Monday, October 28, 2019

Nintendo's 8-bit Obsession with Golf

Golf is popular in most parts of the world with any concentration of wealth.  It is rather popular in Japan, at least for those who can afford to play it.  Green fees and club memberships are extremely pricey in Japan, so it may not be any surprise that many people who enjoy the game may have to turn to less expensive alternatives to get 18 holes in.  Most video game systems have a golf game, or something intended to resemble golf, released for them.  When Nintendo was releasing early titles for its Famicom, a golf game was a natural addition to its sports library.  But Nintendo kept revisiting the sport with its 8-bit systems, so let's explore how its implementation of golf evolved throughout the 8-bit lifespan.

First Generation - Early Golf

Vs. Stroke and Match Golf (Men's Version)
Vs. Stroke and Match Golf (Ladies Version)

Nintendo's first golf game for the Famicom, Golf, was released on May 1, 1984 and was a launch title for the NES in October, 1985 and in November, 1986 for Europe.  Golf game came on a 24KB cartridge, but even with that limited amount of space, there was a fair amount of content in the game.  The game had two modes, Stroke Play and Match Play.  Stroke Play is the standard golf game where you try to get the ball into the cup with as few strokes as possible.  It can be played with 1 or 2 players.  Match Play determines winner and loser in a 2-player game based on how many holes each player has won.

The basic swing mechanic stayed constant throughout Nintendo's golf game series.  You start the back swing by pressing the A button, press A a second time to begin the down swing and press A a third time to hit the ball.  Where you press A the second time determines the power of your stroke and where you press A the third time determines the direction of your shot.  There is a cursor underneath a horizontal bar on the screen for you to use for timing your hit.  If you press A on the downstroke before the "center" indicator, you can expect to slice the ball.  Similarly, if you press A on the downstroke after the "center" indicator, you'll probably hook it.  Putting only requires two presses of the A button and there is no center indicator.  I am not sure if Nintendo was the first to use "three-hit" system, but it became very popular in later golf games made by other companies.  The early PGA Tour golf games and even Links uses it, more or less.

In Golf, there is one course with 18 holes and they are always played in a particular order.  Each hole has a Par rating and the total Par value for the course is 72.  You always have the same clubs available to you, 1w, 3w, 4w, 1i, 3i-9i, PW, SW, PT (woods, irons, pitching and sand wedges, putter).  Using a 1w and hitting the backstroke at the maximum swing and the downstroke dead on the flashing white area on the center indictator will give extra distance.

Golf implements sand traps and water, some holes have greens surrounded by water which is very rare in real life golf.  Hitting your shot into the woods is deemed out of bounds, as is hitting the ball into any black area on the hole.  Greens show a closeup image with basic indicators for slope.  Golf also implements wind speed and wind direction and allows the player to change their golfer's position but only in wide increments.

Nintendo adapted Golf to its Vs. Arcade System where it known as Vs. Stroke and Match Golf.  The Vs. System games were typically more challenging than their home console counterparts and, being arcade games, cost money to play.  They typically used more ROM space, 32-48KB, vs 24-40KB of the home versions, so could add extra graphics and more music.

Vs. Stroke and Match has two obvious improvements over home Golf.  The first is the addition of one-player Match Play.  This allows you to compete against a CPU-controlled opponent.  The second is in-game music, which alternates between two tracks depending on whether it's player one or player two's turn.  There are also short jingles which play for various events.  Music in home console Golf was notable by its complete absence.  Vs. Stroke and Match Golf has instruction screens which display in attract mode.   Vs. Stroke and Match Golf has a (counter-intuitive) point system where fewer strokes give higher points (+3 for Eagle, +2 for Birdie, +1 for Par, 0 for Bogeys or worse.)  It also adds a point or subtracts a point depending on whether you win or lose the hole in Match Play. Vs. Stroke and Match Golf will tell you how many yards are remaining to the hole.

Because the Vs. System is based on coin credits, Vs. Stroke and Match Golf has certain mechanisms in place to limit gameplay.  If your stroke count gets too high, you will need to insert another credit to continue playing.  If you wait too long to swing at the ball, the golfer will go through a missing stroke animation.  The goal behind these mechanisms was to keep the money-making machines from being tied up for an extended period of time.  There are dipswitches on the Vs. System motherboard to control difficulty options.  The dipswtiches can set the difficulty of the computer opponent in one player Match Play, turn the point system on and off and set the number of starting points and whether the hole size is large or small.

Golf and the first version of Vs. Stroke and Match Golf used a pair of male avatars to represent the player's golfer.  These guys (white and red) were later considered "cameos" by Mario and Luigi.  There was a later version of Vs. Stroke and Match Golf which used female golf avatars and is commonly known as Vs. Stroke and Match Golf Ladies Version.

One of the questions I sought to answer with this blog article is "How many distinct courses did Nintendo design for its Golf games?"  By the time you get to Vs. Stroke and Match Golf it starts to get complicated.  Vs. Stroke and Match Golf does not present the same courses to the player on each play, depending on what ROM variant you are using.  It also 21 holes in its data.  I believe that the hole size dipswitch modifies the courses you will play.  Many courses are identical to home golf, but they have all been tweaked in some way (some very minor) and three are unique.  There are 21 new holes in Vs. Stroke and Match Golf Ladies Version.

Cartridge Golf Vs. Stroke and Match Golf Men’s Version
0 9
1 1
2 0
3 4
4 8
5 14
6 2
7 Not Present (#13 is similar)
8 18
9 5
10 12
11 10
12 17
13 16
14 14
15 6
16 20
17 3

So with the 18 from Golf + 4 from Vs. Stroke and Match Golf Men’s Version and + 21 from Vs. Stroke and Match Golf Ladies Version, you have 43 unique courses from the first generation.

Course Hole Layouts for the First Generation

In the first image, the hole order is 1-9 from left to right, then below from 10-18.  The second and third images use a 7x3 layout because each game has 21 holes (18 of which will be played during a round) and this is how they are arranged in memory.  Each hole has dimensions of 128x240 pixels.

Golf - Cartridge Version
Stroke and Match Golf - Men's Version
Stroke and Match Golf - Ladies' Version
Second Generation - Famicom Disk System Golf

Golf - Japan Course
Golf - U.S. Course
Golf - Japan Course Prize Card
Golf - Special U.S. Course Prize Card

The next time Nintendo revisited Golf was for its Famicom Disk System.  It released two games to the general public, Golf - Japan Course and Golf - U.S. Course on February 21 and June 14, 1987, respectively.   It had previously converted cartridge Golf to disk without enhancements.

Being double-sided disk system games, these golf games could utilize up to 128KB of storage space.  The most obvious difference between the FDS and and original golf games is that the audio-visual presentation has been dramatically improved.  The whole experience is much more colorful compared to the drab, black, near silent original Golf.  There is use of the FDS sound channel on the title screen and there is in-game music.

In addition to menu screens and Mario and Luigi that sport proper Mario and Luigi colors, there are a few other improvements to the old Golf game in Golf - Japan Course.  Holes can take up more than one screen.  You can press select to practice your swing away from the ball without incurring a missed stroke penalty.  The swing's speed now has three settings, which are selected by pressing Left or Right + B.  Selecting clubs is now done with Up or Down + B.  Pressing start will show you the green and pressing start again will show you your hole scorecard.  You can shift your golfers position much more finely now.  Trees will now present obstacles causing your shots to go awry instead of just being out of bounds.  Match Play with a computer opponent is available.  Other than the above, this is still the same basic Golf game.  Also, unlike the Vs. Stroke and Match Golf games, this game will not tell you how many yards you have left before you get to the green.

Golf - US Course improves further on Golf - Japan Course.  The interface is overhauled so that the hole map is not always on-screen.  This game will tell you how many yards you have left for the hole.  It also supports up to four golfers at a time instead of the usual two players.  Player 3 uses Player 1's controller and Player 4 uses Player 2's controller if you do not have a Famicom 4-player adapter.  It will let you adjust your starting tee position and will alternate between views of the green, the hole and the shot view.  When you are off the tee, you can freely change your position either in shot view or hole view.  Wind is given a more precise direction.  One player Match Play against the Computer does not seem to be available in this version.

One of the disk system's advantages over cartridges is built-in saving, and for the FDS Golf games, Nintendo utilized this capability in an unusual way.  The FDS Golf games used blue disks with a metal slide cover for the disk media instead of the usual yellow disks with no cover.  Similar Nintendo used blue disks for contests, and the contest was to get the lowest scores in the FDS Golf games.  Each game allowed you to enter your name and address and when you had a score, you could submit it to a Disk Fax machine located in stores across Japan.  The Disk Fax machine would transmit your scores and contact information to Nintendo.  If you were one of the most skilled 5,100 with the lowest scores, you would receive the Prize Card.

Winners of the Golf - Japan Course contest would receive the Golf - Japan Course Prize Card disk.  This disk contained harder holes than those contained on the standard release Golf - Japan Course disk.  Somewhat similarly, winners of the Golf - U.S. Course contest could win a Golf - Special U.S. Course Prize Card disk with different holes compared to the U.S. Course.  Therefore, the total number of unique holes in this generation is 72.

Course Hole Layouts for the Second Generation

The second generation supported holes shorter or longer than one screen height.  The horizontal width remained the same at 128 pixels, but the size of the hole could be from 208 pixels to 336 pixels.  These images had each hole tack on extra pixels to get to 336 pixels, so the holes are perfectly proportional to each other's length.  Holes 1-9 are on the top row, holes 10-18 are on the bottom row.

Japan Course

U.S. Course

Japan Prize Card Course

Special (U.S.) Prize Card Course
Third Generation - Mario's Golf

Mario Open Golf
Mario's Open Golf (PlayChoice-10)
NES Open Tournament Golf

Having shifted away from the Famicom Disk System to the cartridge Multi-Memory Controllers (MMCs) Nintendo decided to revisit the game of golf now armed with chips that would allow it to access hundreds of kilobytes of data.  The final games for the Nintendo 8-bit platform would be 256KB in size.  Mario Open Golf, the Japanese version, was released on September 20, 1991.  NES Open Tournament Golf was also released in September, 1990 in the US but in Europe it was not released until May-June, 1992.

The graphics definitely take after Golf - US Course and Golf - Special Course for the Famicom Disk System, but the interface again receives something of an overhaul.  Now before each shot you are required to select your swing speed, club and ball height you wish to hit.  The game will helpfully tell you the maximum distance of each club for the speed you choose and suggest the best club based on the remaining distance to the hole.  You can hit the ball dead center, toward the top, at the top, toward the bottom or at the bottom.  Bottom hits can help give your ball height to get over trees, but the distance of the ball's travel will be less than a center or a top hit.  A top hit will put spin on the ball and allow it to roll further than a center hit.  Unlike the FDS games, you cannot take practice swings.  There is also varying levels of rough and bunker depth to make the game more challenging and there are also mild and strong slope indicators for greens.

Both the Japanese and the US/European cartridge versions have battery-backed save memory, allowing the player to save progress.  In particular, a player can save stats, save the game in progress, the player roster and hall of fame holes.  If you want to return to a game after powering off, you can.  This game is full of menus and options as well.  One Player Match Play lets you play a CPU opponent and you have five to choose from in increasing level of skill : Luigi, Steve, Mark, Tony or Billy.  You can finally select your clubs, including a 2w or a 2i.  Tournament Play allows you to earn money.  Training mode lets you select any hole on any course to practice on.

Mario and Luigi look even more like their typical selves, with Luigi being taller than Mario.  Princess Toadstool (Peach), a blonde Princess Daisy and Donkey Kong also make appearances at times during the game.  There are many cutscenes and animations to help keep the game from becoming stale.  Three courses of 18 holes, the U.S., Japan and U.K. Courses, are available from the beginning of the game in the US/European version.

Mario Open Tournament Golf for the PlayChoice-10 may share the title of the Japanese version, but it is based on the US/European version.  (Strangely, Nintendo also released the original cartridge Golf as a PlayChoice-10 PCB).  It may seem strange that Nintendo did not use the NES Open Tournament Golf title for the PlayChoice-10 version, but because there is no battery on the PlayChoice-10 PCB, several options were removed.  Gone is Tournament Mode and all the Clubhouse options.  Essentially it's just Stroke Play or Match Play.  You cannot interrupt a game to save and return to it later.  I believe that Nintendo used a different title screen so as not to confuse potential customers to think that the crippled PlayChoice-10 version was identical to what they would be purchasing on cartridge.

Battery backed save games had been done previously on a PlayChoice-10 PCB, namely Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!.  In PlayChoice-10 Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, the fastest times to defeat each boxer are saved.  The cartridge version of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! does not have this feature.  Nintendo could have done something similar like keeping saves of the best hole scores, but this was not done.

Mario Open Golf, the Japanese version, has many differences to NES Open Tournament Golf.  The first difference is that it has six courses, Japan, Australia, France, Hawaii, U.K. and Extra.  You start with the Japan Course and have to unlock the each course in turn by playing through the available courses.  The Extra course, which is unlocked after playing all the other courses, only contains holes from each course.  The holes in the "common" courses are not identical between the Japanese and US/European cartridge versions.  The Japanese version's holes tend to be more difficult as well, with more obstacles and traps to overcome.

The Japanese version does not have Tournament Mode or Prize Money, so no appearances from Donkey Kong (who is the teller that tells you how much prize money you have).  There is no player roster either in the Japanese version as a result.  You can only use the Training Mode to play holes and courses you have previously unlocked with Stroke or Match Play.  There are some different musical tracks which play during the game.

Getting through all the courses in Mario Open Golf is really, really challenging.  Mario Open Golf will end your round of golf in Stroke play if you go a certain number above Par on any hole or combination of holes.  Japan starts off at a generous 18 over par, but by the time you get to U.K., if you double bogey on any hole, (2 over par) you are done.  You will be told to keep practicing and try again.  The later courses have lots of obstacle filled Par 4s, ridiculously long Par 5s and water holes to break you.  I had to cheat my way through the game to get the information for all the courses and holes in the game.  The best cheat to use is to set memory location 011Fh to 01, which will always give you a hole-in-one regardless of how many strokes it took you to get the ball into the cup.  Once you finish U.K. 18, you will see the end credits sequence :

The Japanese and the US/European versions each have many unique holes.  By my visual comparison, the Japanese version has 55 unique holes, the US/European has 19 unique holes, and there are 35 holes in common.  For many common holes, the Japanese version's holes are more difficult.

Mario Open Golf NES Open Tournament Golf Differences from NES Open Tournament Golf
Japan 1 U.K. 1
Japan 2 U.S. 11 N Bunker of Green is Water
Japan 3 U.K. 4
Japan 4 Unique
Japan 5 Japan 6 Water NW of Green is Fairway and Bunker, Tree Placed Different on Fairway, Bunker Added
Japan 6 U.K. 15
Japan 7 U.K. 7
Japan 8 U.K. 9
Japan 9 Japan 5
Japan 10 U.S. 13 E Bunker is Water, Less Fairway, More Trees, Cup Moved NW
Japan 11 U.K. 12
Japan 12 U.S. 3
Japan 13 U.K. 13
Japan 14 Japan 17
Japan 15 U.S. 17
Japan 16 Japan 13
Japan 17 Japan 14
Japan 18 U.S. 8

Australia 1 U.S. 9
Australia 2 U.S. 4
Australia 3 Unique
Australia 4 Unique
Australia 5 U.S. 15
Australia 6 U.K. 2
Australia 7 U.S. 7 Tree Placement, Bunker Placement
Australia 8 U.S. 14 Bunker to Water, More Trees
Australia 9 U.K. 16
Australia 10 Unique
Australia 11 Japan 15 Larger Water, More Trees
Australia 12 U.K. 11
Australia 13 U.S. 18
Australia 14 Unique
Australia 15 U.K. 17
Australia 16 Japan 8 More Trees
Australia 17 Unique
Australia 18 Japan 18

France 1 Unique
France 2 Unique
France 3 U.S. 12 Trees on Fairway, Sand and Water Traps by Green
France 4 Unique
France 5 U.K. 6
France 6 Japan 11
France 7 Unique
France 8 Unique
France 9 Unique
France 10 Unique
France 11 Unique
France 12 Unique
France 13 Unique
France 14 Unique
France 15 U.S. 6
France 16 Unique
France 17 Unique
France 18 Unique

Hawaii 1 Unique
Hawaii 2 Unique
Hawaii 3 Unique
Hawaii 4 Unique
Hawaii 5 Unique
Hawaii 6 Unique
Hawaii 7 Unique
Hawaii 8 Unique
Hawaii 9 Unique
Hawaii 10 Unique
Hawaii 11 Unique
Hawaii 12 Unique
Hawaii 13 Unique
Hawaii 14 Unique
Hawaii 15 Unique
Hawaii 16 Unique
Hawaii 17 Unique
Hawaii 18 Unique

U.K. 1 Unique
U.K. 2 U.S. 16 Sand Trap for Trees
U.K. 3 Unique
U.K. 4 Unique
U.K. 5 Unique
U.K. 6 Unique
U.K. 7 Unique
U.K. 8 Unique
U.K. 9 Unique
U.K. 10 Unique
U.K. 11 Unique
U.K. 12 Unique
U.K. 13 Unique
U.K. 14 Unique
U.K. 15 Unique
U.K. 16 Unique
U.K. 17 Unique
U.K. 18 Unique

Course Hole Layouts for the Third Generation

In the third generation, hole layouts benefit from 176 pixel widths, giving more horizontal space for a hole.  Hole sizes range from 240 pixels to 480 pixels for the Japanese version.  The US/European versions top out at 368 pixels.  Mario Open Golf's image shows the courses in the order you play them : Japan, Australia, France, Hawaii and U.K.  NES Open Tournament Golf's image shows the courses in the order they are displayed on the course selection menu : U.S., Japan and U.K.

Mario Open Golf
NES Open Tournament Golf

Final Words

Nintendo certainly seemed like it could not get enough of golf during its early days of releasing games on programmable video game systems.  In seven years it released ten golf games, even though some of them only differed in the holes the player could play.  Within those ten games are, by my calculation, 224 unique holes!  

Nintendo also released Golf for the Game Boy during this 1984-1991 time-frame with its own 36 holes over two courses.  Thereafter its enthusiasm for the sport (and sports in general) waned for a significant time, it did not release a mainstream golf game via first or second party until Mario Golf for the N64 and the GBC in 1999.  

This article would not have been possible without the incredible assistance of NewRisingSun, who figured out the data storage method for the first generation games, which led him to determine the number of unique holes on each Vs. game to be 21.  He also put together the maps for all the games, carefully constructing the more than one screen holes of the second and third generation games by combining multiple screenshots by hand.  He played through the second generation games and also gave me the cheat code so I could play through Mario Open Golf to unlock all the courses and holes.