25 Years Ago, the Most Surprising Mario Game Unleashed the Full Power of Nintendo's Mascot

25 Years Ago, the Most Surprising Mario Game Unleashed the Full Power of Nintendo's Mascot

For a mascot who’s one home pregnancy test away from a merchandising empire that rivals Krusty the Clown’s, Mario has been a remarkable model of consistency. Not every party he throws and trip to the Olympic Games he takes is an innovative masterpiece, but it’s safe to assume you’ll have a decent time if you fork over 60 bucks for a game with Mario’s smiling face on the box.

Twenty-five years ago, that axiom was tested with the Nintendo 64’s Mario Golf. Mario had already karted, partied, and smashed by 1999, but he was still a platforming star, not a sports icon. He hadn’t picked up a golf club since 1991, and his latest flirtation with tennis had been a thin Virtual Boy headache. By making a good 3D golf game, Nintendo proved the Mario brand could be used for anything, and it wasn’t long after its release that Mario’s closet began to burst with sporting equipment.

Golf has played a surprisingly notable role in Nintendo’s history. Its 1984 title, simply called Golf and co-designed by gaming icon Shigeru Miyamoto, helped expand the fledgling NES’s little library and introduced the power and accuracy bar that’s become a genre staple. Technically, it’s also the first sports game to feature Mario — the instruction manual for Golf’s western release identifies the golfer as everyone’s favorite plumber — meaning Mario hit the links to unwind mere weeks after saving Princess Peach for the first time.

Maybe it doesn’t belong in the Louvre, but Mario Golf was still a huge graphical update over the NES days.

Nintendo

1991’s NES Open Tournament Golf made the connection more explicit: Mario golfs, Princess Peach caddies, and Donkey Kong inexplicably oversees your cash winnings. It’s still a grounded golf game striving for relative realism: courses include Hawaii and Australia, and venerable Nintendo characters Tony and Steve rank among Mario’s opponents. But Nintendo’s choice to put Mario front and center was an early example of the company realizing its peppy mascot could and should be slapped onto everything that made a lick of sense.

That makes Mario Golf the first title to merge the sport with the Mushroom Kingdom’s surreality. Featuring nine classic Nintendo characters alongside a host of regular humans, whimsical fantasy elements are slowly introduced as you progress through the six main courses. Other than the distant mountains with big cartoon eyes, the introductory 18 holes of Toad Highlands wouldn’t look out of place in Tiger Woods 99. But by the time you reach the climatic Mario’s Star course, you’ll be navigating holes shaped like a swimming Cheep Cheep and Princess Peach’s castle portrait.

Simple to grasp but with enough depth to make improving your score a challenge, Mario Golf also offers an engaging variety of video game-y side modes, like Ring Shot, which asks you to make par while shooting through giant rings floating above the courses, and Speed Golf, which places as much emphasis on quick shooting as accuracy. Even if real golf bores you, it’s satisfying to plot your shots, execute them with finesse, and put Bowser in his place. Throw in a soundtrack, interface, and animations all bursting with typical Nintendo cheer and the package makes for a fun virtual outing on a rainy day.

Mario Golf also included a charming and now sadly forgotten mini-golf mode.

Nintendo

As the first Mario game developed by Camelot Software, which had created the long-running Everybody’s Golf series two years prior, Mario Golf 64’s strong reviews and sales earned Camelot the keys to the Mario sports kingdom. The developer has pumped out golf and tennis titles ever since, pausing only to create the beloved but moribund Golden Sun RPGs. In an intriguing reminder of the era’s many hardware accessories, the N64’s Transfer Pak could be used to connect Mario Golf and Tennis to their Game Boy Color spinoffs — both also made by Camelot and both featuring RPG elements like stories and leveling that were (somewhat) revived in 2021’s Mario Golf: Super Rush.

Camelot refined Mario Golf’s gameplay and graphics in its GameCube follow-up, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, which further leaned into the Mushroom Kingdom setting. It and Super Rush are objectively superior games, although the N64 version remains charming in its early attempt to bring a day of golf to 3D life, complete with birdsong worked into the soundtrack and the sun setting as you progress through a course. It also remains an intriguing bridge between an attempt to make a (somewhat) grounded sports title and the full embrace of Mushroom Kingdom madness that would arrive in later games.

So sure, it’s only a golf game, but other gaming mascots have tried and failed to branch out into sports. Sega Superstars Tennis, for example, was Sonic the Hedgehog’s only foray into the sport of kings. Mario, meanwhile, currently has solid soccer, tennis, and golf options available on the Switch, and it feels inevitable that more will arrive with Nintendo’s next console. A quarter-century later, Mario Golf is a quiet landmark in Mario’s transition from platforming star to omnivorous cultural icon, and it remains a nice afternoon too.

More Like This