Golf, from my understanding, is a sport where practice is everything. Natural ability takes a backseat to repetition, ingraining form and power into muscle memory until precise control is second nature. It’s this cyclical nature of the sport that led Kyoto-based developer Chuhai Labs to imbue it with roguelike elements in Cursed to Golf, an unconventional combination of golf, platforming, and randomization that has occasional strokes of genius but is far from a hole-in-one.
Published on the Nintendo Switch and PC by Thunderful Games, Cursed to Golf casts players into Golf Purgatory and dares you to conquer 18 holes to call a mulligan on your death and come back to life. The immutable rules of golf still hold—get the ball into the hole—but each course is a labyrinth full of traps both familiar and hellishly devious, designed specifically to make your time on the greens as unenjoyable as possible. Spikes and sand dunes dot the desert-themed Oasis just as sentient vines and piranhas haunt the ethereal Caverns. Each biome has their own Legendary Caddie, a spectral super-Ace damned to Golf Purgatory, who must be bested in order to move onto the next area and get one step closer to ascension.
Armed with a driver, iron, and wedge, each helpful for specific situations and distances, you must get the ball into one of 70 premade holes before your par-counter reaches zero, a task that’s easier said than done even on the earliest levels. It becomes essential then to smash idols—gold idols add four to the par counter, silver idols add two—and utilize Ace Cards correctly to reach the end. Ace Cards are power-ups that give you the upper hand during a run, allowing you to do myriad things such as turn the ball into a rocket, U-turn the ball mid-air to change its direction, or even just add to the par-counter on a whim. Understanding what every card does and when to use them is the difference between victory and yet another failed run.
It doesn’t take long before the roguelike elements are harshly juxtaposed with the premise of golf itself. Golf is meant to be a slow methodical game that minimizes luck and rewards careful planning. Everything from the wind speed and direction to the tree placement and slope severity are taken into consideration by pros to get the lowest score possible. Cursed to Golf mimics the lethargic nature of the sport a little too perfectly—an exponentially rising difficulty curve forces times spent on each hole to quickly rise to 20+ minutes—but doesn’t share the same less-is-more approach to getting the ball into the hole.
As early as the second biome, the courses can get quite hard and take up nearly a dozen strokes to reach the hole. Narratively this tracks; the Greenskeeper, our pinstripe-clad Lucifer of the Links, crafts each course to be as punishing and laborious as possible. More often than not, though, these labors equate to longer courses with more obstacles that demand more precise shots. In theory this is okay, as there is a system in place that rewards you for each extra swing taken and each card used, although its benefits are negligible and hard to track. But this is golf we are talking about, a sport which idealizes a one-and-done perfect shot, so the ever-increasing shot count feels antithetical more than simply challenging.
On that note, it’s important that I take this time to clarify that there is a major difference between something being challenging and something being mean. Difficulty is highly subjective but it generally involves being skilled enough in the mechanics to reach an outcome that is hard to achieve but always feels attainable and fair. A well designed challenging game makes you understand that each failure is your fault, and that with more time and practice you can raise your skill level to overcome the obstacle. A mean game, on the other hand, doesn’t care about your skills or being fair: it is uncaring and brutal, designed to frustrate you, poke you, and prod you until victory is miraculously obtained and you achieve an intense, but hollow, euphoria.
A mean game is always challenging but a challenging game does not have to be mean. And sometimes Cursed to Golf is just plain mean.
Obstacles are hidden just out of sight, forcing blind shots that often lead to disaster if you do not have a perfect grasp of the game’s physics engine and spin system. The spin system itself, while incredibly helpful, is so poorly explained in game that I only finally understood how the mechanic was intended to work after nearly 10 hours of straight playtime. The game punishes you for trying to venture off the main path, with shortcuts generally requiring specific Ace Cards to access, rarely containing idols to make it worth your while, and often needing a second hyper-specific Ace Card to help get back onto the main path. The courses truly feel like they are designed by the Devil and that keeps them from being enjoyable to play through over and over and over again.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t enjoy all of the hours I’ve spent with Cursed to Golf. There are some merits to be found—the pixel art is pleasing but unremarkable, the music is hummable but humdrum, and the story is barebones but charming. It’s even possible that with the right combination of Ace Cards and the right selection of courses, the experience might even be kinda fun. But the game feels like it doesn’t only want to keep me from winning, it wants me to be miserable while playing.
By trying to merge golf into a roguelike without compromising either idea, Chuhai Labs have created a mean game that’s simply confused on what it wants to be. Is it a repetitious, randomized roguelike that rewards a player’s persistence, or an optimized golf simulator that promotes patience and planning? It’s not really either one, instead standing in the middle of the two options: a golf game that simultaneously wants you to be efficient with your swings while also taking as many as possible. And if you really want to get out of hell, you will be swinging a lot. To that I only have two things to say: Godspeed and fore!
Cursed to Golf was developed by Chuhai Labs and published by Thunderful Publishing. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X version. It is also available for Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and former Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.