The Greatest Sports Video Games of All Time (maybe)- Neo Turf Masters (Neo Geo Pocket Color)
Golf games translate well to the video game space. At this point the Hot Shots Golf series (Everybody’s Golf) and Golden Tee define the genre, but Neo Turf Masters used to be the pinnacle of the genre in the arcades in 1996. Neo Turf Masters was later ported in 1999 to the Neo Geo Pocket. Handheld ports of Arcade sports games can be hit or miss, but it has been done well before (NBA Jam handheld ports) and SNK really hit an eagle with Neo Turf Masters for the Neo Geo Pocket Color (also available on Switch now). SNK was smart to reimagine the look of the game and make it a truly handheld friendly experience.
What is Neo Turf Masters (NGPC)? Neo Turf Masters is a traditional 3-click golf game with multiple golfers to chose and 3 courses to master. The set up is simple, you choose a mode- Stroke play, Handicap, or Triple Crown. Triple Crown is the main single player mode. You have a roster of golfers to choose and you pick the one that best suits your play style and go for the championship. It’s a really well made arcade golf game.
How is the roster? There aren’t any licensed golfers in this game but that isn’t really needed. You have 6 golfers, all from different countries. Each golfer has different strengths and weaknesses. For example, the “Young Technician” is an American with all his stats being average. The stats encompass things like putting, drive distance, and control. It adds replay value and some strategy on who you choose. Some golfers are amazing putters but can’t drive for distance. Each player has a distinctive face and color scheme. It looks really distinctive.
How are the graphics? The graphics look great. The characters have the distinctive almost “chibi” style that a lot of the Neo Geo Pocket games used. The arcade game had a much more realistic look but it wouldn’t translate well to the handheld. The game is bright and colorful. The vibrant colors match the upbeat music. There is nice scaling with the golf ball when you hit it. The camera smoothly glides over the course when you hit the ball. The water on a lake moves when you’re setting up a shot. The game makes great use of the screen space. You have access to all the information you need on the screen. You have a birds eye mini map visible on the side, and then you are situated third-person behind the golfer when you swing. If you get a Birdie, you get a nice screen of the character celebrating his victory or lamenting their bogey (or in my case double bogey…). It looks great and the cartoony visuals age very well. Neo Turf Masters is a shining example of how making a unique mobile adaptation of a game is better than a visually compromised port (like we saw a lot on the PSP).
Is the sound good? The music is sublime. Even though this is a handheld game, it’s worth leaving the sound on. Check it out here- NEO TURF MASTERS OST
How is the gameplay? It’s kind of perfect. The game feels great. The swinging mechanic is easy to learn and not hard to master. The real challenge of the game comes from the courses themselves and putting. The difficulty curve ramps up via the game adding harsher variables like strong winds. It’s really difficult to drive and hit the green when the wind is going crazy. The putting is difficult because it’s hard to truly compensate for the different elevation changes. You have a power meter and you aim and pick your power but sometimes it feels like your rectangles are a block too strong or a block too weak, it lacks the needed precision to feel totally in control. That may also be my limitations and/or lack of talent. The greens have arrows to show you how they lay. The game does a great job communicating the course to the player. I think golf translates well to video games but bad golf games all seem to have the issue of not communication enough information to the player so the player can make the best decisions.
The game is simple and there are only 3 courses. The three courses add variability with the weather and this gives them a lot of replay value. An amazing feature with this game is between holes you’re given the option to turn off the machine and the game will save your place. It is an amazing quality of life feature. Neo Turf Master is just a very handheld player friendly experience.
Final Thoughts- One of my goals writing about these sports games was to highlight some of the overlooked sports games that just seem to exist to fill the shelves of retro game shops. “Greatest sports game of all time” is said kind of in jest, but honestly some of these games are great. Neo Turf Masters may dead ass be one of the best sports games of all time regardless of the platform it appears on. I think an argument can be made that the trackball of Golden Tee is more intuitive than the 3-click system used by Neo Turn Masters but the accessibility of the 3-click system and it’s ubiquity with so many golf games allow it to hold up extremely well. Neo Turf masters is one of the rare sports games where you don’t need to know anything about the sport to enjoy the game. THAT is why Neo Turf Masters is one of the best sports games of all time! (maybe)(probably?).