The unusual fun of Japanese golf games

For most fans of Japanese releases, there are two words as reviled as any others: “sports game.” They’re likely to make the most open-minded player tune out at a moment’s notice, simply because of how they don’t generally line up with their basic sensibilities.

That’s not true about all sports, though. There’s one sport that Japan gets very, very right: golf.

Here are the best examples of Japanese developers making golf into something inexplicably special:

Making golf different

Ribbit King

2003 (PlayStation 2 / GameCube), Infinity / Jamsworks / Bandai
One of the most unsung games of its generation, Ribbit King took the basic ideas of golf and turned them into an item-based, score-chasing burst of life and color. Ribbit King has some interesting challenge in its solo components, but much like Super Monkey Ball and Kirby Air Ride, it’s best as a multiplayer showcase. There’s really nothing else like it.

Kirby’s Dream Course

1994 (Super NES), HAL Laboratory / Nintendo
HAL was no stranger to golf games when it decided to bring Kirby into the mix, and it shows with just how thought-out — and how difficult — the game proves to be. That difficulty may have scared off some fans of Kirby’s easier outings, but practice and patience lead you to some truly rewarding play. Even if you don’t climb the skill ladder, you can have fun duking it out with a pal in the versus mode.

Making golf more rewarding

Mario Golf

1999 (Game Boy Color), Camelot / Nintendo
Camelot’s been behind all of the Mario Golf outings, but the first portable one still holds a particular appeal, and it’s largely due to its RPG trappings. With its easy-to-grasp control scheme, there’s more to strategy than execution, and a fun world to explore and dominate. And hey, there’s a Japan-only sequel!

Everybody’s Golf VR

2019 (PlayStation 4), Clap Hanz / Sony
The Everybody’s Golf (also known as Hot Shots Golf) series has been delivering fun courses with a ton of customization and incentive for decades, and developer Clap Hanz has been a good steward of the franchise since Camelot left it to go work on, well, see above. The non-VR release is packed with tons of features and is definitely worth your time, but we wanted to shine a spotlight on this new version. It’s less packed with content and customization, but the motion control implementation is spot-on and accessible in ways that players of, say, Wii Sports will enjoy quite a bit.

Just making great golf

Neo Turf Masters

1996 (Neo Geo), Nazca / SNK
Maybe Japan just has a better grasp of what makes golf games fun? Because Neo Turf Masters has no real quirks or twists, and just delivers satisfying golf that’s easy enough for non-sports people to grasp. It takes the sensibilities of a Neo Geo-era arcade game and applies it to the sport, making the action quick and each stroke feel meaningful. Also the voice work is profoundly charming.

Wonder Classic

2001 (WonderSwan Color), Yoshidayama / Bandai
This wouldn’t be a Michibiku guide without an import! Wonder Classic is a showpiece for the Japan-only WonderSwan Color in all the ways you need: it’s one of the platform’s few games without a language barrier, it’s much cheaper than many other options and it plays beautifully in the handheld’s signature vertical mode. Give it a try!

For more helpful information for fans of Japanese games, check out our Guides section.

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