Hot Shots! made quite an impression when it debuted on the Playstation in 1998 with its colorful caddies and characters and distinctively Japanese flavor. Fast-forward to 2004 and we have the 4th incarnation by Clap Hanz for the alternative golf fan to look forward to. There's a paradox in place for fans of the series - while there remains the charm that made the others in the series so adored, there aren't enough fresh ideas to make this feel like much more than Hot Shots 3.1.
Don't get me wrong, if you're a fan of the series or in need of a change of pace from the more, er, "realistic" golf titles out there (Tiger Woods or Links, for example) than this series will continue to be right up your alley and if you haven't played the series at all, it's certainly worthy of your perusal. I'm a sucker for Japanese developed golf titles and this one is no exception.
The center of what makes Hot Shots different from its "realism" based rivals is that the swinging mechanism found in titles like Links, wherein the analog joystick must be manipulated up and down as a "swing", is replaced by a three tap system that runs along a meter. Tap once to start the swing, tap again to determine its power, tap a third time within a specified area on the meter to determine the correctness of the swing. While it might sound incredibly simple, it isn't. You'll need to use the d-pad to determine spin, backspin and sidespin and it must be used in conjunction with the tapping system. You can vote for either school of which is "better", but the two systems each have strengths and weaknesses. The best advantage of the Hot Shots system is that you can use a "beginner's" club for users that are new to the game and they can actually put up some decent numbers without having to master the complexities of the system.
Hot Shots Fore! is not an easy game. After over a dozen hours of play and various upgrades, it's far easier to achieve lower (better) scores in either Links or Tiger Woods than it is here. This title is very challenging and often unforgiving of even the smallest gaffes. You'll find that certain courses have certain difficulty levels wherein the easiest course would be a 1.0 and the harder ones progress as the games go along (1.1, 1.2, etc…) and the points that you achieve through Pars, Birdies, Approach Shots, Chip-Ins, and the like are multiplied by the difficulty level of the course. These points can be used later in the Shop for extras such as new courses, new caddies, different clubs and balls, and much, much more.
The cast of characters includes many from previous versions of the game and while they might be colorful, they are certainly lacking in the amount of cute remarks that they come up with. You tend to hear the same thing over and over, whether it be from your caddy, your character, or from the gallery. While this isn't a huge detriment to the game, it does get on one's nerve after prolonged periods of playing the game with the same character or caddy. There certainly could've been a bit more attention paid to this by the powers that be.
Graphically, the game and courses are rich and nicely detailed. There were minor, infrequent problems with hitting a ball into tall grass or brush which disappeared when you were standing next to only to miraculously reappear right after you swing thereby ruining your shot. Frustrating to be sure. Thankfully, these moments are infrequent at best and do little to detract from the overall package all that much.
Mini-golf has also made a return in this title, as it was omitted from the previous game. Though it's a nice distraction every once in a while, the scoring system is whacked wherein it rewards you for attempting more difficult (longer) shots rather than simple Par based scoring. Overall, the mini golf seems less than inspired and is little more than a diversion from the core game. Color it disappointing.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this title is the 13 courses (most of which have to be unlocked during the course of playing the Tournament Mode) that encompass a host of countries and designs. Although quite a few are regurgitated from the previous Hot Shots game, the courses are cleverly designed, very challenging, and rival anything seen by any other golf game. Mirrored versions of the courses can also be unlocked. You'll notice the swaying of the trees give you a good indication of wind speed and direction and they help you to determine where to shoot the ball when the wind arrow is undisclosed. Equally impressive are the stats, which track your overall course record, best effort on a particular hole, best effort on a particular course, best drives and much much more. You're also "graded" on a multitude of aspects ranging from drive length to chip-ins and are given an overall performance mark (ranging from A-E, E being the worst) for your overall effort in each particular area. Good stuff.
Overall, Hot Shots Fore! is a worthwhile addition to any golf library. Some followers of the series might be a little disappointed at how much it feels and plays like its predecessor, but it still should be sitting in their libraries. The online aspects of the title leave much to be desired and it feels like an amateurish and rushed attempt to make it online capable. Waiting for players to complete turns in a chat room complemented by poor keyboard implementation and no voice communication leaves one feeling cold. That aside, it's a keeper.