Nintendo’s handling of their most popular licenses has always fascinated me. In the early to mid-90s, Mario was infamously licensed to Phillips for the poorly-received Hotel Mario among other games. Since then, they’ve kept their charming Italian’s likeness out of non-Nintendo titles for the most part since then. However, in 2004, they partnered with Japanese developer Camelot for yet another sports title. Mario Golf: Advance Tour is well-regarded as one of the more well-designed Mario sports games, but what interested me the most playing it now is how, within the universe of the game, Mario and friends are treated as mythical golfers, only playable in multiplayer.
Essentially, Mario Golf: Advance Tour was a tie-in title to the much more popular GameCube game, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. Characters from the former could be transferred to the latter via the GBA link cable, which allowed players to essentially level up a golf pro on the go before bringing them home to play against the pros in the GameCube game. The linking feature was interesting, but Advance Tour stands on its own partly because of how deeply its characters accept that the Mushroom Kingdom and its residents are simply a few tournaments and a lot of dedication awa. The intro of the game deliberately starts with action shots of the main cast of the game, followed by even more dramatically framed poses of Peach, Donkey Kong, and Yoshi before finally cutting to the titular plumber about to swing a golf club. That’s the last time that he or any of his friends are mentioned or seen by name until the very tail end of the main single-player campaign.
From there, the game essentially becomes Golf: The JRPG. You and your oppositely-gendered partner compete in various tournaments and challenges dotted around a camp devoted to golfing, and finishing these challenges awards experience points to be placed into stats like “drive distance” and “ball control”. There’s an entire glossary of incredibly specific golf terms ranging from “pin shots” all the way to intricate definitions of topspin and backspin. These elements all make a lot more sense when one realizes that Camelot was also the team that the acclaimed Shining Force series, Mario Tennis, and just a few years before, the Golden Sun series came from. With this JRPG and sports game cred under their belts, it’s no surprise that Nintendo hired them to create a unique experience to go along with their flagship GameCube golf game.
I have yet to find another game that utilizes its license as bizarrely as Mario Golf: Advance Tour. It’s not bad in any way; in fact, it makes getting to the final tournament where you do play against Mario and co. that much more exciting, because you know that they’re these legendary pros within the context of this game. Some of the references aren’t as clever, such as naming the first cup of the game the “Marion Cup” and featuring a recognizable mustached man’s face on the rug in the Marion lobby. But this game got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of game licensing. Lean too hard on your license, and you get a Star Wars Kinect scenario where the game and license don’t mesh. Focusing on the game first and the license second gives you more successful titles like the recently released South Park: The Stick of Truth. But making your license an unattainable, nonplayable cast of heroes in an otherwise solid game is much more interesting, and Mario Golf: Advance Tour shines even in 2014 because of it.