An almost complete history of videogame golf sims

MG
MG
Sep 21, 2017 · 12 min read

Links 2004 was beautiful. Like real golf it was as much about the tweeting birds and rustling trees and gentle ambience of the courses as it was about landing your ball in the cup. It was about the thwock and feeling of contact as your club struck the ball, the scale and spectacle of the best-kept private playgrounds on Earth, and the immensity of the pressure on every long putt or tricky escape from the bunker. Links was a quiet, slow-paced game built upon absolute concentration and precision with every stroke. In Links, the beginning, middle and end of your communication with the ball is your swing. You choose a shot, take your aim, draw back the left stick and swing through. With no opportunity to correct the ball’s flight in the air, every swing had to be planned and executed perfectly. You felt alone out there, knowing ten seconds or more of motion and emotion would be decided with a single second’s action.

If Links was about recreating golf the way an ordinary player experiences it then Tiger Woods PGA Tour was about recreating golf the way Tiger experiences it. From the earliest days Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour offered mid-flight spin correction to counter wayward strokes, giving players control over the ball in flight to imitate the almost supernatural degree of control PGA golfers exhibit on the course. Planning and execution be damned; all but the most catastrophic swings were recoverable mid-flight. Certainly you’ll never be as good a golfer as Tiger, but the game could make you feel as if you were.

This is a story about game developers chasing reality, and what happened when they got there.

Origins

Follow their inbred family trees back far enough and you can trace EA’s PGA Tour series and Microsoft’s Links to a single great-grandfather. In 1986, Access Software’s Leaderboard was the best golf game ever made. It was updated three times in the eighties and was followed by Links: The Challenge of Golf in 1990, which was swiftly recognised as the new best golf game ever made.

The Amiga and DOS version of Links were updated with a stack of expansions before Access Software made Links 386 Pro for the PC in 1992 and Links Pro for Mac in 1993, which were again the best golf games ever made. Access’ habit of making the-best-golf-game-ever-until-the-next-one continued through their collaborations with Microsoft, and from 1997 onwards they were turning out a new Links game every year. Microsoft would buy Access in 1999 and the studio stayed busy with annual updates until the Links series concluded with its first ever console port — for Xbox — in 2003.

You could blame Links’ eventual death on all sorts of things but if you were looking for the earliest catalyst you’d probably want to blame it on the departure of Links’ programmer Vance Cook. Cook left Access in 1992 to establish Headgate Studios in Bountiful, Utah, just ten miles from his former employer’s Salt Lake City studio. Cook’s new studio stayed afloat in the early nineties with a scientific calculator program for Windows but its big gaming success was Front Page Sports: Golf, published in 1997 by the studio’s new owners, Sierra. The purchase lasted about two years and two golf games (Front Page and PGA Championship in 2000) before Headgate was sold back to Cook, freeing the studio to form its game-changing partnership with EA in 2001.

The studio behind Front Page Sports: Golf became the developers of EA’s Tiger Woods-branded titles and immediately changed how western golf sims would be played.

On Control

The first two golf games are almost unrecognisable as golf games. 1978’s Computer Golf for the Odyssey used a simple analogue club system for taking a swing, and 1979’s Pro Golf 1 for the Apple II is more or less a golf RPG. It wasn’t until Tom Rudadahl’s Golf on the Atari 2600 that modern videogame golf controls began to take shape. Rudadahl’s Golf had you hold down a button to increase a power meter and release it to swing the club.

Of course Nintendo would be the ones to set a standard still used in many golf games today. In 1984 Nintendo released their own game named Golf and introduced the ‘three click’ power bar system. With the power bar system your first click increases the power meter, your second stops the meter and sends the bar flying backwards ready for a third button click to set the shot’s accuracy.

Access would borrow Nintendo’s system for Leaderboard and EA would borrow it for World Tour Golf in 1986. Today you’ll find identical controls available in EA’s PGA Tour games, Sony’s Everybody’s Golf, Mario Golf and countless mobile titles.

Nintendo’s power bar system is a curious abstraction which actually does a thorough job of replicating the back-and-forth motion of a golf swing, and was the way all videogame golf was played until ‘96 when Maxis created the trademarked ‘MouseSwing’ motion-driven control method for SimGolf, swapping the then-standard three clicks for something more physical and representative. Instead of clicking, players would drag the mouse one way, then the other, replicating the motion of a golf stroke to take an on-screen swing.

But there’s a line to be drawn between the invention of a mechanic and the popularisation of a mechanic. Nobody who used a mouse motion to take a swing in their later golf games was imitating SimGolf from Maxis; they were attempting to replicate the success the more popular, polished and exciting Front Page Golf from Headgate.

In ’97 Accolade had revived their Jack Nicklaus series after five years on the shelf with the brilliant Jack Nicklaus 4, but Accolade wouldn’t adopt the motion-driven analogue swing until the following year after Headgate had set a new standard for the genre with their own motion-driven ‘TrueSwing’ system for Front Page Golf. In 1997 only SimGolf and Front Page used a MouseSwing/TrueSwing system; by 1998, Jack Nicklaus 5, Links LS 1999, and The Golf Pro all had their own motion controls.

TrueSwing was a sudden and game-changing innovation. It was a feature from the future, stripping away the power meter and letting players take in the sights and sounds of the course. For the first time you could play by the feel of the thing rather than the maths, drawing back on the mouse and knowing your swing was right because it felt right. TrueSwing kept players in the game – eyes on the course and on the ball rather than on a power meter at the edge of the screen. It was still an abstraction, but a less conspicuously gamey abstraction than power meters and button clicks. It was a stroke to replicate a stroke and it felt easy, natural and immersive.

One year later, Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge was 3D, TrueSwing-enabled, and the best golf game of ’99 but was outsold by Sierra’s PGA Championship 2000, Tiger Woods 2000 and Links LS 2000. Activision dropped out of the golf game market after publishing just one update to the Jack Nicklaus series they had bought from Accolade and Sierra followed very shortly afterward, ending their ownership of Headgate after Front Page follow-up PGA Championship. The publisher sold Headgate back to Cook who immediately signed up with EA and put the studio to work producing Tiger Woods 2001 for the PC.

Electronic Arts and Tiger Woods

EA had spent the nineties hot potatoing their PGA Tour series between studios. The first three were handled by Sonic Spinball developers Polygames; the first DOS version and PGA Tour ’96 were hammered out by Hitmen productions; NuFX worked on the series in 1998; even EA Redwood Shores (now Visceral) developed the series for the best part of half a decade in the new millennium.

By 2006 EA’s PGA Tour was knee-deep in a big mess of “who’s responsible for what?” Tiger was running on a bunch of different engines by half a dozen different studios, with two different PC and console engines at the top, handheld and mobile phone versions developed on their own engines by third party developers, and a new engine built for PS3 and 360 by Redwood Shores approaching maturity.

Amid the madness, Headgate brought stability to the series on PC. Cook’s studio handled every PC version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour from 2000 to 2007 and took charge of the console versions in 2006. They held that honour for just one year before being purchased by EA, renamed EA Salt Lake, and getting removed from the series permanently with their final Windows, PlayStation 2, and Wii update — Tiger Woods ’08.

(EA Salt Lake later made Nerf N-Strike and The Littlest Pet Shop for Wii and everyone should be very sad about that. After focusing on Sims 3 expansions and mobile games throughout the 2010s, the studio was closed in 2017.

Vance Cook still owns the Headgate studio name. Headgate makes the Bivy outdoor adventure app.)

EA’s Tiger Woods games hadn’t embraced the mouse-driven swing until ‘99, briefly simplifying it by removing any opportunity to hook or slice the shot and essentially removing any chance for players to fail. EA’s games introduced analogue control to console golf on PlayStation that same year but kept a percentage indicator and arcing trajectory line on screen so you could see just how hard you were belting the ball and would know exactly where it would land.

Headgate retained the simplified mouse-driven system for their first year on the Tiger games but twelve months later turned EA’s Tiger 2002 game for PC into a Front Page/PGA Championship sequel under the Tiger Woods name with the return of TrueSwing and a suspiciously familiar HUD, dumping the magic arc and making players aim without guarantees.

Over on PS2, Stormfront Studios’ Tiger 2001 updated 2000′s analogue stick control but introduced the mid-flight spin control. Stromfront’s game was good, but Headgate’s was brilliant.

EA’s Tiger games quickly devoured the golf videogame market. By 2005 even Jack Nicklaus 6 developer Hypnos and the team they brought over from Jack 5 developer Eclipse were working with EA on the Tiger Woods games. All the different golf games had borrowed their best ideas from one another, and all of those had borrowed ideas from PGA Championship and Links 2003 and 2004 before that.

Links

Access’ Links series had survived the kicking Tiger had issued to Sierra, Accolade, and anyone else brave enough to attempt a new golf franchise in the late nineties, but was struggling for relevancy against the more modern PGA Tour, Jack Nicklaus and Front Page games.

When Access finally gave in and embraced the analogue swing in 1998 they stuck a mouse click to the end and called it ‘Powerstroke’, adding a layer of gamey nonsense to something already elegant and simple enough. By ’99 Links had become the nerdiest golf game on the market and it was up against Headgate’s PGA Championship, Accolade’s Jack Nicklaus, and EA’s wildly popular golf games for the wildly popular PlayStation, all of which were moving into 3D while Links was still rendering its courses in two dimensions.

And so Links took a year off in 2001, sitting back while EA and Headgate turned Tiger’s PC incarnation into a true sequel to PGA Championship. Their response was Links 2003, released in 2002 to confuse game historians.

In typical Access fashion it was po-faced and serious business in a way the studio couldn’t help but be, but those masters of function over form put aside stylish menus and licensed soundtracks in favour of making the best round of videogame golf ever played on a PC monitor. It’s still being played by a hardcore community today, and runs on Windows 10.

In its 2003 and 2004 updates Links beat EA’s Tiger games with better looks, better online features, and a stronger sense of place and presence. Tiger played and still plays a great round of golf but it was always explicitly videogame golf. You hammer a button to power up your shot, wear different shirts to increase your stats, exert supernatural control over the ball in the air with yet more button mashing, and can get a psychic preview of every putt before you even take a swing.

It was a little too stylish and trendy, as well. Sure, Tiger was young and handsome and brilliant and sponsored by Nike but he was the exception, not the rule. His PGA Tour tour games didn’t look or feel like the game you played on a Sunday afternoon or watched on TV with softly-voiced commentary by elderly men; Links 2003 did.

But console gamers never got a chance to develop a taste for Links’ take on golf simulation. In 2004 EA pledged to bring their sports titles to Xbox, saving it from a fate worse than Dreamcast. It seemed clear at the time and seems even clearer today that Microsoft’s sudden cancellation of their own ‘XSN’ sports games — including Top Spin, Amped 2, Links 2004, NHL Rivals, NBA Inside Drive, NFL Fever and Rallisport Challenge — was a part of the deal between Xbox and EA.

Access’ boss and co-founder Bruce Carver left Access to build houses and collaborate with a bunch of former Links developers at Trugolf. He died of cancer in 2005. Access were sold to Take Two along with Microsoft’s other sports studios but were closed in 2006.

Another way to play

The years following Links’ demise were an especially stagnant period for Tiger’s series; the only real innovations were forced by the new Wii controller and the brute power of the 360 and PS3.

Three-dimensional motion control had appeared in arcades but the Wii brought it home with Wii Sports in 2006. Super Swing Golf Pangya had its own ideas about how motion-controlled golf should work in December of that year while Tiger managed to squeeze two motion controlled games into one year when Tiger ’07 hit shelves in March and Tiger ’08 arrived in August of 2007.

Tiger’s new motion controls improved with each revision but motion controls added a curious new layer of abstraction to golf games — the need to perform a ‘real’ golf swing while looking at a screen instead of a ball on a tee. The human body doesn’t work so well when so contorted, and since the Wii remote would become confused when you arced it behind your head, the best swing in Tiger on Wii is a half-swing behind your hips rather than a full overhead arc.

The motion-control innovations stood in for real mechanical innovation for a number of years as EA’s 360 and PS3 engines matured. While EA were building a foundation for the future with their new next-generation console engine, the PS2 and original Xbox were treated to new levelling systems, more courses, and all the things you’d only think to add when you have nothing left to achieve creatively.

Tiger Woods ’06 for consoles gained a time travelling career mode where players could golf in the late 1800s with appropriate dress and a themed clubhouse.

Motion controls improved by marginal increments for a few years but even with the later Motionplus module and Sony’s PlayStation Move controller (Tiger ’10), or Microsoft’s Kinect (Tiger ’14), no motion controller solution let players play as if they were swinging like a real club. Outside of full arcade-style golf simulation games like Trugolf, motion controller-driven swings always fall into the uncanny valley of motion control — similar to the real thing, but not similar enough to feel right.

Tiger ’10

Access Software’s Links 2004 had set a new standard for online play, analogue control and visual presentation that took EA many years to recapture but by 2007 Headgate’s influential work on Tiger’s PC games had fed back into the console titles. Tiger Woods ’08 was the first of the PGA Tour games to show the influence of both. Tiger ’08 took the best of Links and Tiger and wrapped them in the most feature-rich online layer ever applied to a sports game at the time.

The final step on that journey came two years later in 2009 when Tiger Woods ’10 finally lifted the impeccable putting game from Links 2004. (Where Links’ standard swing was all about power and accuracy, its putting system had players trace an imaginary line through the ball and tracked every slight wobble or falter to replicate the look and feeling of a precision putt.) The system was replicated by Tiger ’10 without alteration — the last treasure to unearth from Access’ and Headgate’s graves. Part Links, part Front Page Golf; part Carver, part Cook. Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’10 was a Leaderboard sequel almost twenty years in the making.

The history of golf games is a history of developers chasing reality. Three clicks were replaced by a sweep of the mouse because it felt natural and more accurately emulated a golf swing. 3D replaced 2D because it had greater presence and made the course real. Online modes let you play with friends. Motion controllers promised developers the chance to remove abstraction entirely, and were swiftly discarded when they didn’t. Gimmick modes and features were added, then subtracted. Physics improved. Graphics improved. Audio improved.

But the days when Tiger’s games would sell in the millions were over. Tiger ’11 sales were down 68 percent on Tiger ’10. Some analysts put the blame on Tiger’s own tarnished brand, others would point out Tiger ’10 for Wii buoyed sales thanks to the bundled MotionPlus peripheral, while EA Sports boss Peter Moore would blame Tiger’s tournament performance. In the end, the diminished popularity of golf games couldn’t warrant FIFA-level production values being thrown at the series. Towards the end of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation the gimmick features began to return. Tiger ’14 featured a historic ‘Rivals’ mode and aptly-named ‘Gamebreaker’ feature. A genuinely meaningful Masters license came and went. The last Tiger-branded golf game was Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’14, released in 2013.

After two years’ break EA’s PGA Tour returned in 2015 with Rory McIlroy replacing Tiger on the box. No annual revisions have followed.

Today the best current golf game on the market is The Golf Club 2 by HB Studios. It looks and feels a lot like Links 2004.

MG

Written by

MG

Michael is a PR man, writer and former journalist with ten years in the business covering games, tech, fashion and environmental issues.