Monday, July 18, 2011

At Random: Pocket Billiards! (1982)

Once upon a time, in the early days of video gaming, before the days of free online Flash games, almost any sport or pastime could be converted to simplified electronic form and marketed as a full-priced ROM cartridge.  This week's random pick from my Odyssey^2 collection is Magnavox's Pocket Billiards, a game of this type that tackles the tabletop sport of pool.

The graphics are well within the system's capabilities, though it would be nice if the pool table and billiard balls had a little more definition (Imagic's Trick Shot for the Atari 2600 did a much nicer job in this regard.)  We have a choice of two rulesets -- 8 Ball, where players compete to be the first to sink one of two black balls, or Rotation, where players compete to sink the most balls.  The manual mentions a couple of possible variations -- players can only sink balls of a certain color, say, or balls must be sunk in alternating colors -- but there's no direct support in the game for these rules.

Players are identified as Player L (player using the left joystick) and Player R (right joystick) onscreen, with a rotating white cue controlled by the current player; shot strength is determined by the length of time the action button is held down.

The physics are... well, they're semi-predictable, and that's all about that can be said for them.  There's no visible conservation of momentum, and a collision of one ball with two at the same time appears to spontaneously double the kinetic energy in some instances, while at other times everything grinds to a dead stop almost immediately.  The balls are not allowed to touch, which causes them to fall into improbably neatly-aligned rows when they bunch up during play, resembling a carton of eggs.  Worse, ball movement seems to be restricted to a small set of angles, probably using simple table lookups to substitute for floating-point math.  This means that a glancing impact often sends a ball on an unlikely horizontal or vertical path, so any attempts to set up fancy cascading shots will be frustrated by the limited physics engine. 

I also note that the pockets seem to have some kind of gravitational pull -- consider this shot:

Somehow the result ends up sinking the black (dark gray) ball in the upper center pocket, producing a victory for Player L:

I'm sure Pocket Billiards! was perfectly suitable for whiling away a few hours back in the day, but it's another early effort that's obviously and painfully hampered by the era's video game technology.  I'm as big a fan of the good old days as anyone, and I celebrate the development of the art form over time -- but this is another historical curio that's aged pretty poorly three decades on.

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