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Saturday, September 27, 2014

NES Replay: Side Pocket

Developer: Data East
Publisher: G-Mode
Released: June 1987
Like many other mildly physical activities, I enjoy playing billiards even though I’m not good at it. While this is a running theme among pretty any much any sport that exists, I’ve spent enough time playing billiards to know that Side Pocket is a really, really good interpretation of it. While there are a few minor quibbles, there are a few things that Data East absolutely nailed.

Before we talk about Side Pocket, let’s do a quick run-through of the history of video game billiards. As near as I can tell, the first video game to attempt billiards was Video Hustler, which sounds like it should be something else. Anyway, it was released as an arcade game in 1981, and it was competent, if nothing special. After that, there was silence until Lunar Pool was released in 1985, then Side Pocket in 1987.

Some sports, like baseball or soccer, had lots of video games right from the start. So why weren’t there a lot of games about billiards? Most arcade machines were purchased by bars in the early days, and let’s face it: If you were going to play billiards in an arcade, chances are the arcade had its own billiards table. What would be the point of playing a billiards arcade machine when there was a table right there?
So while some sports have had enormous amounts of time and resources devoted to making their video game equivalents as close to real-life as possible, billiards has barely received any love. And, honestly, that’s fine. The best thing about billiards is the way the game feels when you play on a real, actual felt-covered table, the way the balls crack against each other, and the satisfying thunk when you land one in a pocket. As a side note, it’s also impossible not to feel cool with a pool cue in your hands, for some reason.

While Side Pocket can’t replicate the coolness of a real billiards table, it at least plays competently. The ball physics are first-rate. The balls carom realistically off each other, and it’s easy to line up a good shot. It’s an easy-to-understand game, and with practice it’s easy to get really good at it.

The only thing that Side Pocket lacks is the presentation. While Side Pocket is fun to play, it’s boring to look at and boring to hear. Yes, billiards requires you to stop, think and plan your moves cautiously, but there needed to be something to jazz up Side Pocket. A little music, some special effects, or anything would have been appreciated.

Still, I can’t crap on Side Pocket too much. They did a really good job squeezing billiards onto a cartridge, and it plays really well. However, earlier we mentioned another billiards game called Lunar Pool that was released in the arcade in 1985. In a few short months, it too would end up on the NES. How would it fare? Better? Worse? We’ll see.

Final Rating: