Koopa the turtle lets fly in "Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour."
By Columnist
msnbc.com

Just because there’s a chill in the air doesn’t mean that video gamers can’t experience the great outdoors from the warm and cozy safety of indoors. Three games offer digital interpretations of sunny skies and grassy hillocks.

We're not talking about the outdoors as a scenic background for exploding vehicles and/or torsos, but as a tranquil setting for more leisurely pursuits; activities like padding around green fairways (“Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004” and “Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour”) or stalking wild game (“Deer Hunter 2004”).

“Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004” by Electronic Arts

Golf is as close as sports video games get to tranquility. Five minutes spent planning a shot is not unusual. There’s the terrain and wind direction to study. And when at a scenic spot like, say, the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, one may take a moment to gaze upon the digitally rendered Pacific.

“Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004” remains true to the genre’s simple pleasures. Pebble Beach and a half dozen other famous courses are recreated in faithful detail. Unfortunately “Tiger Woods” is extremely limited in camera control so that executing a 360-degree view to take in the surroundings is impossible.

A quibble, perhaps, because the game succeeds in most areas. Control is instinctual. On the XBox and PS2 versions, the analog joystick controls your swing. No button mashing here. It’s a nice fluid approach that’s not as involved as a real swing, but nevertheless incorporates movement and timing.

Game play is diverse ranging from simple “strokes” and “skins” one-offs to a 10-year PGA Tour to online tournaments. In addition to finely rendered courses, “Tiger Woods” includes a dozen or so finely animated pros — including Tiger, himself — to play as or against.

In true fashion, Electronic Arts takes the “kitchen sink” approach with a number of features that may or may not add to your experience. Commentary is almost broadcast quality with David Feherty and Gary McCord delivering the type of irreverent golf patter they are known for. Digital versions of real world golf equipment and apparel is available via a Pro Shop. And, yes, the “cupped” hand clap heard at tournaments is used to full effect.

It would have been nice if the programmers spent a little more time on the putting game. While text comments from a caddy and a fuzzy grid overlay to indicate slope help, the green experience would have been much more enjoyable if it was made more tactile. I would have at least liked the ability to walk around the hole.

Build your own character from the forearms to the four irons in "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004."
Ironically enough, “Tiger Woods’s” best feature may be the least necessary one. Now players can design their own digital likeness down to the nth degree. If a player can jump into “Tiger Woods” without spending at least an hour crafting their digital ego trip (plus added muscles and hair) than he or she is a more dedicated video game golfer than most.

Who knows, perhaps the onscreen revolution in new looks and styles will cross over to the real world. Golf would certainly benefit. With the exception of Tiger, golf has been synonymous with J Crew blandness ever since Jack — “plaid pants” — Nicklaus and his hairy-chested 1970’s contemporaries left the scene.

“Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour” By Nintendo
In “Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour,” fairways glow an electric green and waterfalls tumble with a hyper-crystalline brilliance. Younger players may be reminded of the “Teletubbies.” The rest of us may ponder what the game designers were doing late at night.

Underneath the hyper-cute Nintendo look and feel is a solid golf game that’s easy enough for kids (or golf novices), but loaded with enough advanced features to keep a more experienced gamer occupied; never mind the surrealism of marching a small pudgy lizard named Yoshi around the links.

Players can choose to play as any one of a number of Nintendo characters including Mario, Wario and the Kong brothers — Donkey and Diddy. Yoshi is my favorite. Every time he connects on a perfect drive, rainbows sprout from the ball and as it soars through the electric blue sky... well you have to be there.

A great learning tool for kids, “Toadstool Tour” demands the same decision-making process of other golf games. What are the strengths of weaknesses of a particular club? Does the area around my intended target slope upward or downward? “Toadstool Tour” offers a number of views — more than “Tiger Woods” — to help you get a better feeling for course.

While most of “Toadstool Tour’s” features can be found in other golf simulations, this game has a playful quality that both young kids and their parents can enjoy. “Toadstool Tour” may, in fact, turn a younger audience on to the actual sport.

The courses may not be so vibrantly colored in the real world, but have you seen the new line of golf plaid pants?

“Deer Hunter 2004” By Atari
When “Deer Hunter” hit the shelves six years ago it was mocked by some in the game press for being a shoddy piece of interactive entertainment. Graphics were poor, the animation was stilted and, gosh, some critics asked, how can you kill “Bambi?”

"Deer Hunter 2004" features a variety of hunting grounds.

But this being a country where “the great outdoors” often means going out and killing a critter, “Deer Hunter” went on to become a hit.

“Deer Hunter 2004” improves on the original franchise with multiplayer capabilities and hunting grounds that extend from the Hill Country of Texas to the New Hampshire backwoods. The graphics are better too although wildlife occasionally canters across the washed-out landscape like cardboard cut-outs.

Some may argue that “Deer Hunter 2004” is not so much a game, but a screensaver.

Hunters who have played the game beg to differ. And when approached from a particular state of mind, “Deer Hunter 2004” — to this non-hunting reviewer, at least — can be experienced as a interesting work of digital meditation.

Most of the action occurs in the beginning, where players decide on transportation, weaponry and navigational aids. Once ported to the hunting grounds, you may rig up a deer caller and place yourself on a platform. Or you can wander the brush in the vain attempt to root out a stag. Whatever the case, if you’re going to want to shoot something you’ll need to wait… and wait… and wait.

In another emotional state, I may have yanked “Deer Hunter 2004” out of my PC. Instead I positioned myself atop the platform and watched the light transform from a soft pre-dawn glow to mid-morning brightness. It was quiet save for the twitter of birds and the occasional “farmer johns” pulled from my character’s throaty depths.

It was during one particularly quiet time where my mind turned to nature... the real thing. I really should go outside more, I thought.

Eventually, a deer wandered by my platform. As I squeezed off a shot, the sharp rifle “crack” tore through the peaceful silence. The deer crumpled. Maybe it was because of the meditative state the game had conjured, but as I looked at the brown sack of potatoes “Deer Hunter 2004” tries to pass off as a dead animal, I felt a twinge of regret. I can’t remember the last time “killing” something in a game had such an effect on me.

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produced interactives for MSNBC.com

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