In recent years, with the rising popularity of casual and Facebook gaming, it's become the trend to merge different genres with the RPG. Bejeweled and Puzzle Quest merged the puzzle game genre with the RPG (or elements of it). Farmville and Cityville on Facebook do something similar, merging farm building and city building with one of the oldest gameplay mechanics in gaming: leveling up. And it works brilliantly. However, in 1999, developer Camelot beat them to the punch by merging the RPG with the sports game genre. Namely, golf and tennis on the Game Boy Color. And in their first sequel to those games, Camelot may have perfected the formula.
In 2004, Camelot released Mario Golf: Advance Tour on the Game Boy Advance. If you're familiar with Camelot at all, you may know them for their work on the Golden Sun and Shining Force series. They are probably best known for their work with Nintendo on the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis series though, and Advance Tour is probably the best example why.
While Advance Tour is a golf-RPG, it is light on story and heavy on actual golfing, so don't go into it expecting some kind of Final Fantasy adventure merged with golf. Expect a Mario-themed golf game that is deep and encyclopedic in its knowledge of the game (in fact, there's an actual golf glossary built into the game for you to reference golf terms you may not be familiar with). As well, don't assume that because it has Mario and the gang in it, that it's catering strictly to a younger audience or that this is a dumbed-down game of golf. It is not by any stretch. Advance Tour is as good and deep of a golf game as you'll most likely be able to find on any system, handheld or otherwise.
There are two basic modes: Story and Quick Game. Quick Game is just that, for when you want to quickly jump into a game. And Story mode is the actual full RPG part of the game where you rise through the ranks to try and become the golfing grandmaster of the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond, defeating your rivals while gaining experience points with every victory. While Story mode is where the meat of the game is, you can also gain XP in Quick Game mode as well. In fact, you may find yourself spending as much time in Quick Game as you do in Story if you want to max out both your character's (you and your doubles partner) XP and do everything in the game. And believe you me, there is plenty to do.
There are a variety of different types of golf you can play. Of course, there's the standard game of golf where you can do Match Play or play a full tourney with either singles or doubles. In Quick Game mode, you can pick who you want to play against in Match Play and the game will keep track of which opponents you've beaten. In fact, the game will keep track of just about everything you do during your play time and how well you do it.
Detailed stats are kept of all your golfing endeavors and accomplishments. Other types of golf challenges will have you hitting balls through star gates (go-go gates), speed golfing, golfing with clubs chosen from a slot machine, golfing entire courses with one club, defeating custom-made courses made by a cocky elf who berates you for every failure, and others. The variety is good and helps the game not get monotonous. Plus, every course has a ‘star-course’ version that adds Mushroom Kingdom touches like warp pipes that you can hit your ball into, chain chomps that will eat your ball if you get too close, giant stars you can hit your ball through to change the weather elements or give you extra power or XP, and giant mushrooms that will bounce your ball in an undesired (or desired if you're really good) direction. Every playable character also has a ‘star-version’ with boosted stats that you can play against in Match Play as well.
As well, if you have a GameCube (or Wii), a copy of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, and a Game Boy Advance/GameCube link cable, you can play your leveled-up characters in Toadstool Tour and earn even more XP that you can then transfer back to Advance Tour. It's a nice feature which I hope Nintendo expands upon in future installments of the series. It almost makes Toadstool Tour feel like an expansion of Advance Tour.
Crushing a long drive with your leveled-up characters on the Toadstool Tour courses feels very satisfying. Or if you just have a link cable and two Game Boy Advances, you can link up for some multiplayer. Or if you only have one Game Boy and no link cable and are really desperate for some multi-player, up to four people can pass around a Game Boy and take turns. It's not the ideal way to play, but this game came out in 2004 when Nintendo was still sticking their fingers in their ears whenever anyone mentioned anything about their games being online. You'll spend the vast majority of your time in the single-player mode with this one.
The game's visuals are what you'd expect if you've played either of the Golden Sun games on Game Boy Advance. In essence, Advance Tour is one of the prettiest Game Boy Advance games out there. Everything is colorful and vibrant and animated. Yes, you do get the trademark Camelot emoticons above character's heads when they're having conversations, which is either a positive or a negative depending on how much this annoyed you if you played the Golden Sun games. Personally, I always found it kind of charming, but I know a lot of gamers didn’t. So your mileage may vary with that.
There is some slowdown in the framerate when your computer opponent is charting their shot, but since you're not actually playing at the time, it doesn't affect gameplay in any way. Also, on the map screen, on a few occasions, I had a hard time seeing where my shot was landing on the course because of the angle of the map (which you can't rotate) and because the numbers telling me how long my shot was were in the way. This only happened a few times when I was trying to pull off a precision drive in a very specific part of the hole though. A minor annoyance, but worth mentioning.
Musically, Advance Tour has a lot of what I would call synth-driven, Mushroom Kingdom-style rock. Basically, if the band Rush were to do a concept album about the Mushroom Kingdom, I think it wouldn't sound too dissimilar from what is in Advance Tour. Lots of synth and drums. If you have no clue who Rush is and have no inkling to find out, let's just say the music is good and completely appropriate for the activity and setting of the game. But if you completely hate it, you can turn it off in the options menu. Sound design is sharp as well. The sound of your clubs hitting the ball on a massive drive is spot-on, followed by lots of ‘Nice Shot!’ encouragement from the game as the ball hurtles hundreds of yards through the air to its destination. Characters speak in classic Camelot garble-speak which, again, may be a positive or negative depending on your taste in Camelot's style with that stuff. And then you have all the classic Mushroom Kingdom sound-effects with warp pipes, chain chomps, giant bombs, etc. which never misses a beat. All very appropriate for a Mario game. Good stuff here.
If you’re looking for a handheld golf game, look no further. Not only is Advance Tour one of the best golf games out there, it's probably one of the best handheld games I've played, period. It's that good. Nintendo gets criticized for releasing too many Mario spin-offs and milking the IP, but when they’re this good, I say bring them on. I can't wait to play the 3DS installment. Advance Tour is fantastic.