For a game that flatly declares golf “boring,” What The Golf is one hell of a golf game. It’s a title that turns everything into golf — even some of you favorite other video games like like Portal, SUPERHOT, Donkey Kong, and Frogger — while sharing its disdain for the traditional world of quiet courses, serene nature, and a distinct lack of cats on the course. That’s because if you ask the Danes behind the hilarious physics simulator, everything is actually a golf game when you really think about it.
“We wanted to kind of — I think it’s a bad word — but we wanted to kind of show off. Show you that those game mechanics that were in that game that you loved so much? It’s basically a golf mechanic,” said Rune Drewsen, a co-founder of Tribrand, which made What The Golf? “The only game that’s not golf is What The Golf? But all the other games that you’ve played? Even Assassin’s Creed. That’s golf.”
Unlike Golf Story, an indie heavily influenced by Mario Golf‘s arcade simulation, What The Golf? is more a physics engine designed to make you giggle unexpectedly. And by minimizing the seriousness of golf with some extremely silly mechanics, it makes a distinct political point without having to make it obvious. The folks behind the game “don’t have anything against” golf, but they do think the “rich man’s game” is certainly deserving of a bit of video game scorn.
“I think it’s super important when you do satire or whatever in some kind of sense that you’re kicking up. You should never kick down in society and I’m pretty sure that golf is one of the games that actually led to most countries’ downfall in a way,” Drewsen said. “I’m pretty sure that a lot of coups and stupid business sh*t have been planned on the golf course. I’m not sure any coups have been planned on the table tennis table or something like that.”
What The Golf? starts simply enough: a cartoon golfer stands on a tee with a cartoon hole in the distance and some cats curiously in your way. The controls are even simpler: use a single button and your joystick to get the ball to the hole and advance along. But it quickly turns into much more than that, and a bullet time-like system of slow motion helps you navigate through levels with your ball still in motion. Repetition is key to the laughs, as well as how you progress through and learn new ways to complete levels. Soon the same hole setup plays out very differently.
Subsequent holes get more and more outlandish and creative. There are some serious shades of titles like Baba Is You or Wario Ware that make for some inspiring and unexpected level design — think courses where the power meter of your “golf” shot suddenly becomes a bat to propel other objects forward or different gravitational forces from planets in a space-themed mini level. As you play through the laboratory setting of the campaign, your golf ball turns into various other objects that change the makeup and abilities of the object you propel through levels.
What the Golf? drew big crowds of people laughing at some of the levels that made the final version of the game at PAX in 2019. But those were just small doses of a concept that’s fully fleshed out here, and seeing the title developed into a significantly more substantial thematic journey makes for an even more rewarding experience.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about the title is that it pays homage to other games without feeling repetitive or recycled. What The Golf? directly parodies everything from Mario to Super Meat Boy. There’s a beloved game that gets its own level later on that I won’t spoil but is truly inspired. And sports like bowling, snowboarding, and auto racing feature in some level design as well. If you missed the joke somehow, the on-screen puns and declarations when you complete the level will help you along. Drewsen equated the punch lines to the “KO” you see in fighting games, pointing to the absurdity of something that’s now become commonplace, if not expected, in a video game genre.
Games of every kind get a look here, even those little ball bearing obstacle course puzzles you probably got at the doctor’s office when you were a kid. Seeing this all executed in a single title is legitimately exciting. It deftly navigates delicate tasks — moving a vase through an obstacle course without breaking — and the more chaotic levels where anything goes. Despite the quick pace of progressing through the game, the reply value is certainly there in all the “crown” challenges that offer new, more difficult versions of the same courses.
That’s not to say the game is just stealing concepts from other titles and has nothing new to offer. To the contrary, watching everything become golf — and thereby a sport — is a wholly imaginative work that’s extremely satisfying to play and conquer. What The Golf? constantly surprises, even if the references are plainly obvious to those playing. It’s a game that uses every resource available to do something unexpected, a tough task when you know how every challenge should end. It’s art that can only exist as a video game, which was exactly the point.
“I think that’s what video games should do,” Drewsen said. “I think it’s super important, like if you have a graphic novel or a comic or whatever, I think it’s super important that you do something with that medium that only that medium can do. That will make the biggest impact on the audience because they will say ‘Oh my god, if they made a Netflix series out of that it wouldn’t be this awesome.'”
The creativity at play is impressive and makes what could be a straightforward puzzle game something much more. It often plays as a platformer, and a pretty good one at that. What The Golf? was released on PC and the Apple Arcade in 2019, but the retooled Switch version released this week adds some considerably worthwhile modes and special levels. There are “first person” experiences out of the Switch doc that are not to be missed, and two-player Party Mode is a blast of competitive chaos. There are also daily challenges and an “Impossible” challenge, all of which maximizes its value on the Switch in a very real way.
Smartly, the game has a menu option to “Show To A Friend” without messing up your save or having them complete your accomplishments. This is great title to watch, but one you want to play all for yourself. Trust me when I say the laundry list of fun features and surprises mentioned above just starts to scratch the surface of the fun. There’s so much to explore, and a lot to laugh about along the way. Even if you, like the game itself, proclaim to hate golf.