By Marty Demarest

The Mario sports games have generally been good. They mix a cast of expressive, iconic characters with simple, addicting gameplay and turn gamers loose against one another. Mario Tennis, for the Nintendo 64, was a compelling update of the classic Pong. Mario Kart is still one of the best recreations of driving a go-kart, largely due to its simple controls and clever extra features. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour (Rated: E) has many of the same advantages, and with its laid-back play and snowcone-cool style, it's the perfect way to while away the last of the warm months.

As you can imagine, the game is little more than golf played by the different Mario characters. As many as four players can compete, even if they have only one controller between them, since everything is turn based. Even for players who disregard the instructions, the controls are a breeze to figure out, although players who read the manual or complete the in-game lessons will have the advantage when it comes to trickier shots. Adjusting power, length, spin and impact point is intuitive, and a handy landing-grid shows the likely landing point. Of course, terrain and weather affect the ball -- but somehow the blend is perfect. Serious players will enjoy taking on the challenge of compensating for these environmental factors; younger or more casual gamers should have no problem just teeing off with decent results.

It wouldn't be a Nintendo game if there weren't some surprises. New characters and courses can be unlocked, and there are badges to earn and special characters to discover. Toadstool Tour is underscored with breezy, avuncular music, and the courses are in fantastic realms (treetops, deserts) that give the whole game the charm of mini-golf gone epic. In some levels, sewer pipes transport balls across the course and chomping iron balls make the hazards more hazardous than usual. Some courses challenge players to drive their ball through the greatest number of floating coins or navigate a series of hoops. But these are merely options; for all its cartoonish gleefulness, this is usually a fairly straight-ahead game. Many players will find themselves devoting hours to sinking the perfect shot. But unlike some video games, where failure means repeating the same basic task in a nearly identical manner until the player succeeds, trying for better results in Toadstool Tour puts the fun back in the playing itself.

Publication date: 08/14/03

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