(This is a review of the Japanese version of Hot Shots Golf. I don't speak Japanese, so there may be some minor things I missed due to the game being in Japanese. I did have help translating the menus, so I feel confident about my assessment of the title.)
One of Sony's most popular franchises both in the United States and Japan is Hot Shots Golf (Minna no Golf in Japan). Its quirky characters, fast pace, and forgiving learning curve has made it a favorite of not only sports fans, but casual gamers as well. Hot Shots is one of the few Japanese launch titles that is sure to be released in North America, which is a good thing, because it's one of the better games for the young PSP system.
There are several familiar game modes, including: stroke play, match play, tournament, training, and an all new putting game challenge. The 9 hole putting game places you on the green, and has you putt towards multiple cups, the furthest cup away yielding the most points. Since there's a target score for each round, and you only get one stroke per hole, you must carefully pick and choose when to go for the safe putt and when to risk a long putt. The cups are larger than normal, which makes things a little easier, but even the short 10 point putts are far from being gimmies.
Hot Shots Golf features six new courses, and a plethora of unlockable golfers, all of which feature the trademark Hot Shots' style. In addition to unlocking new courses and characters, new outfits can be earned, as well as new clubs and balls. These are all unlocked by playing the challenge mode, which features 9 hole competitions against a whole field of competitors, or sometimes only one.
The bulk of the gameplay is in the challenge mode, but it's also where the game gets tedious. When you begin, you've only got access to two golfers and one course. Even after winning 10 matches, you'll still have two golfers and one course to choose from, but you'll have all sorts of worthless crap like sunglasses, a watch, and a surgical mask. In fact, after winning over 30 matches, you'll only have four golfers and two courses, despite putting in a good eight hours. The game is also quite easy for the first two or three courses, which makes playing them over and over, even more of a chore than it already is.
Two things that make Hot Shots an ideal handheld title are the short challenges and the PSP's sleep mode. Playing 9 holes doesn't take very long, and it takes even less time if you blow someone out in a Vs. match. If you do have to stop playing, you can simply put the PSP in sleep mode and resume right where you left off. You can even do this while the ball is in the air, and it will be right where it was when you come back.
Once on the links, anyone who has ever played a Hot Shots game will feel right at home. Hitting the ball is still just three button taps, and placing spin on the ball is as easy as pressing the d-pad while swinging. Hitting the square button will bring up a power shot, which gives you extra distance, but also makes your impact point smaller and more difficult to hit. Like previous games, the power shots are limited, so it's often best to save them for Par 5's, or late in the round should you need to make a few birdies.
Putting is by far the most difficult part of the game, and the one that will take make or break your scores. While putting, the game shows the slope of the green by overlaying a grid with moving dots, who's speed represent the severity of the slope. It's a challenge to putt on a full size screen, and it's even more difficult on the PSP because the dots often aren't easy to see. This is particularly an issue on long putts, but it can be tough when there are a lot of elevation changes in a putt as well. It's also very easy to have putts rim out, even if the ball doesn't have a whole lot of speed. Certainly this happens in real life, but it happens a little too often here. One nice touch is that you can make your golfer disappear by tapping the shoulder button, since their big heads often get in the way of you seeing the hole.
The game relies heavily on wind to add some challenge to the game, and you can gauge the wind speed by pressing down and tossing some grass into the air before you swing. This won't give you an exact speed (that will be available after your first stroke), but you can get a good idea of how hard it's blowing by how far the grass flies.
The course design is vintage Hot Shots, with wide fairways, forgiving rough, and large greens helping keep the ball in play. This doesn't mean the game is easy, but it does mean you're less likely to be frustrated by hitting the ball out of bounds. The course design rewards smart shot selection as much as it rewards striking the ball well. Many times, the default target is not the best place to hit your ball, and pressing the start button to bring up an overhead view of the hole will reveal a more clever way of getting the ball from tee to green.
The load times are very reasonable, but since people aren't used to load times on a handheld, they might take a while to get used to. After waiting 15-20 seconds after powering the system on, you load your game save and navigate through the menus, each of which take a few seconds to load. Once you head to the course, it takes another 15-20 seconds to load, but after that, there's virtually no loading for the entire 18 holes.
There is a wireless multi-player mode, but there's no multi-player option for sharing one PSP, which is disappointing. The wireless mode was unable to be tested since it requires more than one PSP.
Hot Shots' visuals aren't as technically impressive as Ridge Racers', but they are notable in their own way. First off, the widescreen suits the game very well, since it allows a large area of the course to be viewed without adjusting the camera. You can zoom all over the course, and move the camera up and down as well, which is a nice bonus for anyone that has played a handheld golf game previous to this one.
The colors are extremely bright and very colorful – just like they are on the console versions. Even the "saving game" screens, which feature short video clips of clouds, waves, and even Hippos in the water are impressive. The characters' have unique swings and celebrations, or if you stink, their own expressions of frustration. A noteworthy omission is that the caddies are nowhere to be seen. You can choose one before the match, but you only hear them, you never actually see them.
The graphics fare a little worse from a technical standpoint. The biggest issue is that many of the seams joining one piece of the course to the next don't fit together well, and you can see lines where one part ends and the next begins. This is only visible from certain camera angles, but when the camera does a fly by, you'll see them pop in and out. There are also some pretty low-res textures in the game, specifically the rocks, and the water. The trees are PSone quality, and there aren't very many of them either. The game doesn't seem to be pushing the PSP hardware, which gives you the feeling that if there was more development time, the game could have been optimized a bit better and there would have been more foliage and better texturing.
Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot to like about Hot Shots' audio. There are some nice ambient sounds like running water and howling wind, but other than that, there's not much worth noting. There's not a lot of variety to the club and ball sound effects, nor is there much diversity to the gallery applause. As usual, the caddies and golfers have their own catchphrases, and some people will love ‘em, while others will hate them.
The music is vintage Hot Shots, which means that it's very bad. Repetitive elevator music is the order of the day, which means you'll be playing this game with the sound turned off after a few rounds. On the plus side, you'll be saving battery life by playing this way.
Like Ridge Racers, Hot Shots is a very competent version of a console favorite. The gameplay is virtually identical, and even the graphics look similar to the casual eye. Unfortunately, the biggest sacrifice is course variety, which wouldn't be so bad if developer Clap Hanz hadn't artificially lengthened the game by making you progress so slowly. The game is still quite fun, and even with only six courses, it will keep you entertained for quite a while.