Before Golf Story, I thought I didn’t like Japanese-style role-playing games (even though I enjoy open-world RPGs like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3), but Sidebar Games has helped me realize that the genre works better for me when it gets away from its tired fantasy template. Golf Story is out now for $15 on Nintendo Switch, and here’s the easiest way to describe this studio’s work: What if you were playing a classic Super Nintendo RPG, but the solution to every problem was golf?

I’ve put in a few hours with Golf Story, and I’m liking it a lot (VentureBeat social editor Anthony John Agnello will have a full review soon). Its basic structure has you wandering around a series of themed golf clubs looking for side quests until you unlock a final challenge that typically involves playing golf proper. But all of the smaller quests leading up to that point use golf as the key to puzzles and skill challenges. For example, you’ll convince a kid to get out of gator-infested water by hitting him in the head with a well-aimed golf shot or you’ll unlock a secret putt-putt laboratory by activating switches hidden around the first club.

All of that variety makes me want to keep looking for the next challenge because who knows what twists on the golf formula it will present to me. That also makes it easy to upgrade my character by gathering experience points that improve my chances of performing well when I face off against an opponent on the links.

That dedication to the golf mechanics is what is propelling me through Sidebar’s game, and I’m planning on finishing Golf Story. And I don’t typically finish Japanese RPGs. I never finished Final Fantasy VI, a game I like. The JRPGs I have finished? The list is short: Super Mario RPG and Mario Golf for Game Boy Color. Mario RPG put role-playing elements into the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario Golf was the clear inspiration for Golf Story. It featured a full campaign where players had to improve their play until they were ready to take on pro players.

I don’t even dislike fantasy. It’s just that when I have so many options between magic and dragons, I wait for the perfect magic and dragon in a game — and that doesn’t exist. The solution here is exactly what Golf Story is doing: take the structure of a 16-bit-era RPG and mash it up with something modern or mundane. I’d love a spiritual successor to Mario Tennis next or even a similar riff on baseball or other sports.

I know that some of these kinds of games exist, but few borrow primarily from Super Nintendo-style JRPGs. You would think that the PC game-distribution service Steam would have an endless variety of RPGs, but when you search “JRPG,” you get one fantasy setting after another. Golf Story is such a refreshing departure from that, and I hope it succeeds and convinces other developers to try something similar.

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