35 years ago, the first Mario sports game changed Nintendo forever
NES Open Tournament Golf is a mouthful, but it’s an important one.
The 14th to 17th century was the era of Renaissance men. Great minds like da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo were celebrated for their mastery of many disciplines like engineering, astronomy, art, and music. Great men, it seemed, were not satisfied with conquering one domain. They had to branch out, discover new things, and excel at them. Gaming’s most famous Renaissance man got his start only 35 years ago, but that start changed his publisher — and gaming at large — for good.
NES Open Tournament Golf may sound like a generic title, but its Japanese release tells us what it’s really about: Mario’s Open Golf. It represents Mario’s first foray into truly new territory, abandoning his castle-crashing adventures to focus on the unofficial pastime of all potbellied Italian tradesmen. Why plumb when you can putt?
It’s easy to think of Mario in his current Renaissance form.
Over the years, he’s been a golfer, tennis pro, soccer star, kart racer, doctor, and piece of paper. Is there nothing the man can’t do? It’s impressive in 2022, but his multifaceted nature as Nintendo’s mascot was not the same in 1987. When NES Open Tournament Golf was released on the Famicom Disk System, we had only seen Mario as the pipe-traveling, koopa-stomping plumber hero. He was the face of Nintendo, but putting him in a sports game was a gamble.
It paid off.
The sales and critical reception were strong enough that Nintendo decided to go for it again with Mario Golf for the N64. This game became a smash hit for Nintendo and cemented Mario’s legacy as a bonafide sportsman.
Odds are most of you reading this have never played NES Open Tournament Golf. So is it worth playing?
Absolutely, assuming you go into it with an eye for history and a healthy dose of context. This ain’t Tiger Woods. It’s a relatively bare-bones golf game compared to modern titles (including mini-games in series like Yakuza) but, for its day, NES Open Tournament Golf was innovative. 3D graphics and a top-down perspective were practically unheard of on the NES, and although the mechanics are simple, relatively little has changed despite the exponential increases in console processing power.
This is largely due to the fact that it wasn’t the first golf game for the NES, so the devs could see what worked and what didn’t. Players choose a game mode (match play or stroke play) and select one of three courses. You’ll compete against a series of increasingly difficult opponents and, by the end, the game can be very unforgiving if you haven’t mastered the controls (read the instruction manual!)
Like modern golf games, NES Open Tournament Golf starts you off with a rundown of the hole. You get to see the layout, the wind, all that stuff. You aim your shot, select your club, speed, and spin before taking a swing. Swinging the club involves some precise A-button skills (once to start the swing, once to set the power, and one last tap for accuracy). It takes a while to master, which is good, because it’s repetitive as hell.
What sweetens the whole experience is the Mario aesthetic. If you’re a fan, then it's worth it just to see series regulars like Princess Peach and Donkey Kong make cameo appearances, and the graphics and audio are as charming as anything of the NES era. Is it the best golf game? No. The best Mario golf game? Also, no.
But it’s the first, and if you’ve got a soft spot for retro gaming or love for gaming history, it’s worth teeing up. Nobody said being a Renaissance man was easy, even if our favorite Italian plumber makes it look that way.
NES Open Tournament Golf is available with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.