Friday 20 March 2015

Snes Review : Side Pocket (Game 073)

How much would you pay to play a game of Pool on the Super Nintendo?

Released in 1993
Developed by Iguana Entertainment.
Published by Data East.

Almost on a daily basis Super Nintendo games increase in value. It's a frustrating fact for any Snes collector, but it's annoyingly the truth. To make things worse, as other fellow Retro collectors are now holding onto their most prized pieces, the number of good condition games depletes and the value of the remaining ones "in the wild" goes up.  As a general rule, boxed Super Nintendo games in the UK sale for between £10 and £300 depending on the title. The majority fall into the £20-£60 bracket. The logical assumption would be that the most highly regarded games demand the highest price; however that's not always the case. Market value is more often defined by the number of copies originally available multiplied by desirability. Awful games are sometimes more expensive than good games owing to their perceived significance within video game community. ‘Mega Man Soccer’ is undeniably a worse game than ‘SensibleSoccer’, but many people (myself included) are happy to pay three times the price for it, just to complete their 16bit ‘Mega Man’ collections. If market value or price doesn't equate to quality where does that leave cheap games then? If the more expensive games aren't always the best games, are the cheapest games not always the worse?
To test this theory I bought the cheapest boxes complete game I could on eBay. After ignoring football games and titles I already owned I settled on a Japanese copy of 'Side Pocket' for the bank breaking price of 99p (including postage). I can't imagine the seller was too pleased to sell a game for so little, the end price wouldn't even have covered the cost of sending the game. When it arrived, expectations were low, after all if this was a good game why would my fellow retro collectors have let this game pass them by? 

The game is of course a digital version of Pool, the classic pub distraction. Play is viewed from an overhead perspective and follows the same ideas of the real game. Players take it in turns to strike a white ball with a cue, hitting it towards other coloured balls on the table in order to push them into pockets around the table edge. A player’s own balls must be pocketed before they can sink the 8ball black, and doing this makes them the winner. It’s a world known premise, and one that's been replicated on home computers and consoles many times before this Super Nintendo version.

Unlike ‘Championship Pool’ also released on the Snes, ‘Side Pocket’ allows for a huge degree of control over your cue and by extension the white ball. With a blinking line that indicates your next shot's trajectory, a power meter that allows you to vary the amount you strike the ball and even the ability to perform spin, all the things you can do with a real pool ball is available to you. Also, like the real game, ‘Side Pocket’ is designed for two people to play simultaneously. For Super Play’s James Leach, the multiplayer mode is “the great crowd puller.
Beating another human at a decent game is the best thing you can do with your Super Nintendo, as everyone knows”. But despite the range of shots you can perform, the game remains accessible and easy to pick up. There’s not even a need for first time players to understand the minutia of the controls as there’s fun to be had just striking the ball and watching the chaos, with even random over powered shots causing a satisfying cascade of balls around the table.

'Side Pocket' was originally an arcade game, which may explain why there is a surprisingly comprehensive one player mode. Of course the basic, hit a white ball to knock other balls into pockets premise remains, but a player can only progress to the next stage if this is done in specific ways. A player is restricted on the number of times they may miss for example and as the score needed to qualify for the next stage increases so does the need for
the player to pocket the balls without missing at all. In later levels progression even depends on you pocketing the balls in numerical order, forcing a player to make increasingly complicated shots, bouncing the white off cushions and balls off one and other. In this way the game ends up feeling less like a sports simulation and more like a puzzle game, a fact that's enhanced by the visuals. 

With clean crisp colours and bright vibrant balls, 'Side Pocket' is more functional than realistic. With their real time shadows, licensed tables and dust physics, equivalent Pool games now, push modern technology to achieve realism.  'Side pocket' doesn't even attempt to push the Super Nintendo.
There is no ostentatious use of mode 7, indeed there isn't even sprite scaling which would allow a player to zoom in on the balls. This sort of graphical trickery was used in the Amiga classic; ‘Archer MacLean’s Pool’ which was released at a similar time. Does 'Side Pocket' need such visual flourishes? Probably not. Unlike ‘Archer MacLean’s Pool', 'Side Pocket' doesn't attempt to be entirely realistic. With flashing oversized pockets indicating score multipliers, balls that travel for far too long and floating severed hands 'Side Pocket' is clearly an attempt at an enjoyable accessible game rather than an accurate simulation. When the Game was released, EGM's Mike Weigand even wrote, "Yes, it is a video game version of pool [but] what's odd is that it is even more enjoyable [...] than the real thing". 

Super Gamer magazine couldn’t praise ‘Side Pocket’ enough, believing that it was “simply the best pool game on the market”. It wasn’t an opinion unique to them, Total! Magazine also felt they “couldn’t recommend [it] enough”. All the best games are simple to pick up but hard to master, and ‘Side Pocket’ certainly adheres to this guiding logic. In his Super Play review, James Leach admitted that “the more time he played [‘Side Pocket’] the better it became and the whole thing pongs healthily of quality”. James Leach went on to recommend the game, even though, at the time it had a recommended retail price of £44.95. I would certainly want more for that kind of money, but considering I paid £43.96 less than that, like the Super Play reviewer, I am happy to suggest that ‘Side Pocket’ is worth some attention.

If time spent playing a game determines its value for money, my 99p was well spent. 10 hours of play meant the cost per hour was 9p, a very cost effective use of time. However, I can’t pretend that I probably would have enjoyed those 10 hours more playing something more engaging and less repetitive. It wasn’t a bad game, but it wasn’t one that really excites. It is now entirely understandable why it was left on the eBay shelf, ignored by the majority. The most expensive games are not always the best ones and the cheapest ones are not the worse. ‘Side Pocket’ was fun to play, especially with someone else. If you have a limited amount of time to play games, there are far better games you should be spending your time with. However if you have a penchant for arcade visuals, puzzling trick shots and £1 is burning a hole in your side pocket, this game would be a pretty good way to spend it. 

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