This one hurts. When I first joined Pocket Tactics, with my job interview a solid quarter made up of me waxing lyrical about Golf Story, I asked right away if I could do our Sports Story review when the game arrived. Now I wish I had kept my mouth shut. I wish I had kept my damn mouth shut.
For those that don’t know, Sports Story is a follow-up to one of the Switch’s foremost indie darlings, Golf Story, a retro sports sim with its heart in its sleeve and its tongue in its cheek. Emerging as one of the early hits of Nintendo’s retribution-bringing device, Golf Story has since gone on to feature on every generic indie-Switch-games list you can think of – including ours, of course – while the developer, Sidebar Games, has been teasing the follow up since December 2019, with the title finally releasing late in December 2022. I wish the team waited a little while longer.
For starters, in its current inception, Sports Story is buggy as all hell. It’s quite possible to softlock yourself at a couple of locations in the game, the sports segments struggle with slowdown in a way which impedes gameplay – especially on the all-important golf swing – and in less than ten hours my game crashed four times, with one peculiar out of bounds experience included. The most fascinating bug I experienced was when I was levelling up my licence – which requires a certain amount of quests fulfilled to move from C through to S – and for some reason, the game allowed me to completely bypass A licence quests, essentially skipping a whole part of the game. Of course, I quit before saving so as not to ruin the experience, but this sort of bug is good for no one but speedrunners, and goes to show just what a strange state the game is in on release.
The characters all return from Golf Story, and while they’re still more endearing and engaging than the cast of your regular sports title, the rags-to-riches story of the first game certainly suits the gang more. There’s something disjointed about the dynamic here, and while you can quite clearly see what they’re trying to do with the satirical nods to the world of corporate sport, you wonder if it might be better done with a fresh group of protagonists, or with a little less ambition. Things quite often feel rushed, especially getting to grips with individual sports with no tutorial option.
Sports Story begins on a new sporting resort owned by sporting conglomerate Purestrike, with your golfing hero visiting as part of an upcoming tournament. From here you start a quest across a new land, picking up new sports as you go, and playing a few nine-hole courses here and there too. At first, it feels like it might be more of the same, and I honestly would have been so on board with that you could practically call me Captain Hook, but instead, you head along to the mall about an hour in, and Sports Story properly becomes Sports Story.
Now, this next criticism is a little subjective, considering I believe Golf Story to be one of the primo sports titles on Switch, but the movement away from concentrating on golf to covering multiple sports just doesn’t work for me. This is partly the fault of how good the golf elements still feel, especially the full courses you can challenge your skills on, but they feel tacked on to a story and experience that I struggle to find much fun in. The fishing features some of the least intuitive angling mechanics I’ve played to date, the cricket is lethargic and doesn’t make a sport I think looks boring look any more fun – sorry cricket fans – and the tennis just doesn’t do it for me, there’s a certain sluggishness to it, and with each serve you long for the days on the fairway, or even in the bunker.
I will say, when not affected by bugs, the golf gameplay is still pretty great. While it now clearly plays second fiddle, maybe even third behind the tennis tour and core story, completing each nine-hole course was the most fun I had with Sports Story, and tricked me at times into thinking I was playing the Golf Story follow-up I had dreamed of. Then the golf would end, and the illusion would shatter.
The problem with Sports Story, in essence, outside of the bugs, is that everything that feels charming about the first game just comes off differently this time around. The minigames are tedious, especially those outside of golfing, the lack of a map makes navigation in any location a nightmare of retreading the same ground looking for some minutiae you might have missed, and most sadly of all, the tongue-in-cheek humour of Golf Story feels forced here, with entirely too much dialogue and not enough gameplay. That isn’t to say the writing is bad. It just feels a little microwave-prepared when compared to the hot oven-cooked dialogue of the original.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about comes in the third chapter of the game, when you join up with a cricket team to defend itself and its town from the game’s gang of antagonists. The cricket itself is not good, the balls you hit don’t earn you points, you just have to protect the wicket – or in this case, wheelie bin – against an unseen bowler, all of which feels rather tedious while you deal with just too much dialogue from the commentators. The end of the level requires a single golfing chipshot to beat three enemy players, not only reminding you that you could be playing golf, a sport this series has already mastered, but rubbing salt in the wounds by requiring a shot almost impossible if you haven’t changed your setup from the starter clubs – and why would you, when there’s so little golfing going on – without the option to change your equipment mid-round.
It was at that point, as I hit pointless cricket shots towards the unfunny audience, that I began to realise I wasn’t having a good time with Sports Story, even discounting the bugs that make your drive stutter or trip you up on a BMX run – which I hate, by the way, I hate the BMX bits, the thing controls like a tank. Considering I still preach the gospel of Golf Story to anyone who will listen, my lack of enjoyment with Sports Story comes as both a shock and a disappointment, and I’ve found myself only really playing through for the sake of this review, rather than wanting to experience more of what the game has to offer.
Instead of being a spectacular sequel, Sports Story as it plays today emanates an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it vibe” like no sequel I’ve played in a long time. Ignoring the obvious irony that Sports Story is indeed broken right now, most of the additions to the sequel detract from what I so enjoyed with the original, and leave behind the stuff I don’t really want to do in its place. As it stands, I would actively advise waiting to try Sports Story until a patch arrives, and even then, some fans of the original are bound to feel alienated by the new direction.
Ultimately, I couldn’t even finish Sports Story, having lost an hour and a half of progress thanks to – you guessed it – another crash, before putting my Switch down in frustration. It’s clear that the development of Sports Story has been a struggle, with a hidden room found in a hacked version of the game full of developer complaints, but even with a fix on the way, according to Sidebar Games, I just don’t know if returning to Sports Story will be worth it for me. I do hope one day there is a real spiritual successor to Golf Story, but, well, this ain’t it.
Sports Story review
Sports Story is essentially unplayable in its current form, with issues such as softlocking, out-of-bounds areas, and perpetual crashing. Outside of the technical issues, much of the mechanics and story feel disappointing too, with the tongue-in-cheek humour still present but struggling to breathe among the various issues. The disappointment is real with this one.