Title: Pro Golfer Saru
   Genre: Sports (?)
   Developer: Bandai
   Released by: Bandai
   Release Date: May 5, 1987
   Japanese level: 1
   MSRP: 3300 yen
   Current Price: 500 yen

When I first loaded up this game and gave it a play, I was so shocked I felt like I just inserted my tongue into the cartridge port. The reason was twofold. Not only had Bandai actually made a game worth playing for once, but they made it in a genre - golf - that had previously bored the daylights out of me.

The background behind this game is a little serpentine and strange, but the original Pro Golfer Saru was a manga done by Fujiko/Fujio, the team behind Doraemon and other extremely popular Japanese comics. The basis of the story has Saru (Japanese for 'monkey') aiming to become the best golfer in the entire world. Please, do not ask me why a human/chimp hybrid is trying to achieve this not all that wonderful goal; I haven't actually read this yet.

Anyway, in order to achieve this goal he is undergoing training from a mysterious masked man, together with this weird kung-fu practicing guy who is Player 2 in this game.. (This is part of the reason why I enjoy manga; it's a change of pace. No editor in the US or Europe would even think that this crap can actually sell... and it probably can't except in Japan...)

No wusses allowed on this driving range
In this Disk System game, the masked guy has challenged you to the most difficult and trying tournament of your lives, taking place on a course that can be described charitably as "fantastic". There's only one course in this game, unfortunately, but before you step on the first tee it'll pay to do some practice shots. You get to putt around on the green for a little bit, and then aim at balloons or oni on the driving range. Good aim will give you a few more "super shots", which I'll get into later.

The first nine holes were constructed around what seems to be a typical golf locale at first glance - there's a fairway here, a bunker over there, some water - but once things get into action you'll begin to notice why life is so hard for our hero Saru. In the first and later holes, there are bottomless pits everywhere that act as OB areas if you over or undershoot the islands of land that hold the fairway and green. Tornadoes swallow your ball and bring it back to you, and crows do whatever they want with your ball if you hit them.. sometimes good things and sometimes bad. Also, the masked dude has installed weird fountains in the water hazards that reach up for your ball and pull it in! If you thought Greg Norman was a whiner before he'll probably have a nervous breakdown at the first tee of this course. By the way, pause and move the control pad around to see the entire hole.

Screw Tiger - here comes the monkey
Fortunately Saru has some weapons against all of this. For one, unlike other golf games it's very easy to hit good shots. The pointer actually pauses for a moment at the highest point so you can hit long shots all day if you want, and you can control your ball's movement to some extent while it's in the air with the control pad. There's also the "super shots" from practice that you can use to save yourself from putting around. If you're within an iron shot to the green, hit B until one of your two Super Shot options comes up. Then just hit a normal shot and watch as the game goes into voluptuous cinema scenes showing your ball shooting right into the hole or bouncing off the flag itself. I could only imagine if this was released in 1999 - we'd have weird J-pop going in the background as all these fancy anime cuts show the ball breaking the sound barrier on its way to the green. We were born too early, really.

The back nine contains even more surprises - it takes place inside and on top of buildings. This is obviously the answer to the lack of space in Japan's cities for big spacious golf courses - it's not like anything else is going on up there anyway. Naturally if you miss the roof and hit a car or something on the street it's OB (it's not explained how exactly we get from building to building, but). The holes inside buildings are quite a bit trickier as you can't loft shots over barriers or walls - you have to do massive hooks or slices to make the ball turn around them. It's all quite a lot of fun, and I'm surprised that more 'serious' golf games haven't tried to spice themselves up with things like this. Instead of the stodgy, super-white Augusta National, how about some links inside subway stations?

Putting is quite a bit easier than, say, Nintendo's golf games - the green always slopes in only one direction. There are rocks, pits, moles and so on, but you can always spin the ball around them if you like. This game is hugely enjoyable for at least one go because it's so accessible (probably for the sake of the kids who read that manga) and so original in its treatment of golf.

This is beside the point, but there's a commercial on TV in Japan starring Tiger Woods navigating a golf hole in the Grand Canyon. He's on one mesa and the green is on another, and they're separated by a 90-degree corner. So he hits the ball, starts shouting "Hook! Hook!" and the ball magically goes 'fwoosh' and hooks 90 degrees, landing right in the hole. And then Tiger says "It's wonderful Wonda", because this is an ad for some canned coffee, you see. In any case, I wonder of Tiger got his inspiration from Pro Golfer Saru... come to think of it, wasn't his trainer a masked dude in a bad trench coat? I donno..