Many developers — particularly from the 8- and 16-bit eras — tended to end up primarily associated with a particular type of game. But some, like Data East, proved themselves capable of turning their attention to many different mechanical genres.
Delve into the Data East Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming platform and you’ll find yourself engaging in a madcap chase atop gigantic hamburgers, driving a bouncy bouncy buggy in pursuit of your significant other’s kidnappers, blasting numerous dudes in the face or, indeed, playing a nice, chilled-out game of pool.
You can probably guess where Side Pocket fits in to all that. So let’s take a closer look!
Side Pocket was first released to arcades in 1986, with ports to the NES in 1987, Game Boy in 1990, Sega Mega Drive in 1992 and the Super NES version found on the Evercade — and which is the focus of our attention today — in 1993.
Each of these is a little bit different; the NES version plays very similarly to the arcade original with a few additions, the Game Boy features a smaller play area and simplified physics and the Mega Drive and Super NES versions are regarded as “enhanced remakes” rather than straight ports due to their various additions.
Said additions include revamped presentation with a delightful smooth jazz-style soundtrack, realistic digitised sound effects and some lovely detailed character art that pays homage to the 1986 Scorsese flick The Color of Money. The game structure has also been overhauled, with the single-player mode now charting the player’s progress through five different cities as well as offering a puzzle-style “trick shot” gameplay mode; in two-player mode (impossible to play on the Evercade at the time of writing) you can either play a two-player variant on the single-player rules or a more conventional game of nine-ball pool.
The “Pocket Game” mode which makes up the bulk of the experience follows many of the basic conventions of pool, but features a distinctly more “arcadey” scoring system along with some additional rules and mechanics that would be impossible to implement on a real pool table. At its core, the game is simply a matter of pocketing all the balls on the table as quickly as possible; beginning with a stock of 16 “lives”, you score 100 points for each ball pocketed, but lose a life any time you fail to sink a ball. At the end of the round, you’ll gain additional bonuses for balls pocketed in succession and/or in numerical sequence, and your goal in each stage is to reach a set target score after all these bonuses.
To make matters a bit more interesting, various features occur on the table every so often. Striking a sparkling ball that has the word “Super” flying erratically around it will cause the cue ball to gain extra momentum and potentially sink extra balls. Sinking a ball into a pocket marked with a flashing star will reward you with extra points, extra lives or an opportunity to earn bonus points from a trick shot opportunity at the end of the stage. And the word “Zone” appearing over a pocket — usually when you’re down to the last ball on the table — provides you with a choice. Sink that last ball and you’ll get bonus points; deliberately sink the cue ball, however, and your next shot will become more powerful and the table will reduce its level of friction, allowing for some ridiculous shots. All this is accompanied by flashing lights and dramatic music, making your final shot something of an event. Assuming you actually manage to sink it, of course.
Trick shots, which can either be played individually as their own separate game mode, or which occur after main stages in the single-player “Pocket Game” mode, provide you with a predefined table layout and just one shot to sink every ball in front of you. Sometimes this is a simple matter of shooting accurately; in other cases, there are wine glasses lined up on the table which you must take care not to break. These are all very difficult to accomplish, and demand a solid understanding of the game’s play mechanics.
Thankfully, said mechanics are fairly straightforward to get your head around. A dotted line indicates the direction the cue ball will go for a set distance after you hit it — including taking bounces off cushions into account — but will not show the directions the balls you hit will travel, nor will it adjust the line to take into account bouncing off other balls. You can apply topspin (or “follow”), backspin (aka “draw”) and sideways English to the cue ball in order to manipulate its trajectory somewhat, and even apply Masse in three levels of intensity if you’re feeling particularly fancy — at its highest level, this allows you to “hop” the cue ball over obstacles, and as such is especially useful for trick shots.
Taking a shot is a simple matter of taking aim — which can be done loosely with the D-pad and then refined using the shoulder buttons — and then hitting a button to start a power meter. Tapping the button again at the desired level of power takes the shot. Before starting the power meter, you can also hold another button and move the D-pad to apply spin in any direction — you can even combine directions together if you so desire.
The game’s physics are a little exaggerated — the cue ball’s behaviour when using backspin in particular can sometimes look a little ridiculous — but they’re consistently applied, meaning once you get your head around the game responds and learn its behaviour in various situations, you can take full advantage of the tools available to you. The actual presentation of the pool game itself is very good, too; while the top-down perspective obviously looks somewhat more dated than later three-dimensional efforts at electronic adaptations of pool — including Data East’s own Side Pocket 3 — the sound effects are impressively realistic, and the animation of how the balls roll and spin on the table is very convincing.
In all, Side Pocket provides a straightforward and accessible arcade-style pool game that anyone can pick up and play with relative ease; it doesn’t take much practice to be able to meet the target scores for the first couple of levels, and by the time you can achieve those goals consistently, you’ll be ready for some tougher challenges.
Those trick shots will keep you busy for a while, though. Trial and error is key… but if all else fails, as we used to say while playing drunken pool on the beer-stained baize at our university’s halls of residence, just twat it and hope.
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