What do you think of when I say “golf”? The very word evokes images of garish outfits, lush greens, and middle-aged white people. Though I can’t attest to being an expert in the sport, I can’t visualise golf having the same death-defying, adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding moment-to-moment action that other sports can offer. You’re not going to break your leg trying to pull off a 360° tail-whip off of a 3-metre vert ramp playing golf, though you might get a bit of sunburn having a nice walk, riding around in cool golf buggies and deciding whether your approach shot would be better served by an 8 or a 9-iron.
So, when I visited Chuhai Labs, an indie studio based in Kyoto headed by industry legend Giles Goddard, I was taken aback when Cursed To Golf creator and game director Liam Edwards told me that this game was “a golf roguelike”. A roguelike? You mean the twitch-control heavy murder-fests popularised by titles like The Binding Of Isaac and Hades? Surely not. But after playing through the first hour of the game, I am now convinced. Golf has indeed gone rogue.
When I first booted up the game, the most obvious thing to notice is just how gorgeous its 2D art style is, especially for a game that, according to Edwards, only started development in earnest in February of this year. This is due in part to Edwards committing to an incredibly small team consisting of industry talent like composer Mark Sparling (A Short Hike) and key artist Hiroco Shiino (Yo-kai Watch). The game blends pixel-art sprites and backdrops with an incredibly clean and crisp UI that makes everything delightfully clear and easy to read. Readability is something that Edwards takes seriously, as he explained to me.
“A lot of people might think it’s blasphemous to put a clean UI over pixel art, and I get that because pixel art is gorgeous but it can be difficult to read. So we didn’t want to use pixel fonts or pixel art cards. We wanted these things to stand out on top of the game world.”
When I hit start, my adorable golfer tumbles down to what Edwards describes as “golf purgatory”. He took the time to run me through the beginning of the story.
“The story is inspired by a play called “The Everyman”. When the cursed golfer was alive they were the Tiger Woods of their universe. The idea is that they’re about to win this tournament, and at the last shot, the shot which will immortalise them as a golfing legend, lightning strikes and they fall down to golf purgatory, where our golfer is trapped. The many colourful characters you meet throughout your journey will talk about “ascending”. The idea is that if you can complete these 18-holes, you will ascend out of golf purgatory.”
These 18-holes will make up the core experience of Cursed To Golf. It is within this mode, colourfully named “tee-off”, where the core of the story will be told and the place where players will start to be introduced to the games roguelike features, starting with the holes themselves.
“The adventure mode will consist of 18-holes across 4 different biomes: Purgatory, The Oasis, The Crystal Caverns and another we’re not talking about yet. Though this sounds quite compact for the adventure mode, you will realise that each hole is this massive structure within itself. So, it does feel like an adventure rather than a round of golf, especially when you see them across the course map. We have many different types of hazards across the different biomes as well, such as TNT, because golf wasn’t quite exciting enough. Golf could always use more TNT.”
The roguelike features extend further, with each round of 18-holes being different from the last, thanks to the nefarious Greenskeeper randomly assigning holes from a bank of up to 80 possible choices. However, unlike other roguelikes, these holes are not randomly generated, something that Edwards looked into early in the development cycle.
“We tried experimenting with randomly generated levels at the beginning, but it turned out that these levels just didn’t feel as good for hitting golf balls around as the levels we purposely designed. So instead we made as many of these crafted experiences as possible to help bolster the game’s replayability.”
Edwards’s attention to detail also limits which holes can be used when, as he continued to explain.
“Each biome offers unique hazards and gameplay opportunities, which means we can’t just re-skin a level depending on the biome. The banks of levels are separated by their respective biome: with the first area, the area players will play most, having a bank of 40 holes. When considering you will only ever play 5 holes in biome 1 per run, that’s a lot of possibilities for the players.”
But here’s where things get interesting. The golf itself is actually quite easy. Unlike other arcade golfers like the Mario Golf series, we only have three clubs to choose from: driver, iron and wedge. There are no time limits on completing the hole themselves (though Edwards is looking to introduce a separate time trial mode later in development), instead giving the player a 5-ball limit, with the option to earn extra shots through smashable idols dotted around each of the holes. Edwards went on to tell me how important it was to make the game as approachable as possible.
“Although it is a roguelike and will be a challenge, what we don’t want is hitting the ball itself to be the challenge. We want it to feel good, and get players excited about the different types of shots they can hit. The challenge is in how you navigate each of the holes. The idea is that the hitting the shots part is as simple as it should be. It’s more about how you use ace cards.”
Ace Cards are what Edwards describes as Cursed To Golf’s “secret sauce”. Throughout the game you will earn and purchase these cards that act like power-ups throughout the course of the game. These can range from simple upgrades like a mulligan or adding +1 to your shot count to ridiculous game-altering powers like thunderballs and portals. These cards are the avenue which allows Cursed To Golf to move away from a simple arcade golf game to a hard-as-nails trial of mental fortitude.
Each hole becomes a tactical war between completing the hole in as few shots as possible for better rewards versus hoarding cards for those later levels. Moving the skill focus away from the act of hitting the ball to how to manipulate the ball throughout the hole is what makes Cursed To Golf stand out amongst the ever-increasing wave of roguelikes. Cursed To Golf will both extend a hand in making the simple act of driving a ball super satisfying, whilst ripping out your throat with hazards and false pathways. It’s electrifying.
Cursed To Golf, at its core, is a game that celebrates the simple pleasures of golf. A game that understands that playing the game doesn’t have to be a challenge in itself. Edwards and his team have a clear goal with Cursed To Golf: make golf fun. Thankfully, as Edwards told me, a lot of that fun is already distilled in the sport itself. A sport perfect for the roguelike treatment.
“What Cursed To Golf is about is the fun of golf. The objective joy from hearing the clink of a well struck ball. If you go to a driving range, everybody inherently understands how to smack a ball. For us, there is an element to golf that everybody understands. You just hit a ball in one direction. For other roguelikes, it’s all about pure skill. For something like Hades it’s about the progression of the story.”
“For us, Cursed To Golf is all about learning. Like in the real world, when you play 18-holes of golf that’s not the end of you playing golf. You haven’t completed golf. You think about what went well and what you could do better and then you go again. Of course, we have a fully actualised story but at the same time it’s golf, it’s still a sport and we want you to get better.”
Cursed To Golf is scheduled to release in 2022 on Nintendo Switch and PC.