Greg Norman’s Ultimate Golf: Where are the Sharks?

During my recent confession disguised as a review, I admitted that I actually had a bit of a soft spot for golf games; not in a kind of ‘let’s simulate the heck out of this down to the brand of spikes in Ralph Grundleson’s special golf shoes’, but more of a casual arcade-ey soft-spot for the precise layout of the course and seeing that virtual ball sail towards the horizon from a perfectly executed QTE. I also mentioned that some of this unexpected leaning was likely down to playing Greg Norman’s Ultimate Golf on Atari ST … SHARK ATTACK!!…

… and I’m going to be upfront with my biggest criticism of the game- hold on to your hats because it’s a doozy. No game … NO!… GAME!… should feature the words ‘Shark Attack!’ right these in bright letters on the boxart if they don’t contain at least one shark. Greg Norman’s Ultimate Golf does not feature any sharks… and yet SHARK ATTACK is right there on the box, and no, I’m sorry to all you golfing a-fish-a-nandos, Greg Norman is not a shark. He is an Australian gentleman who likes to play golf. As an eight year old child this was one of my biggest gaming disappointments. I’ve waited a long time to set the record straight there. 

The whole thing got me feeling a bit nostalgic for ol’ GN’s:UG so I decided to emulate the heck out of it in an attempt to see what it is about the game that I must have at least been slightly intrigued by (yes, I could have dug out the actual ST and played… but no, I don’t have that kind of lounge space or time to spare at the moment).

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There’s also a feature where you can set up a player in a database… feels excessive… 

On start-up the player has to pick up-front which of the two courses that they want to play: ‘Gremlin‘ or ‘Rac Epsom‘. Gremlin is the name of the game publisher (also famous for …Zool?), so I sat for some time trying to work out what Rac Epsom could be a reference to or funny anagram of, finally caved, googled it, and now sheepishly know that the RAC Golf Club in Epsom is a real course. There’s also the option to load a new course from a disk, and I’d love to know if there were ever any course expansions released for the ST version. Finally, when the player gets to the menu screen they can set up the game settings before heading out to the virtual first tee. The menu is also home to one of the weirder game options; right there next to the toggle for wind, weather, “ball effects” (I think that’s just ‘spin’), is a toggle for ‘Caddy’. Always switch off ‘caddy’. Don’t just take my word for it, it says on page 5 of the manual “… move the pointer over the caddy icon and press once to de-select. De-selecting the caddy will enable the game to be played faster.” And it’s not wrong! Leave it selected and prepare to be waiting a long time to make some shots as the caddy feature attempts to set up your swing. It’s supposed to be a player assist, but seriously switch it off…  just switch it off.

Anywho, enough setup, let’s go golfing!

… and here’s the tee off – just check out that delightful rotoscoped Greg Normal, I guess it’s Greg Norman… what, wait? gah, sliced it. Sorry, back up a second, can I take a Mulligan?

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In order to meet the rigorous computational demands of displaying a current view of the course, the scene draws sequentially each time it needs to change. Starting with the furthest point and a flurry of appearing trees, bushes, bunkers, and oddly polygonal terrain rushes towards the player. This has the delightful consequence that if your ball is lying behind a large tree, you don’t find out until the last possible moment as a beautifully clear lie is suddenly obscured by a pixilated pile of green. Viewed through the current indie gaming trend lens of low-poly and highly stylistic visual choices, the striated trees and patchwork fairways somehow come across as remarkably attractive and relevant. As a child I was fascinated by the backgrounds; I always wanted to get closer to those dark foreboding city skylines, and neat rows of caricaturish houses. After all, this was a rare 3D ingame world and I wanted to explore it.

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I swear, it take like 3-4 seconds for those near hedges to render in.

So, let’s get swinging, right? Wrong! This is more sophisticated than that; ok, yes, you can just hack away at the ball and eventually you’ll get to the hole… and yes, that’s how I used to play as an eight year old… but this time I was determined to work out what all these menus and settings did.

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First up you need to check out the map screen. Unsurprisingly this gives a map view of the current hole with your current location and line of sight indicated. As a default the game faces you toward the hole but, what eight year old me failed to grasp was that, that’s often not the best direction to avoid hazards, rough, or just generally stay on the fairway. So critically this is where you can turn to face a different direction, or even stroll around the hole to take in the sights and check out the view from different areas. The player HAS to do it from this 2D map as the 3D view takes those few seconds to draw and therefore trying to move around the course in realtime 3D is just not something that even the great ST had in its repertoire. Next it’s a good idea to pick an appropriate club for the distance of shot and current terrain… then swing away right? Nope! Next head to the swing menu, or as I like to call it the menu that confused the heck out of me

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I still have absolutely no idea what that gauge next to the golfer .. diagram… is. You can’t seem to move it up or down at all… answers on a postcard?

… what even is going on here??

Seriously, it really is only now (after playing Golf Story) that I even vaguely understand what’s going on. First up, ignore the screen layout; the UI design here is not strong. There are three things this screen controls. In the lower left you can move the strike position on the ball up or down to give top or backspin respectively, but put away any thought of deftly dropping a backspin chip on to the green and getting it to come back in to the hole, these greens are made of trampoline, pure trampoline. In the lower right you can open or close the club face to give the ball sidespin and shape the path of the shot in the air. Yes, this is a superb level of detail, and no, I’ve never used it successfully without it just causing the ball to veer off the course wildly. Finally we come to the big plan view of the golfer in the top half of the screen which shows the arc-of-the-swing and the wind direction (big red arrow). Those small “in-in-in” and “out-out-out” buttons tucked away in the centre bottom change the arc of the swing which in reality just changes the direction that you hit the ball. In short, this just allows you to compensate for the wind direction without having to go back to the map screen and turn & render again. The strength of the wind is represented by the wind.. ometer?… on the info panel on the right. This undermines some of the game’s subtlety as the wind speed flits around between dead calm and hurricane making your final selection an exercise in rapid clicking to try and get from this menu to hitting the ball as fast as possible before the breeze ups and changes.

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Finally… FINALLY… we can swing at the ball. It’s the usual QTE style experience; hold the trigger down to fill the power gauge, then release and hit it again when the swinging “accuracy meter” (that line in the weird circle segment) is in the middle to hit the perfect shot without unintended hook or slice. And wow! does this happen quickly! Don’t expect to hit anything even close to a reasonable shot the first time as that bar rockets up and the line flails about all over the place. I’ve played a number of games aver the years that use this mechanic, and this is easily one of the most demanding… but not impossible, and after a while you can start to find a rhythm to it… after a while…

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… harsh… 

So, off I set, on my virtual round of golf which had its fair share of disasters and double-bogeys, but also… one time… I managed a birdie. Most important of all, I was actually having fun. To clarify, I was playing on an emulator on my phone, but as a mobile game I found myself getting pretty in to it. Sure it has a few quirks, like the aforementioned caddy feature, or that the scale is seriously off (It’s most noticeable on the greens where I’d estimate that distances appear about 5 times shorter than they actually are… either that or Greg Norman is secretly 50 ft tall… but it doesn’t mention it on his Wikipedia page… and I guess it would. Heck, even with all his golfing achievements I bet something like that would make the opening paragraph). But it also had challenge, with all its menus and weird settings, unpredictable wind, and (apparently) different behaviour in different weather, each time I made Par was an achievement. I even went as far as play through all 36 holes that the game has to offer which in hindsight did highlight one big flaw in GN,UG; In short, RAC Epsom. The Gremlin course is pretty cool, some interesting holes, great use of water hazards, whatever. The problem is that including a REAL course in a golf game highlights just how dull real golf course designs are compared to their virtual companions. The RAC Epsom holes are bland; most are straight, or nearly-straight fairways with a green at the end, and maybe a couple of bunkers of to the side. How can that compare to the mythical floating fairway islands of Super MonkeyBall Golf? or the literal tropical island hopping holes in Golf Story? Which I guess brings me neatly back to another reason I like golf games…. rather than golf the game…

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That’s a Birdie… I think that’s a Birdie… 

… but yeah, Gremlin, if you … still exist?… you should consider re-releasing GN’s Ultimate Golf as a mobile app. This game was released on all the home computing systems of note in the early 90’s and I’m guessing that I’m not the only fan. I bet you could make… £100… easily in app sales… make it £150 if you actually PUT SOME DAMN SHARKS IN IT THIS TIME!

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… also maybe update this… the alignment of the text makes me sad… 

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