Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Pebble Beach Golf Links (T&E Soft, for Sega Saturn)

Pebble Beach Golf Links was one of the early titles from Sega Saturn's notoriously early launch in the summer of 1995. An installment of the popular golf sim series by T&E Soft (which appeared on the PC), this was the very definition of a "launch title." That is, it's a videogame that is servicable, not very impressive, and largely present to satisfy early adopters before the real software titles arrive.

My first impression with this game was at a local Funcoland (remember those?), and was none too impressed. With the imminent arrival of Sony's Playstation taking all the buzz, Sega's early Saturn launch felt like a desperation move, and such wimpy titles were not winning us over. However, first impressions can be deceiving, and once I bought a Saturn myself (because of Panzer Dragoon, which just knocked my socks off), I picked up Pebble Beach, and it grew on me. Within a few weeks, my opinion completely turned around, and I saw this humble sports game as one of Saturn's early triumphs.

Pebble Beach Golf Links is still easily available at retro game stores for very little money, usually under five bucks. I think that's a great bargain, and heartily recommend it to any Sega Saturn owners or classic videogame collectors. It just plays a very solid game of golf, and even if only one 18-hole course is available, it's a very nice course, one of the best. You can't do much better than Pebble Beach.

One of the main selling points to this game is the inclusion of PGA golfer Craig "The Walrus" Stadler, who appears in video clips, narrating each upcoming hole on the course, and even competing against you. Now this is where I really love this game, and not for a reason you'd expect: Stadler is a real jerk.  He's a selfish, condescending know-it-all who knows you'll never play at his level, and we're all just lucky to bask in his greatness. And we all know that Stadler himself will never reach the heights of a Tiger Woods. Especially him. And so Walrus takes it out on us.

Playing against Stadler definitely brings out his bad side. I know the developers wanted to inject some friendly competition, but his snide comments and taunting just become comical. "You're gonna have to practice a lot more," he sneers when you botch that third hole. "Think you can beat that?" he boasts when his tee shot on the seventh lands inches from the hole. I suppose it's meant to inspire me. But I just want to whack him with my club and knock him into the ocean. In that sense, yes, it's very satisfying to beat him.

The graphics in Pebble Beach Golf Links serve as a time capsule of that era, when 3D polygon graphics and CD-ROM technology were new, and software developers had yet to figure it all out. There are digitized graphics and full-motion video clips (which Americans were obsessed with at the time), pre-rendered CGI sequences, and even some rudimentary polygon graphics that never quite held up. I tend to turn off the "ball cam" when playing, and stick with the basic view. Graphics are quite colorful, richly textured, and sprites of your golfer and other objects are very large. Much of the background artwork is pixelated, and this is, again, a snapshot of that era. It would have been nice if T&E Soft had rendered new graphics for the Saturn, instead of a simple PC port. But this is what launch titles are often like. Again, we're only passing time until Virtua Figher 2 drops.

Two of my favorite features in this game: the music, which is laid back, mellow, almost like "elevator music" but without the "please stay on the line" irritation; and the mid-game break, which shows off a series of digitized postcards of the Pebble Beach clubhouse, then allows you to get up and stretch your legs for a "coffee break." It's a very nice touch. This is especially helpful for a long session with your friends.

The only real complaint I ever had with Pebble Beach Golf Links was that judging the power of your swings was difficult to gauge; but that's true of just about every golf videogame ever made. This genre has barely changed at all since US Gold dropped Leaderboard Golf onto the 8-bit home computers 30 years ago. The Nintendo Wii Remote offered some needed innovations, but even then, the core gameplay hasn't budged. This is probably why I remember this title for its little intangibles; the little touches are all you've got. Pebble Beach is the textbook definition of "hidden gem," and Sega Saturn owners should definitely scrounge up the five bucks to add it to their software library.

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