37 years later, Atari 2600 ‘Golf’ remains the finest in sports video game simulation
Everything was better the way it used to be, which is why you buy vinyl copies of records you already own, watch Netflix reboots en masse and apparently go to theaters to absorb five godawful, synapse-pounding Michael Bay movies vaguely based on toys you broke in 1986. The one cultural region where this aggressively nostalgic approach makes sense is video games, because if you are like some of us, you stopped upgrading/purchasing them 20 years ago, haven’t the foggiest clue how to f—king move your f—cking Boba Fett character in f—cking Star Wars Battlefront in a forward-like direction and would just rather play the games you grew up with, when life was uncomplicated, easy to master and built entirely out of 2 cm-thick squares.
Which brings us to the Atari 2600, and specifically Golf, which remains — at the risk of sounding hyperbolic — the best golf video game on the market (and by “market” I mean the ‘Antiquities and Curios’ shack behind the Cracker Barrel by the exit to 65 South). With that ridiculous premise held firmly in mind, here’s a look back at simply the best golf gameplay the early ‘80s had to offer:
When did Golf come out?
1980, a full three years after the inaugural round of Atari 2600 video games. Obviously, the graphics were pretty swanky by then.
How swanky was it?
Well, it’s the 2600, so “swanky” means the golfer is an upright man-sized duck whose club has been hideously grafted onto one or both of his arms. (While odd, this was still not as bad as Atari Donkey Kong, who appeared to be an irritated fudge brownie.) To be fair though, the water hazards on Golf are blue and the trees pretty much look like trees!
Who’s that on the cover?
Good question! That is very probably a version of Arnold Palmer that did not actually require paying Arnold Palmer. We’re also pretty sure that’s Loni Anderson, but can’t find anyone with whom to fact-check.
How do you actually play?
The game begins when Player 1 takes his surgically crafted arm-clubs and swings them in the general direction of the ball, which he will miss nine times. That is because Atari’s Golf does this neat thing where it ignores many of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. For instance, in the real world, hitting a ball to the left will make said ball travel to the left. In Golf, hitting a ball to the left may make it travel north, bounce off a tree, rebound 5,000 feet and make you fling Tab cans into the fridge where your dad kept the Stroh’s.
Were there other examples?
In real life, you have to stand next to your ball, which is lame and boring. In Atari Golf, you can stand under your ball and swing by waving the club over your head. Frankly, real golf needs a lot more of this.
How do you control your power?
The power of the golfer’s swing is determined by how long the player holds down the fire button. Briefly holding down the button makes the player tap the ball lightly. Holding the button for a long makes the player murder the ball with a primal and godless force that sends it directly into Sky Diver.
What does the gameboard look like?
In keeping with classic Atari 2600 design, the gameboard is a rectangle made of other rectangles with rectangle-shaped things in the middle of it. It’s basically the Combat gameboard, but for golf. It’s literally all they did. The boards for Golf, Pele’s Soccer, Adventure, Indy 500 and Circus Atari were all essentially the same landscape.
Were there hazards?
YES THERE WERE. Golf features water hazards that actually repel your ball, which would be nice to have in real life. There are also “sand traps,” which here are quicksand tarpits that swallow your ball and render it invisible. If you hit a ball into a Golf sand trap, you basically use your nature’s-cruelest-mistake club-arm to whack around the space your ball used to occupy. Which I guess is also real life.
Is Golf hard?
NO! That’s the beauty of it! Other golf games make you do things like select clubs, avoid obstacles, make choices and be good at video games. Golf boils the game down to its basest metrics: Take stick, hit ball, hope for best, infrequently end up accidentally in the correct-ish area, act like you totally meant to do it. Yes, other video games make golfers appear “human” instead of semi-mobile scarecrows with gigantism of the face, but that’s just part of the Atari charm.
Can I play it right now?
This is the internet, you can do anything right now. I’d have been done with this article two hours ago if I hadn’t found this site. Try to top my nine-hole score of 82, I dare you.