Energy, the ninth hole from Zany Golf, was my childhood gaming nemesis. Despite my proficiency at Will Harvey’s imaginitive vision of mini golf, Energy was the hill I couldn’t conquer. It was the stallion I never tamed; the item never crossed off the list; the peanut butter stuck at the bottom of the jar; you get the idea. Most of the locations present in Zany Golf are a creative twist from the cliched mini golf locations we’ve all come to expect. The opening hole features an iconic windmill that’s near-impossible to launch a ball through. Another hole combines water hazards and a fairy-tale castle. Ant Hill features, you guessed it, the hole featured on top of a hill. To add insult to injury, the hole itself moves around at random. Don’t spend too long lining up the shot! One of my favorites features strategically placed fans which are operated by waggling your computer mouse back and forth. Magic carpet has special pads which allow you to control the speed and trajectory of your ball with the mouse. Hamburger Hole has a giant hamburger covering the hole; click on it to make the ingredients jump!
All of these fantastical locations add a bit of spice to keep a round of mini golf from feeling routine. While tricky, the design is good charming enough that I didn’t mind spending five strokes on the opening hole. The stress of the game comes from the scoring mechanic. Rather than simply count the number of strokes needed to complete the course, play begins with a finite number of strokes. Spend too many on one hole and it’s game over! More strokes are awarded after completing each hole, and there are occasions to earn bonus strokes. This approach to scoring isn’t kind to mistakes, and it’s downright punishing when it comes to Energy. A mistake on the first hole might cost you the round. If the game’s first eight holes were inspired by real-world mini golf courses, the final hole belongs in a mad scientist’s lab. No instructions are given, only a hint that “buttons activate machinery”. It’s up to you to save enough strokes to figure out what it is you’re supposed to do.
By some miracle, for the first time in my life I manage to get to Energy with twenty available shots. Twenty! This is the day I beat Zany Golf! From the tee, my first objective is to switch on the lab’s teleporter. This requires knocking the ball into two separate switches which are guarded by a force field. Touch the force field, and your ball disintegrates and you’re down a stroke. Hit a force field and your ball will be sent careening all over the screen, probably into that force field to be vaporized. Hit the little metal orbs with purple lightning, and your ball will be sent careening all over the screen, probably to be vaporized. Ten strokes are gone. I manage to turn on the teleport and get my ball up to the second level of the hole. There’s no rail here. Hit it too hard, and it goes back to the first level with the force field of death. I hit it too hard. Four times. Finally, finally I get my ball up the hill to the final level of the game. I only have four strokes left to navigate through a half dozen fake holes and three shocky bouncy things.
In what can only be described as the most tense moment of min golf I’ve ever experienced, I gently guide my ball through the minefield of obstacles. The real hole is in sight. I have one stroke left. It all comes down to this. I’ve been here many times before, and I’ve failed every time. Will I finally be able to slay the gaming monster from my childhood? Missing this one shot sends me down the avenue of failure with no option but to start all over from the beginning. Dark Souls has nothing on this game.
I obsess for way too long over my final shot’s trajectory and velocity. It’s all or nothing. I click, drag, and let go… SUCCESS! For the first time in my life, Zany Golf’s scorecard pops up, detailing my efforts. My score for number nine is cringe-worthy, but I’ve done it! It’s a twenty that I’ll be happy with.
“[…]Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game.”
It’s must be a difficult thing to design a game about managing a golf course. Most people who play video games are probably more interested in a virtual experience that simulates the act of playing golf. It has to be challenging to try and translate golf course management into video game form, especially since their development doesn’t naturally lend itself to simulation gameplay. Take city building games, for example. There you have a natural progression and series of events in each city. Start off with a bare patch of land, place a few roads, utilities, and buildings, and watch your city grow. As the city gets larger, new districts are added, infrastructure is upgraded, and so on. While video games take liberties with that progression, it’s a sequence that fits gaming well. Golf courses are an entirely different beast. Each course is meticulously designed and then built to completion before a single golfer sets foot on the turf. Once the course is open for business the superintendent’s responsibility shifts to managing day-to-day operations to keep the course running smoothly. The short of it is, basing a game off how golf courses operate in the real world probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun.
Thankfully Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game. Play begins by giving you a sum of money and a choice of parcels of land to purchase. Each parcel of land is a different size and fits within a certain environment style such as tropical, alpine, grassland, desert, or others. Every location comes with an already-built clubhouse and potentially other buildings unique to the scenario. After selecting a starting location it’s your job to design and build a profitable golf course. Each hole must be built one at a time. Construction options include all the components of individual golf holes; tee boxes, fairways, and greens. Also present are hazards like various types of rough, rocks and trees, and a few other obstacles that are unique to each locale. The game will allow you to open a hole for play with nothing more than a tee box and one square of green, but the embellishments are what make each creation special. Constructing paths that connect your course aren’t essential to its operation but they do increase the rate of play, which means more money for you. Eventually, you will gain access to specialized buildings that provide some kind of statistical or financial bonus to your course. A golf cart garage gives your customers motorized carts which, further increases the rate of play and drives up your income. Driving ranges and putting greens improve the skill set of your patrons, meaning they are able to play more challenging holes without getting frustrated. Other buildings like tennis courts, spas, and snack bars play a part in providing a boost to people’s happiness stats.
Building things costs money, but golfers bring in income. How much money you make depends on how much your customers like your golf course. In a departure from reality, your patrons will pay for each hole of golf played rather than a per-round greens fee. The more fun they have on each hole, the more money they pay out. If you stick with the most simplistic of course layouts, your patrons won’t have as much fun and they’ll simply spend pocket change on each hole. Create a challenging and fun layout and customers will happily drop wads of cash. And herein lies the great hook of SimGolf: your job is to design a golf course that makes your players feel like they’re good at the game. Each hole is given three ratings that coincide with skill ratings of your golfers: length, accuracy, and imagination. How players of different skill sets react to each hole determine its fun rating. If it has a low rating, only golfers with certain skills can play it well. There’s a handy ‘shot analysis’ tool that shows how people of differing skill sets might play through each hole. This tool is essential to designing holes that will be challenging and fun for golfers of all types.
It’s also necessary to pay attention to what golfers are saying as they play through the course. They aren’t afraid to voice their opinions of your course, which is usually a reflection of how well, or not, the course is tailored to their skill set. One of my courses is set in a hilly alpine environment. Things were going pretty well and I was making plenty of money, but about a quarter of my patrons would quit in rage on the third hole. After paying attention to what was happening, I saw that a certain stretch of fairway was sloped so that short tee shots, even though they landed on the fairway, would roll out of bounds. Players with more length skill didn’t have any issues. Golf rules being what they are, the player would have to take another shot off the tee, leading to a nine strokes played without making any headway on the hole itself. At that point, distance-challenged golfers throw a temper tantrum, toss down their clubs in disgust, and storm off the course. Raising the terrain on one side of the fairway solved the problem and all my patrons were happy again.
Of course, if you’re feeling sadistic it’s entirely possible to abuse the course design to give your patrons an objectively miserable experience. On one such occasion I watched a golfer named Solomon, a divorced Psychiatrist, drive a tee shot right into a cactus. After he expressed displeasure with the cactus I retaliated by placing another half dozen prickly obstructions surrounding his position. Solomon’s next five shots hit various cacti and his happiness indicator plummeted. Growing ever more frustrated, his comments glowed in flashing red text. As his patience comes to an end he yells, “I HATE MY CLUBS I HATE THIS GAME I HATE MY LIFE!!!” Other nearby golfers react to his tantrum and I click a button to have him escorted off the course. For a brief moment I wonder if I’m a bad person, then remember that it’s just a game and Solomon was probably a jerk anyway.
Should you want to play though your course firsthand the game allows you do so through your superintendent, Gary Golf. Playing is as simple as drawing a line to where you want the ball to go and then clicking to commit to the swing. The ball will more or less follow the projected flight path, deviating slightly depending on terrain and other statistics. Playing rounds of golf will award you skill points to improve your golfer’s stats, allowing you to record better scores. It can be a fun diversion from the construction and management side of the game, but it’s not going to hold your attention for long. There’s just not much to it. The one thing that keeps golf mode from being a complete throwaway is the golf tournament. Play against other computer-controlled golfers and if you win, you get a large cash payout. The potential trade off is that your course won’t earn any income during tournaments, so it’s possible to lose quite a bit of money before a tournament ends. However, when you level up your skill points enough there’s almost no way to lose.
As fun as it is to build your own course and watch the little virtual people play through it, SimGolf does have a few shortcomings. For one, I have no idea why Sid Meier’s name is attached to it. Even after reading multiple previews and reviews of the game, I’m still not sure why it bears his name. If you’re not familiar with him, Sid Meier is something of a legend when it comes to strategy games. Games branded with his name are known for their depth and complexity, presenting simulations that players can get lost in for hundreds of hours. SimGolf doesn’t possess any of those attributes. Once you’ve figured out the formula for making enjoyable golf courses, all challenge evaporates from the game. If your course is doing well financially after five holes, you won’t have any financial problems as you add more holes and services to it. At this point the game moves from simulation to creative sandbox mode and designing new holes and courses is the only draw. This may not be a bad thing, but the more you play it, the more you notice how simplified everything is. The design constraints of the grid system can only produce a finite number of visually appealing layouts. And even though the terrain tools allow for some substantial terraforming, the game wasn’t really designed for it. Objects and scenery don’t mesh all that well with severe slopes and drop-offs, and golfers complain if there are too many hills. The more you use the editing tools, the more you notice how awkward the interface can be. Everything is shoehorned into the awkward interface layout shared by The Sims and Sim City 4, forcing functions to be grouped according to the visual design of the menu rather than grouping functions logically by what they do. Remember the handy “shot analysis” tool I mentioned earlier? It’s buried in the building and terrain editing panel, which has to be accessed by clicking the a large button with a picture of a house on it. Even after spending ten hours on the game I couldn’t ever find it the first time.
This menu awkwardness continues into how the game tracks career progression. It would make sense that when you play through career mode, all of your progress can be accessed through a central hub like the world map. From there you’d be able to see which locations you own and what your progress is with each course. SimGolf doesn’t have a method to view your overall career progress. While you can use the world map to see each plot that you’ve unlocked, you have to load up the course file – if there is one – to view your progress. This is made more complicated by the fact that each save game defaults to the name of the course combined with a time stamp on the end of it. So unless you manually rename your save game every time, it’s possible to wind up with dozens of save files for one course. Since there are no visual previews of the save games, you also have to remember the name of the course you’re working on. Who does that?
None of these are insurmountable problems, but all of these flaws coalesce into what can feel like a giant mess. As far as I can tell there’s no one major goal for players of the game to work towards. The game essentially drops you into a golf course design sandbox and lets you do what you want. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it takes away any sense of discovery the game could have. After about thirty minutes you will have seen all the game has to offer, and that’s a shame.
The Final Raving – Don’t Bother
This is a game that’s better left in your – or someone else’s – memories.
There’s a lot of fun to be had here if you can tolerate the flaws. However, the fun will only last a few hours and it’s probably just not worth the effort it would take to play the game.
Simple gameplay is easy to dive into
For the most part, the graphical elements combine into some pretty courses
It’s fun to make your golfers mad
You can’t legitimately buy or install this on modern systems
The interface and game file management is absolutely atrocious
The “Sim” visual design of the golfers is ugly enough to make you puke
The game is locked at a resolution of 800 x 600, and it can’t be changed or played in windowed mode
The game isn’t available for purchase on any digital distribution platforms, and obsolete copy protection means you can’t install a legitimate physical copy on Windows 10
Tips for New Players:
As with any simulation game, start small and get a little bit of profit first.
Play in every tournament that pops up. You can’t lose!
Listen to the golfers who complain a lot. They do make some good points.
January 23rd, 2002
Developer: Maxis & Firaxis Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Where to buy: eBay, but it won’t do you much good…
Poor Solomon’s bad day is just getting started.
The shot analysis tool. Notice it’s awkwardly placed with the terrain editing tools.
This shot analysis shows there’s something for everyone here.
The course selection screen. It’s colorful, but there’s less information here than you’d think.
Unfortunately, golfers aren’t programmed with enough smarts to know how to get around obstacles like giant TV camera towers.
Gary Golf hit a bad shot. Gary Golf is super ugly!
The Scottish terrain was definitely my favorite.
Gary Golf’s stats. Ugliness isn’t an official stat, but if it was he’d be at about 230%.
Does everyone on my courses have a lousy time?
This is what golf mode looks like. Simplistic and fun, but not enthralling enough to hold your attention.
Fifteen years after its time I look at SimGolf and see tons of potential. While flawed, it’d be easy for someone to revisit this concept and turn it into a great game today. Imagine a game that shows a map of a city or a small state. On the map are locations of existing golf courses as well as lots, both empty and occupied, that are prime locations for new courses. As a potential course management tycoon it’s your objective to start out small. Build a mini golf course or maybe a pitch and putt to build up your cash reserves. In time you’ll have the funds available to build a nine-hole municipal course. That, in turn leads to private courses and then prestigious country clubs. When you’ve acquired enough design rep, you start fine tuning select courses for nationally televised tournaments. From time to time you’ll have to compete with rival designers who try to undermine courses in select locations. Sometimes they’ll be honest and simply build a competing course, other times they’ll play dirty and try to sabotage your workforce. Beyond design elements the game also includes management of course employees, maintenance schedules, clubhouse restaurants, and other facilities. In addition to career mode there would also be a set of challenge scenarios wherein the goal is to rescue troubled courses, cater to a specific subset of golfers, or simply generate lots of profit. The game would be built with 3D engine that has simple and intuitive terraforming tools, much like Planet Coaster. Scripts of procedural generation can take some of the legwork out of course design, but there’s potential for players to tweak and design every little detail they want. It seems like a great idea to me, and I suppose I’ll work on a design document sooner or later. Playing around in Planet Coaster gave me just a glimpse of the potential that might exist for a new golf management sim: