It was an exceptionally cold afternoon on August 13th 2017, when I stepped into Subpar Mini Golf in Alameda, CA. More than anything, it was an idea of something to do on a Sunday, with visitors in town. Our group of five had a fun time playing the course, but Subpar stood out to me as something extra special about Alameda, a throwback to being brought to mini golf courses by my parents as a kid when we vacationed near a beach. I am sad to see it go.
I have this habit of writing about really cool, nostalgic places right before they close, like DisneyQuest. Maybe it’s because Subpar will be closing its doors in Alameda on November 19th that I really started to think about what made that blustery summer day memorable for me, and what lessons I gleaned from the tiny, old-fashioned indoor mini golf course.
One theme to rule them all, and one theme only
Subpar’s singular strength is its theming. It’s not wishy-washy like other golf courses that have a windmill, a ski resort and a hot dog stand, but makes a clear, singular decision about its identity and turns out all the better for it.
Subpar chooses the theme of San Francisco landmarks, and then runs with it, hard. Creating a mini golf course based on tourist destinations is cliché, but the designers do something more by leaving in things for the locals too. There’s the AT-AT cranes at the Port of Oakland, and the mess of highways known as the MacArthur Maze, mixed in with the more iconic Ferry Building. With its painted walls and holes set up like dioramas in a middle school project, Subpar proudly makes its statement about being homegrown and thus writes out this love letter to the Bay Area, winning locals like me over and my visiting guests too.
Another reason theming is done well is that Subpar allows – in fact, forces guests to interact with the theme. It takes advantage of being a 3D golfing experience by making quirky structures with unique interactions. When you’re at the Golden Gate Bridge hole, it’s not a flat model of the bridge, it’s a loop-the-loop that you have to hit your ball through. This encourages immersion in the wacky mini golf version of San Francisco and makes the experience all the more memorable.
Mini golf has become a thing of the past like the arcade, but I’m holding out hope for its comeback as a tourist destination or weekend activity with the kids. Other mini golf courses should learn from what Subpar did with theming, by committing to a theme for a richer experience rather than using gimmicks like glow-in-the-dark or machinery that does too much for the player, reducing the need to actually play golf properly.
Do we have to modernize every entertainment experience?
There’s this idea, especially in the Bay Area, that everything needs to be updated with tech, and so you see things like VR social experiences, like Sandbox VR at Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo (marketed as a science fiction world with thrilling adventures using motion-capture tech), or the 7-D dark ride social gaming experience at Pier 39, trying to surpass the old favourites like bowling as the “new” mode of interaction for families or team building.
Perhaps the next steps for mini golf would include digital scorecards, or to go further, AR overlays on the holes as you play. But I would argue that carelessly “modernizing” mini golf would take away a lot of its charm, removing the tactile elements and shifting the focus from the physical delights of things being miniature to, simply, the tech.
For all its advantages, the prevalence of tech has made it have this awful side effect. Tech becomes the primary characteristic of the product it is supposed to enhance, and as a result makes everything feel the same. I don’t want mini golf of the future to feel like just another app. So, adding technology must be done with great consideration so as not to take away the specific, familiar feeling of mini golf for those like me who find it nostalgic and special.
Although Subpar now runs a branch at the touristy Ghiradelli Square, I don’t think that will compare to the hole-in-the-wall, low-key vibe of the Alameda location. It’s strange to think how “discovering” a place to play adds to the magic of the gaming experience, but in this case it really did. The non-tourist location in Alameda made it special, like you were in on a secret, and the place being less crowded allowed us to take our time on each hole without feeling rushed. Being away from the crowds might not have been the best business model, but it made Subpar Mini Golf a gem of Alameda, one that I’ll remember fondly.