Wednesday, April 18, 2012

NES Golf Tour: Bandai Golf: Challenge Pebble Beach

NOTHING says late 80's golf like this label
World class golfers aren't the only ones to get their own video games; world class golf courses have that honor as well.  One of the strongest features of PC golfing was the recreation of most of the world's most famous golf courses.  From Augusta to Torrey Pines, chances are good if stuffy old white dudes had heard of it, you could find it in PC golf.  Few golf games for the NES however, were ambitious enough to attempt this same feat.  It may have been simpler to just create new golf courses for console gamers to play, or it may not have even been a strong consideration to include real world courses in video game golf at that level.  But the good people at Bandai took the chance and attempted to lovingly recreate one of the most beautiful and challenging golf courses in major championship golf: Pebble Beach (as it was circa 1988).

You don't have to know a 3 Iron from a loft wedge to recognize the splendor and majesty of the course at Pebble Beach. (take the full tour here and maybe I can get a kickback or a free round sometime...ha!)  Featuring an unmatched view of the Pacific Ocean and the lush vegetation of the Monterey Pennisula, Pebble Beach is the ideal setting for a great round of golf.  The course itself is diverse and provides ample challenges for golfers of any skill level.  If you ever have the chance I strongly encourage you to go.

But I am not here to write a travel blog about the wonders of Central California, I am here to talk about video game golf!  As I mentioned above, Bandai Golf: Challenge Pebble Beach is what I describe above reduced to 8 bits and crammed into a plastic cartridge, with all of that reduction implies. Look the limited palette of the NES is not going to capture the grandeur of the west coast. The flat green, orange, and blue are going to lack the nuance of the real thing, but if you are a graphics whore who is going to bitch about the visuals, then you might reconsider your choice of the NES.  No, what BGCPB does capture, and capture extremely well, is the experience of playing golf on this legendary course.

While some of the holes have changed over the past 25 years, if you do a side-by-side comparison with the virtual tour above you will see that the heart of the course is still there and some of the holes are pretty much the same today as they were in the NES era (the 18th hole is pretty much verbatim).  This may not seem like much, but if you are going to put the name of the course on your game, you had better be ready to deliver.
The Classic 18th Hole, as it is today and the NES version by comparison.  Not too shabby!

Course Design:  Excellent. It's freaking Pebble Beach.  As I have already said, this is a legendary course and the people at Bandai have done an exceptional job of recreating on the NES.  The holes are challenging, diverse, and smartly designed.  From long drives onto narrow fairways to tight par 3's surrounded by sand, this course has earned its credibility and the NES version upholds that credibility.

Green Design: Decent.  While the hole placement is constant, the greens are designed with challenge in mind.  Breaks vary and are realistic.  Honestly, the breaks in this game are some of the most realistic in both design and function of any gold game on the NES, but more on that later.  Greens conditions are as lovingly translated as the rest of the course.

Shot Set-Up Interface:  Interesting.  You get two views, but one is a cross-section and the other is a top down.  You will do most of your shot set-up from the overhead, but the cross-section will give you an idea of elevation, a rare feature in NES golf games.  While the elevation doesn't play a huge factor, it is an interesting feature and adds an extra layer of depth.  Setting up your shot is pretty simple.  Regular shots have the same limitation on direction as in Golf.  You are restricted to fixed range of direction and must use hooks and slices to adjust your direction. For some reason this limitation is less annoying here, but it still requires some skill to set up a shot that needs to reach a specific target.  The overhead view provides a clear look at the course.   Furthermore, when you approach the green, you'll get a zoomed in look at the green area to help making chipping a little easier.  All in all, setting up a good shot in this game is pretty simple and aided by the interface.
The most important thing to learn about the shot set-up interface is that you will be given the distance to the hole from your current position at the end of the previous stroke.  Pay attention to this as it will be the only time this information is given.  If you get button happy, you will miss your distance to pin and have to guess at it.  I cannot fault the game here, since it gives you the info; if you aren't paying attention then the gaff is on you.

Miss your shot?  No problem!
Swing Interface: Easy.  The choice to overlap the swing meter with the overhead view of the course is an interesting one, but once you get used to it, it isn't quite as distracting as it initially appears.  Getting over the initial confusion is aided by the gentleness of the swing meter.  The backswing speed is very slow, allowing the power to be set easily.  The downswing is faster, but not so much that it makes an accurate shot difficult.  The best feature of the swing interface, however, is also one of the most unique features of the game: swing forgiveness.   If you do not set the power or miss the end of the meter, the swing will cancel out and you can try again with NO PENALTY.  That's right, this way if there is something off about your shot, you can cancel out just by not setting the power during the backswing.  I know.  One of the advantages of this feature is that you can reset your shot until you get the maximum power.  It's kind of a cheat, but it's there in the game.  The swing meter also allows you to set your hook or slice before you take the shot by moving the accuracy arrow either to the left or the right.  This will determine the amount of draw or fade when you hit the arrow on your downswing.  This also works on the putt.
Moving the arrow can adjust the influence of your shot
Chipping is trickier as it is tough to judge power on your approach.  As a general rule, the purple area represents the distance you need to reach the pin, but this can vary and you will need to adjust your power accordingly.

Putting Interface: Speaking of which, the putting interface is exactly like the swing interface, but the power works more like chipping.  Generally, the edge of the purple zone is the power needed to reach the hole unless you are a great distance off, then you will need to adjust your power accordingly.  This will take some getting used to, but otherwise the putting is pretty simple.  And yes, you can putt off the green, just be aware, the break will influence the direction of the putt even if you cannot see it on the chip view detail.

Auto-Caddy: None.  And furthermore, do not always trust the target crosshairs, they will not always point toward the pin.

Spin Control: None.

Wind Influence: Brutal, particularly when it is in your face.  You will always want to check the wind conditions before teeing off.

Break Influence: Important.  As mentioned above the break in this game is tough, but fair, and pretty realistic.  Pay attention to the density and direction of the break as you set up your putt or you will easily see it go awry.

Chip-In Possible?:  Absolutely and almost to the point of being too easy.  Sometimes it feels like there is a gravity well in the hole when you are chipping in.  This makes for some spectacular shots and a lot of fun, but it can seem a little trite.

Hole-in-One Possible?: While I have not yet managed one, I have to believe that it is possible. This game plays pretty fast and loose and with chip-ins so manageable, I have to imagine that an ace is out there to be had.

Learning Curve: 2BGCPB earns this rating because of the amount of forgiveness built in.  I am referring to the swing meter, of course, but also some of the leniency with penalties like bunkers and rough (balls may look clear in the rough, but be counted as fairway as long as there is an edge nearby), plus the almost complete lack of OB.  It takes a round or two to fully grasp the controls, but after that your challenge will be the course, not learning to control your swing.  This would be an excellent game for someone learning the ins and outs of the sport or learning to play video game golf.  The few idiosyncrasies the game has are pretty quickly overcome.

Whistles and Bells:  NOT the music.  The title screen has a jaunty tune that makes you think that this game will feature some nice background music to play by.  Nope.  As soon as you leave this screen you will be inundated by the most repetitive jingle since the music for Skateboardin'.  And it plays non-stop until you sink the putt.  That is your only break from the monotony.  I highly recommend putting on your favorite record and playing along to it instead.  You will not miss the scant few sound affects for hitting the ball and landing in the bunker.
Apart from the horrid music, the game doesn't feature too much in the way of special features.  The graphics are nice and are kind of a blend of extremely well detailed textured displays and that kind of early NES crudely rendered images.  Where the game is detailed it looks amazing, the green breaks and woods for example, but everywhere else it is flat color on color.  The color palette is also a bit limited, but the blue of the water hazards help provide some contrast.

Overall Score: 8.  I really enjoy playing this game.  I realize it is limited to one course, but man, what a course!  The loving translation makes this a real joy for a golf fan.  The learning curve is minimal and the fast and loose action makes for a quick, fun round of golf.  The amount of forgiveness and leniency do make it a bit easy, but as you will see from my scores, getting under par is no guarantee!  I play Bandai Golf: Challenge Pebble Beach a lot.  There are a few minor quibbles that keep it from being perfect, but it is one of my favorite NES golf games.

Tips from the Club Pro:

  • Club distances in this game are a little different than standard.  Expect to get -10 to -20 yards less than you might normally expect from your clubs. The instruction manual gives you the distances for each club. I overclub by at least 1.
  • You will get a good initial bounce on the fairway and green, but after that bounce, the grass will grab the ball and hold on tight.
  • Chipping will take more practice than most other aspects of the game.  For some reason the swing meter acts a little differently.  I use the edge of the purple area as my "max power to reach hole" indicator and then adjust from there.  It is very easy to over or under hit.
  • Playing out of the sand is much like in real life: unpredictable.  I rarely use less than half power to get clear.
  • Watch your accuracy off the tee.  Try to hook or slice too much, or miss the arrow by too much and the results will be disastrous.
  • Club selection is limited by situation.  You will not have your 1W except on the tee and no Woods in the rough.  While this does limit you a bit, it also keeps you from making very bad decisions.  Likewise, you can use a 7I out of the trap fairly reliably.
Can you ignore the Penis Bunker long enough to reach the green?

Club Pro's Top Rounds:
4.16.10             72 EVEN
4.11.10             73 +1
4.13.10             74 +2
4.13.12             75 +3
4.14.10             76 +4

Sadly, we must leave the majesty of the Monterey Pennisula for our next stop returns us to the first party fun of Nintendo golf as we participate in the NES OPEN!  Good times!

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