Not just a game of golf

  • Developer: Tose (according to Gamefaqs since they’re uncredited in-game as usual and I couldn’t find any other sources)
  • Publisher: Taito
  • Original Release Date: November 25th, 1989 (Japan)
  • Available on: Famicom/NES
  • Genre: Sports

On the Famicom, every notable developer felt the need to give golf a shot. You obviously had Nintendo’s entries, then companies like Data East, Bandai, SNK, and Namco decided to throw their hats into the ring too. It makes sense, since sports games are reliable sellers due to their wide appeal, so it’s only natural that Taito would join the fray too. Taito’s golf game, Golf-kko Open (translates to something like “Golf Kid Open”, perhaps implying it was meant for a younger audience), gets even less attention than other Famicom golf games do nowadays, likely because of its unassuming appearance and Japan-exclusive nature. There aren’t many English sources or reviews on this game and those that exist tend to be outright dismissive towards it, thinking it to be nothing more than “just another golf game”. And to an extent, I don’t blame them! For the most part, Golf-kko Open IS “just another golf game”. But if you’re able to crack the code and figure out what kind of game this really is, you’ll find that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

While Golf-kko Open likes to hide its most interesting aspects, it does make the fact that it’s a comedic take on the sport immediately apparent. The title screen presents an ordinary example of golfers partaking in their favored sport, but when an older gentleman shows up, he falls to the ground after having a bit too much to drink, remaining motionless even after several seconds. The other golfers don’t show any concern for the poor guy, instead standing on top of him and using him as a golf tee for their next shot! It’s both savage and amusing, an introduction that sets the stage with intention.

You’re greeted with a receptionist who asks you the usual questions: how many players, whether you want to continue an existing game (using a password), if you want to compete against the AI, and which clubs you want to bring along, all normal stuff. You get to select from four different opponents, all of which come from different walks of life. You’ve got the grandfather from the title screen, a guy named Cho, the Mama-san of a bar, and a golf professional literally named “Pro”. Players are also provided one of three different caddies, each of which offer various differences that I’ll get to soon enough. Again, all of this seems pretty ordinary, but then you’re greeted by the manager of the Taito Country Club himself. He seems like a decent guy who’s very happy to have you here, but he’s a bit of a chatterbox and he goes on for a bit too long. Just as you’re tiring of him, the receptionist shoves him out of the way so you can get on with the game. Such an act isn’t something you’d expect to see happen at an establishment like this, but it gives the characters you just met a bit of unexpected charm and lets you know that not everything here is as it seems. Sports games tend to keep things realistic instead of using slapstick comedy or wacky characters (aside from occasional exceptions like NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, and the Mario sports titles), and the ones on the Famicom generally played things straight, so this alone gives Golf-kko Open an identity that stands out amongst its peers. If you play your cards right, this won’t be the last surprise you’ll encounter.

The sole course at the Taito Country Club offers 18 holes that remain (mostly) realistic. The most over the top it gets is when it expects you to hit balls across islands, no wacky gimmicks or anything here. As someone who played tons of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour when they were younger, this took some adjusting to. The actual golfing mechanics on offer here are similarly archetypal. For every stroke, you can adjust the angle of your shot, which club you want to use, which part of the ball you want to hit, and how hard you want to hit it. Woods hit the ball further than irons and you have specialized clubs like a putter for when you’re near the pin and wedges for getting out of bunkers. Hitting your ball out of bounds adds an additional stroke to your tally and you obviously want to keep that tally as low as possible. Wind is continuously a factor as well, changing frequently as you aim and prepare your swing. A bit of wind has a noticeable effect on your ball, so you’ll generally want to slice the ball against the wind to keep it as straight as possible. All of this is easier said than done though, since determining which club to use when and how to tackle each hole takes some getting used to.

Indicative of its time, nothing in Golf-kko Open is explained and no specific information is provided to you regarding your options. You can intuit that woods hit further than irons through a Google search or by the order they appear in your list, but the more subtle difference between a 6I and a 7I? That’s something you’re gonna have to figure out yourself (or trust the estimates provided by this Gamefaqs guide). I have to wonder if the instruction manual elaborates upon any of this, but I unfortunately don’t have one and there don’t seem to be any scans online, so I have to go by what’s offered (or isn’t) in-game. The power gauge further complicates things too, since there’s no way to know the difference a single block of power makes until your ball has already left the tee. I was frequently surprised by just how severe the difference between a bit of power was; adding just one extra block to your swing can make it go from a small boost forward to launching your ball into the stratosphere. This is what makes the game challenging, but there really isn’t any pressure to perform well beyond the fun of mastery since there’s no ending to earn nor are there things that you unlock by doing well. The only thing that changes at the end is whether or not your opponent gets cocky or dismayed by the results.

That all make sense? Good, now we can get to the real interesting stuff.

As mentioned before, there are three caddies available to support you and the one you’re given for a game is random. They all offer the same services, but the way they do so is different enough to make them interesting. Chiemi is the youngest of the three, always offering advice in the sweetest and most polite way possible, but she’s also got her head in the clouds, sometimes doling out her advice alongside a little song or while she’s distracted by a nearby butterfly. Hitomi is the polar opposite, offering her advice in the bluntest way possible. She also won’t hesitate to laugh at you if you screw up and if you really blow it, she’ll sometimes get mad enough to question your intelligence in a graphic outburst of disbelief. Tetsuko provides the most detailed advice in exchange for being the least eccentric of the three, oftentimes telling you to aim in specific directions or to use advanced techniques like the backspin to get onto the green. Regardless of who you end up getting, their advice isn’t necessarily all that useful; they’ll warn you of things like nearby trees or bunkers, but seeing as how that’s all clearly visible to you already, it feels kind of redundant, if not slightly more immersive. However, their advice is always capped off with an exact measurement of how far you are from the pin, something that’s very useful for determining which club to use in your current situation (once you get a handle on their differences, that is).

As you play Golf-kko Open, you’re bound to make plenty of mistakes. Overshooting during a putt, hitting a bunker, underestimating the wind are all errors that are going to happen multiple times before you get the hang of things. Taito seems to have realized this and thus presents an interesting question to the player: do you even want to get better? In most cases, the answer would be a resounding yes, but this game offers more incentives to do poorly than it does for you to do well. You see, Golf-kko Open contains several hidden events that can only be triggered in esoteric ways, usually by getting a certain number of OBs (sometimes the location of the OB matters) on specific holes against specific opponents while having a specific caddie on your side. There are a handful of other triggers too, such as an event with Cho where he’ll offer you a new golf club if you hit a tree with your first stroke on the first hole while Tetsuko is your caddie. It’s such an obtuse way of doing things that it’s no surprise most players outside of Japan who know of the game make no mention of these secrets whatsoever. The first time I played the game, I didn’t know these events existed either. But after doing some research, I encountered a Japanese blog post documenting how to trigger some of these events, and it was then that my outlook on the game changed.

Staying in line with the game’s comedic tone, the events you can potentially encounter tend to be silly mishaps, surprise encounters, or even attempts at what some would call “fanservice”. To give an example of that, if you’re playing against Mama on hole 15 and hit the ball into the water a few times, you’ll get an opportunity to spot Chiemi lounging by the beach in her swimsuit. This event was probably meant to provide a bit of ~titillation~, but it also serves as a bit of world-building, showing the player that the caddies they work with have lives outside of the country club. Other examples include spotting a boat, Pro reprimanding you for something, and Hitomi handing you an eggplant, for whatever reason. Even having played through all 18 holes several times, testing every hole with multiple OBs and different character combinations, I still have yet to encounter many of the documented events. Apparently some of the events can end the game instantly, which is pretty funny! If you’re curious enough to try and find them yourself, this blog post from a Japanese player describes most of the events and how they’re determined within the game’s code.

The best events are the two that involve Taito cameos and result in unlockable characters. If you get OBs on the fifth hole with Chiemi as your caddie while playing against Pro, the three of you will get attacked by a yokai named Tai (a fish with human legs). While you’re frantically trying to deal with him, you get access to a very basic adventure game-like interface where you can call out to Chiemi and Pro. It’s as minimal as can be and the game resolves the situation automatically, but I thought the gear shift here was really creative and absolutely unexpected in a golf game. After enough calling, the day is saved by none other than Sayo-chan of Kiki KaiKai/Pocky & Rocky fame, who offers to golf with you as well.

Once you finish the current game and get a password, you can then play against Sayo-chan, which is a pretty awesome reward if you ask me! She’s tied to at least one event (a swimsuit one like Chiemi has) and uses her Gohei as a golf club, which is a pretty great touch. Confirming Sayo-chan’s presence here was actually the main reason this game was on my radar and it turns out she was a mystery to Japanese players for a long time, so it’s no wonder I couldn’t find any English resources that could prove she was in the game. Going by the blog I found, the exact method of unlocking her wasn’t documented online until 2017! It’s pretty amazing that a Famicom golf game of all things had such a long-running mystery (28 years!) surrounding it that seems to have gone completely unnoticed outside of Japan, isn’t it?

In a similar vein, you can also unlock Ashura from Demon Sword/Fudou Myououden, who uses his sword, the Nanatsusaya no Tachi, to both fend off another yokai that wants to ruin some golfers’ day and as a golf club. Seems kind of disrespectful to such an important sword and it doesn’t seem to prevent him from making frequent mistakes either, but hey, whatever works! Taito has such a wonderful catalog of characters and games that they reference often, so it’s nice to see them extend that to this game too.

Golf-kko Open might be the only video game I can think of that is at its best when you’re actively trying to play it badly. It’s a perfectly fine golf game, but I had the most fun digging into its secrets and experimenting with how to unlock the events. Instead of trying to improve my golf game, I found myself launching the ball anywhere and everywhere, praying for the next endorphin hit from discovering a new event. It’s a game that really deserves a fan translation and I bet that it would garner some respect outside of Japan for being such an interesting experience if it were to get one. Its dialogue is written in a simple and charming way and its sentences are easier to grasp and less dense than something like Jaseiken Necromancer despite both games exclusively using Kana, so barring any technical complications, a fan translation by experienced hackers probably wouldn’t take too long to do. If you can read Kana, it’s worth a go even with something like DeepL in tow just to see if you can find anything that I didn’t. Golf-kko Open is simultaneously a game for golf fans, golf newbies, golf haters, and Taito fans all at once – that’s a pretty impressive spread!

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