood out of a fairway bunker, but it’s a bigger gamble than taking your lumps and clipping a wedge from the fairway on your next shot. That decision-making process—along with the occasional misfire from a perfect position—is familiar to anyone who actually plays the game.
The world of Mario Golf is also one in which spin takes on greater importance than sheer power. Manipulating the ball in the air is an essential part of high-level play, especially as the courses become more and more punitive: drawing and fading the ball around trees, keeping it low to avoid the arches and columns of desert ruins, adding height to escape yawning lava creatures. The unlockable club sets even allow players to add spin at different stages within a ball’s flight: you can hook a shot around a tree that’s immediately in front of you, then hold it up in the air to land softly near a tucked pin. This emphasis on spin encourages players to get creative and imagine a wider variety of shots.
Mario Golf: Super Rush's gameplay puts spin front and center
I was also surprised and impressed by the variety across Mario Golf: Super Rush’s six courses, as well as the speed with which they escalate from approachable to insane. My favorite might be the Rookie Course, a short and accessible track with dozens of shared fairways and criss-crossing corridors. It feels like a course that could exist in the real world: maybe a trendy, contemporary experiment, or a creative take on an old muni meant for younger players.
The other courses aren’t as daring, at least in terms of their connection to the real world. Ridgerock Lake offers some Omega European Masters vibes with granite cliffs and Alpine gusts. Balmy Dunes has kindred spirits in the gaudy oases carved out of the desert in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, albeit with greater archeological significance. And Bowser Highlands—the final course you unlock—is described as “a hazardous course designed by Bowser to challenge Mario,” which must make it this game’s default U.S. Open host. I might be feeling this absence more acutely in the wake of the Open Championship’s return, but the game’s one missing piece is a quality links. Wide and baked-out fairways, cartoon sheep roaming the fescue, Princess Peach carving knock-down irons into the wind: is it too much to ask?
A glimpse of the Rookie Course from Mario Golf: Super Rush
When I started playing Mario Golf a few weeks ago, I wondered whether my grown-up passion for “real” golf would somehow compromise my experience. Maybe I’d find the game too simple or too childish; maybe I’d want a greater challenge or more control over the gameplay; maybe I’d find myself yearning for yet another digital recreation of TPC Sawgrass, rendered so precisely you can smell the pond water around the 17th green. It turns out that Mario Golf has helped me internalize the reigning progressive arguments for the game more effectively than a dozen weekends spent watching the pros or playing best ball with my friends.
Immersing myself in current golf media has meant discovering new layers of a game I thought I knew well. It’s one thing to believe that modern technology is problematic, or that a greater emphasis on spin and flight would make the game more exciting; it’s another to understand how that different vision for golf would feel. I’m usually too worked up to consider these topics when I’m on course myself, and when playing realistic golf games I’m more preoccupied with verisimilitude: the motion tracking on Rory’s swing, the look and feel of a course’s digital incarnation, the narrative arc of a career mode.
Those variables are out the window when you’re playing Mario Golf, a game whose sole objective is delivering a fun, accessible version of golf. Its developers didn’t have to worry about appeasing a club’s membership or a half-dozen equipment manufacturers; they had to create a game where anyone could pick up a controller and rely on creativity to get around a course. It’s the same pure, approachable vision that so many golf fans want to see reflected at all levels of the modern game. Instead of falling short in my adult eyes, Mario Golf taught an old fan new tricks.
Jamieson Cox lives in Ontario, Canada, and has written about music for TIME, Pitchfork, Billboard, and The Verge. He has a newsletter called One Good Song.