Saturday, September 2, 2017

Championship Pool (1993)

Box art shamelessly stolen from GameFAQS.
I'm not sure what the Billiard Congress of America is, exactly, but it seems
like it's important. Or maybe it just thinks it's important. Who knows.

I know very little about the sport of Billiards, known to mere mortals simply as "Pool" - a sport that is less agility, dexterity, and athleticism, and more a game of mathematics.  Simply put, pool is all about geometry, knowing how hard or soft to hit the ball, and understanding the playing field, with all the various configurations and iterations thereof.  It's a game with a strict set of rules to adhere to, and near-infinite complexity.  There are a large number of different styles of play, each with its own set of specific rules, quirks, and strategies.  Also, it's a game I'm pretty terrible at.

Nothing screams "Excitement!" quite like this title screen.

My wife's late grandmother had a pool table in her basement that the grandkids would always play during family get-togethers, while waiting for the meal, or after the meal, when the adults were upstairs chatting.  Outside of that, and a handful of experiences with it at various arcades or bowling alleys, and at the local youth center, I have almost no experience playing pool in real life.  I understand geometry from an on-paper, mathematical level, but the practical application of it as pool strategy always eluded me.  I could line up my shot, but unless I was gunning for the pocket nearly dead-on, I always had a tendency to over or undershoot, bouncing off the pocket's angled edges, and sending the cue ball rolling off in a random direction.  Needless to say, I've never developed a love for the game.

With 4 main game modes, and multiple variations per mode, there's
an awful lot of game here, despite most pool variations being similar.

That being said, pool video games are a common sight on most every platform.  They're not quite as common in North America as, say, Mahjong games are in Japan, but one genre that was always present on any console during the 8 and 16-bit eras was that of video billiards.  I think the Side Pocket series showed up on nearly everything during that time, and while it gained a certain degree of name recognition, I can't speak to the game's playability or quality as of yet, because I haven't played any of the games, save, perhaps, for a few minutes of the NES version as a kid.  This isn't a genre I would normally dabble in, but given my desire to play every single Game Boy game, it was bound to happen at some point.  Enter Championship Pool by Mindscape.

Not to be cliche, but Party mode is where the party's at.  Quite literally.

When I initially chose this game from my ever-growing pile of Game Boy cartridges, I assumed it would be another throw-away sports title, as is usually the case with most of these games on a handheld system.  Sure, loads of people STILL play Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES, and even mod it each year to add current teams, stats, etc., but a pool game?  I had no hesitation in thinking this would likely be little more than a reasonably pleasant time-waster.  I had no expectations going in, other than this preconception.  What I found was a surprisingly deep experience that, while still imperfect, offers a lot of content for enthusiasts of the sport, and plenty to do for those of us still figuring out how to chalk up our cue.

"Well the game never ends when your whole world depends,
on the flip of a friendly coin."


The intricacies of billiards are best explained elsewhere, but here's the 10,000-foot version: you have a table where you put together a large grouping of balls, and you use a long wooden stick to hit an equally-sized ball into that grouping of balls to split them up, then systematically use that methodology to hit successive numbered balls into various "pockets" around the table.  There's 1 pocket at each of the 4 corners, and 1 on each long side, for a total of 6.  If you hit the wrong ball into a pocket, that's bad.  If you hit the right ball into the wrong pocket, that's bad.  If you hit the cue ball, used to hit the numbered balls, into a pocket, that's also bad.  And in most sets of rules, unless you're playing what's referred to as "scratch pool" in common parlance, you cannot hit the 8-ball into any pocket until all other balls designated to you have been sunk into other pockets.

This is one of the few rules in pool I distinctly remember learning as a
kid, and when playing with others, actually following.

Keeping all this in mind, the essential elements to success in pool are understanding the basics of geometry, so you can hit the cue ball with your cue (the aforementioned long, wooden stick), so it can strike the numbered balls and send them careening into the pocket.  If the ball you want or need to hit is halfway down the table, and there's another ball in the way, you can hit the cue ball toward a wall to bank it off that surface, and back toward the destination ball, in hopes that you'll hit it with enough force, at the proper angle, so as to direct it to the pocket in question.  It sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of elements at work.  How hard do you hit the ball?  Do you hit it straight on, high up on the ball to create "topspin" or down low to create "backspin" instead, to slow it down?  Do you hit toward the right or left side of the ball to give it a bit of curvature in a given direction?  Can you bank more than once, if the other balls are in the way, or clustered too far together?  All of these elements  at work make pool a far more complex sport than one would imagine.

Pool's just like football, right?  "Ready...break!"


Translating that to a video game could prove challenging, especially on a tiny handheld system with a direction pad, 2 action buttons, and 2 optional buttons, but Bitmasters pulled it off here.  Controls are deceptively simple at first: use the D-pad to move your targeting reticle around to point to where you're going to shoot the cue ball.  Press A to confirm targeting, and you see animations that help indicate the approximate proposed trajectory of the intended target ball.  Assuming you're targeting the right ball (more on that later), and can aim it toward a pocket, you can then press A again to shoot the cue ball and hope you not only hit the intended ball, but that it then reaches its intended pocket.  It's not quite that simple, however.

I feel like there's a joke here somewhere, but I can't quite find it...

As you're moving your target circle around, you can use the Select button to zoom in on the pool table, to get a much closer view of the action.  In either zoomed in/out view, you can hold down the B-button, then press a direction on the D-pad, to move the targeting circle far more slowly and precisely, to finely tune your shot.  In contrast, you can also hold a direction down on the D-pad, then press and hold the B button to move the cursor quickly, which is useful for faster navigation around the table.  Pressing the B button once will bring up the power meter, and then you can hold down left or right on the D-pad to increase or decrease the strength of your shot.  Press the Start button while lining up your shot, and you're treated with additional options: under the Game Control menu, choose the Set Spin option to get a "behind the cue" view of your ball, and move the stick around to determine where on the ball you plan to it it.  It's a surprisingly deep control scheme for a portable pool title, and was likely carried over from the NES version of the game's design.

I'm a master scratch player. The trouble is, that skill is only useful
when you're a DJ, not when you're trying to will at billiards.

There are other options as well, accessed via the Start button.  You can quickly switch between displaying the ball numbers or not, move the cue ball (if the rules dictate you can, via a break shot, or opponent scratch), choose your zoom (instead of just pressing Select), or access the "Jukebox" (to toggle music on or off).  In the Actions menu, you can choose a Special Action, such as calling a safety (where there's no clear shot), or viewing the scoreboard.  You can check out a replay of the last shot, deciding to Insta-Win, if you can't handle the pressure, or choose to end the party, if you're playing one of the party modes within the game.

When your opponent scratches, by sinking the cue ball, you get an
opportunity to place the cue ball anywhere on the table, which is a
huge help if you want a clean shot at your next numbered ball.

Speaking of modes, Championship Pool offers a large variety of game modes.  At the main screen that comes up, you can choose between 4 different modes: Tournament, Challenge, Party, and Freestyle.  In Tournament mode, you can select whether to auto-break the balls as they're racked on the table, or do that manually.  You can also choose between a standard 8-ball or 9-ball game setup.  It's a single-elimination tournament bracket, so you only get one shot to fail.  In Challenge mode, you can choose from one of six different billiards challenges: 14.1 Challenge (like "straight pool" but each shot must be properly called and achieved), Eight Ball, Nine Ball, Equal Offense (a series of 8 15-ball racks in a scoring contest), Three Ball (sink 3 balls in as few shots as possible), and Speed Pool (sink the balls as quickly as possible).  Freestyle allows you to essentially practice on a standard 15-ball rack, taking shots and being less concerned with the full rules, but getting a feel for the geometry, game mechanics, controls, and approach of the game.

The zoomed view is really helpful for precision in lining up a shot,
especially combined with the slow cursor method to near-pinpoint accuracy.


The most robust mode is the Party mode.  In this game mode, there are 11 different options: Eight Ball, Nine Ball, 14.1 Continuous, Ten Ball, Rotation (similar to straight pool, but balls must be sunk in numeric sequence), Straight Pool, Equal Offense, Fifteen Ball (similar to rotation, except balls can be sunk in any sequence, and scoring is based on the ball number), One Pocket (each player has a designated pocket that they must shoot any balls into, in order to score), Three Ball, and Speed Pool.  Each of these modes allows either 2 or 5 players, depending on the mode.  The handy part is, each player can use the same Game Boy handheld, and players just pass it back and forth, or in a round table fashion.  With so many options, one can conceivably get a lot of value out of this mode, either playing with other people, or playing every round oneself, as a means of getting more practice at each different set of game rules.

"11-ball, corner pocket!"  It's my signature move.

Tournament mode, because it's single-elimination, is quite difficult, because you really have to have a good handle on the game mechanics in order to avoid getting "snookered" by your opponent.  You also have to abide by the strict rules of either game, so that means hitting the numbered balls in sequence, and making sure to correctly pocket each one.  Foul too many times, or lose because your opponent just out-shoots you, and you'll see an avatar of your opponent on screen with a greasy smile, letting you know that you're not up to the task.  The real challenge comes in the form of the so-named Challenge mode, where a single mistake means game over - no scratch, no retries, you're just done.  You'll need to rack up some serious time in Freestyle or Party modes, and get incredibly good at the game before you have much hope to complete a challenge in this mode.  I found myself, with my limited skill and knowledge, only being able to get about 2 or 3 shots in on any of the challenges, often breaking the rack, and then not even remotely being able to reach the target ball for the rule set, and immediately failing the challenge.  Enter at your own risk.

Sometimes, these shots from across the table, even when the target
ball is close to the pocket, can be difficult to sink properly.

Graphically, the game doesn't do much, but it's hard to expect that from a simple billiards game.  What's here is competent, however.  The simple overhead view of the table is good, with a nice representation of the wood grain of the outer table, and an angled design on the carpet below, as well as the pockets, pool balls, cue, etc.  The initial menu has a nice graphical effect where, when you press up or down on the D-pad to move the arrow to select your game mode, a set of pipes above and below the arrow will blow out a puff of smoke, as if to move the arrow up or down.  It's an unnecessary flourish, but a nice touch, nonetheless.  The text on screen during the initial menus is a little harder to read, because it resembles a manual scoreboard, but that's a nice touch.  In-game menus are much easier to read, and the game's overall presentation is clean.

One step away from victory, as the 7 ball will be an easy one to pocket.

In the audio department, the game is pretty weak.  The game only has two or three music tracks in total.  One plays at the title screen, and during the game itself, and there's at least one more track that plays when you lose.  There's another short tune when you win.  I haven't got far enough into the Tournament mode to know whether or not there's additional music if you win the whole contest.  Sound effects are utilitarian, so they get the job done without being exciting.  The sound when you smack the rack of balls and break them is fine, as is the rest of the sound for hitting balls, bumping the pool table wall, or sinking a ball in the pocket.  Nothing here smacks of outstanding sound design, but it fits the bill.

Of all the rotten luck!  Oh well, maybe next time.

The real meat of this game is in the depth of the control scheme, coupled with the staggering number of game modes, but even then, it still boils down to hitting the cue ball to break a rack of numbered balls, and shoot them into various pockets.  A player's mileage is going to vary wildly, depending on how much effort one wants to put into learning the nuance of the controls, and digging into each of the game's modes.  True mastery of digital billiards will elude all but the most patient players, and based on how granular the controls can be, I suspect that the Challenge mode games will take a significant amount of practice before they'll be won.  If I'm going to play a game that's more on the slow side, such as this, my preference is either a turn-based RPG, or a puzzle game of some sort.  This kind of game, lining up shots, taking forever to determine how and where you're going to shoot, how much power to use, spin, backspin, topspin, etc. is not really for me.

When I started playing this game for review, I tweeted out a statement about this game being boring.  While I stand by my original assessment for how little I had played it, and how I was equally uninformed about the game's mechanics, I must amend that statement by saying that it's boring - at first.  Once you begin to get a feel for it, learn the nuance and complexity of the control scheme, and begin to see some real victory for your efforts, it becomes more rewarding.  Whether that's enough to justify a purchase will depend on your love, or lack thereof, for billiards, as well as whether or not this kind of slow, methodical gameplay is for you.  I don't see myself coming back to this game anytime soon, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now, after spending more time with it, than I did when I reluctantly inserted the cartridge into my Game Boy.  I would consider that high praise, because a game I fully expected to dislike, and ultimately lambaste in print, has become something that I found to be oddly thoughtful, well-designed, and a worthwhile experience.  It's certainly worth the $5 I paid for it, and if you're a pool enthusiast, I dare say, this might be the kind of experience you've been looking for in a video game.  I'll give this a casual recommendation to the enthusiast or sports fan looking for an old-school handheld fix.

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