You Need to Play the Greatest Billiards Video Game Ever on Nintendo Switch ASAP
Side Pocket is an all-time great.
Martin Scorcese’s 1986 movie The Color of Money has had a surprisingly deep influence on video games. The movie itself stars Tom Cruise and Paul Newman as pool hustlers at different stages in their lives. The movie itself is a sequel to Newman’s 1959 movie The Hustler, and the three men associated with the project made it the definition of cool. At one point, Tom Cruise shows up at a pool hall with a custom pool cue in a case. “What do you have in there?” asks someone. “Doom,” he responds. That scene was enough for programmer John Carmack, who named Doom in its honor.
A more direct inspiration was Data East’s game Side Pocket. The game’s characters are tributes to Cruise and Newman’s characters from the movie, and the game itself was meant to capitalize on the uptick of interest in billiards that the movie created. It proved to be a reliably popular game that fused together a mixture of casual, sports, and puzzle gameplay. Its 1993 port to the SNES is available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack, shows why.
Side Pocket’s visuals are mostly still images, but for what they are, they’re surprisingly gorgeous. The game’s opening screen shows a city’s night skyline, viewed from the perspective of a pool player leaning on their car. In between levels, which are split into different cities, beautiful blonde women with wonderfully ‘80s-style feathered hair encourage you on, or express their disappointment at you not hitting the points needed to advance.
The main thing you see, however, is a pool table. These tables lack a unique feeling, looking the same no matter where you are. While a modern version of Side Pocket would likely offer more visual variety, they’d want to keep the addictive gameplay. Side Pocket only gives a player the projected angle of their cue ball, meaning the effects of the shot are still a surprise.
As with any good game, a player learns through trial and error. Shot power and angles are crucial, as is learning to put some spin on balls. The game will periodically offer special targets, trick shots, that can drive your point totals up. After a level, there are further trick shot options, including one incredibly tough shot that involves sinking two balls through a table filled with very breakable light bulbs.
The places to expand a modern version of this game are easy to see: different-looking tables, more characters, and so on. There also seems to be a small problem in this port. The game offers myriad musical options, with incredible titles like “Cue Ball Boogie,” “Slow Down Dude,” and “Meteor Man.” But there doesn’t seem to be a way out of the music selection screen, requiring a player to rewind or restart the game. Best to just listen to the music on YouTube.
Small problems aside, the game is a lot of fun. It’s a fun challenge between friends, a good way to spend 20 minutes. It won’t teach you exactly how to play pool or make you as cool as Paul Newman, but everyone has to start somewhere.