MARIO GOLF / Nintendo / Nintendo 64
Mario Golf wasn't the first of the Mario-themed golf games, counting NES Open and even the original Golf if you want, but it was the first that was actually fun to play and a reasonably accurate simulation of golf courses, rules and physics. Nintendo contracted out to Camelot Software for this one, makers of the Hot Shots Golf series, and they continue with the cartoony, cutesy themes of that series. What you come out with is a golf game that's just easy and inviting enough to draw in gamers who aren't big on golf, while still providing enough depth to keep golf fans entertained.
Players can take on tournament mode, play one-on-one matches against various characters to unlock them, play on various mini-golf courses, do a special "shoot through the rings" challenge, or play a round of multiplayer. This game was also one of the very few to make use of the Transfer Pak accessory for the N64, which would allow you to import some characters from the Mario Golf game made for the Gameboy Color around the same time. Shooting is pretty simple - clubs are automatically suggested for you, and you get a tracking line to the goal as well as a grid which shows the expected landing range of your shot provided you don't totally duff it. You've got a good range of options you are free to take at any time however, and you also have to take terrain levels and wind into account. Weather also shifts randomly during the course of the game - unrealistically so, though it does tend to make the games more unpredictable given you only have a handful of courses to play over and over again. Characters also have unique stats such as driving power, and types of shots such as a straight arrow or a fade.
There's only a couple of knocks I can bring against the game. The game has a slew of unlockables, but it does that mostly by totally depriving you at the beginning of the game. You only get four characters at the outset - Baby Mario, Peach, and two schlubs from the Hot Shots series - and have to work to earn the rest, and if you aren't real familiar with golf games it's going to be a while before you even get Luigi on the roster, much less Mario and all the others. You also only get one course in each type of game, and have to unlock all the rest - expect to get to know the initial Toadstool Lanes course very intimately before you do.
The other problem is in putting and short drives. Calculating distance in the game is a matter of doing some basic division based on the range of your current club plus the distance left to the hole. That's not the most graceful and user-friendly method, but it's workable and keeps the game from becoming totally brain-dead. The problem is, when you get into chipping out of sand or rough, or putting on a green that has thicker grass, or uneven terrain, the amount of power you need to use pretty much becomes a case of total guesswork. You'll get more of a feel for it as you play, but for the first few rounds at least you'll be frustrated by miscalculating putts by *thiis* much and trying to guess whether your chip shot will need extra power to dig out or whether the extra power will send it sailing way past the hole.
If you're buying for an actual N64 console, unless you already have a golf game you really favor, I'd consider this one to be a must-have for the system. It's easy to get into, provides a lot of replay, and is a good solid party game for multiple players. As far as downloading on the Virtual Console, well ... I'd shoot for a copy of the Gamecube's Toadstool Tour first, since that was basically everything this game has but in a slightly superior format.
* Gameplay Video