Japanese studio Clap Hanz may be the developer best associated with the Hot Shots Golf series, which is also known as Everybody’s Golf in Europe. However, it was Camelot Software Planning that teed off the original entry on PS1 back in 1997. That team – having helmed the Shining Force series for SEGA throughout early 90s under the name Sonic! Software Planning – would go on to become one of Nintendo’s closest second-party allies to this very day, but the blueprints for its 1999 Nintendo 64 debut Mario Golf could be found in its second collaboration with Sony Computer Entertainment. (Its first was a largely forgotten RPG named Beyond the Beyond, which never released outside of its native Japan and North America.)
A chunk of Camelot’s top talent, including director Masashi Muramori, would later leave to form the aforementioned Clap Hanz, of course – and it’s fascinating just how little has changed in subsequent Hot Shots Golf instalments. All of the concepts are present and correct in this inaugural entry: the triple-click shot system, the larger-than-life characters, and the gratuitous dopamine-inducing ‘Nice Shot’ declaration when you time your swing to perfection. An impressive effort in 1997, the presentation – using pre-rendered character models and rudimentary polygonal environments suspended in space – felt like a natural evolution of what had been achieved on 16-bit systems, and even improved massively on SNK’s arcade effort from the previous year, Neo Turf Masters.
Despite barely changing over the years, though, the developer did refine the formula. Specifically, the original Hot Shots Golf feels finicky, demanding exact inputs in order to hit clean drives onto the greens. Deviating, even slightly, from the sweet spot results in huge draws which can decimate your score – and similarly, the roughs are deadly, slowing your ball to a crawl. Clap Hanz would relax some of these systems later – adding the tortoise and hare system to better reflect the accuracy of your shots – but the gameplay is still good. The only real downside is that input lag means you won’t always be at fault for some of your mishits.
Still, this is a thoughtful package that in many ways belies its age. There’s the obvious Stroke Play option, of course, which allows you to simply set your best possible score across 18 holes – but other modes enable you to compete against friends and family on a single PlayStation Controller, allowing you to pass the pad in a turn-based format. You can also take on the computer to unlock additional characters, all with unique animations and statistical attributes – while the Tournament mode provides your best opportunity at earning EXP, which can be used to gain admission to a total of five courses. Piece it all together and it’s a rather robust package by mid-90s gaming standards.
Those courses generally look great, too – basic and reflective of the era, yes, but boasting vibrant, distinctive colour palettes that add character and make the gameplay easy for pretty much anyone to understand. The greens, lacking the now customary dotted lines, can be difficult to read – but you can get some putting practice in a separate Mini Golf mode, which is a particularly zany distraction from the traditional (albeit extremely arcadey) fare in the main game.
Whatever modes you’re playing, the title exudes excitement, from the over-animated disembodied hand that acts as your cursor in menu screens through to the ostentatious camera sweeps – complete with jaw-dropping 90s god days – that follow the trajectory of your shots. Eagles and better are automatically rewarded with replays (although you can trigger your own whenever you like), while the earworm MIDI soundtrack sears its way into your skull whenever you play, providing an upbeat backdrop to the light-hearted golf on-screen.
Hot Shots Golf has hardly changed in the years since it released, and that’s because Camelot hit the sweet spot with its very first swing. While later entries refined the gameplay and ultimately made it more forgiving, the series’ sickly sweet centre is still present and correct in this inaugural instalment. Importantly, it’d go on to form the foundation for dozens upon dozens of arcade golf games afterwards – including, perhaps most notably, the many Mario Golf titles.