A decent attempt at pocket pool.

The Side Pocket series — brief-lived as it was — got its start in 1986 in the arcade, and perhaps its coin-op origins can help explain its unforgiving nature. It’s a very straightforward and somewhat limited take on pool, but that’s not really a bad thing in this case. As 8-bit releases go, Side Pocket offers a nice counterpoint to the likes of Lunar Pool, which took the Battle Chess approach to the sport and tried to sexy things up for variety. Side Pocket, on the other hand, is about as bare-bones an adaptation of the game as you can get. That’s especially true on Game Boy.

Thanks to the platform’s obvious graphical limitations, much of the game involves looking at a tiny sea of numbers: While you line up shots, the balls are replaced by numerals — something that’s strictly an optional function in other versions of the game. After all, pool balls are coded by color and pattern, but you can’t exactly tell what each ball is supposed to be when you have only four shades of soupy green to work with.

The Game Boy version also lacks the little flourishes of other versions of the game, such as the disembodied hand that performs each shot. This doesn’t matter, though, because the only thing that really matters is your ability to line up shots. And even the Game Boy can handle this just fine.

When you enter shooting mode, you aim your shots with a small dotted line that shows the predicted movement of the cue ball for a certain distance, including the angle at which it’ll bank from the edge of the table. The line automatically targets the ball with the lowest number, since a key point of both modes is to start with the 1 ball and work your way up to 6 or 9 (depending on the mode and difficulty level). This is simply a time-saving convenience. You can use the D-pad to alter the angle of your shot as you like — or just pop the low ball directly.

Once you select your angle and how much English you want to put on the ball, you can determine the force with which you hit the ball with a moving slider. If this sounds a lot like the setup for Nintendo’s Golf, well, yeah… it’s basically the same thing. By no means does this boil down to be the same game experience as Golf, though. Data East’s programmers did a smashing job of simulating ball physics here, and the cue ball and its targets behave convincingly as they would on a real table. Strike a glancing blow and your ball will carom away at an angle. Hit a ball straight on with full force and the kinetic energy will transfer to your target while the cue ball stops dead.

Balls roll across the table at differing angles and velocities, bounding and rebounding as they strike one another. I suspect a real pool pro would feel right at home here, though the game doesn’t shy away from expecting the most from players; clearing the first round of the tournament challenge mode demands plenty of skill and practice.

Side Pocket’s biggest failing is probably that it offers only two modes of play. It disappointingly lacks the trick shot mode of the 16-bit adaptations and the proper tutorial from the NES port, instead providing a practice mode called Nine Ball and a score-based challenge mode called Pocket. 

Nine Ball mode doesn’t have any sort of win or lose state. It simply allows players to practice shots, providing feedback when they make an error. You always need to target the lowest-numbered ball in this mode, or else you’re given an error message. If you shoot without hitting the proper ball first, you foul and are allowed to place the ball on the table to take a new shot. It might be more interesting if there were some sort of penalty or goal here besides sinking all the balls, but as a practice mode it gets the point across.

The meat of Side Pocket for Game Boy comes in the Pocket mode, wherein you have to complete several consecutive tables by besting their champion’s ever-higher scores. Although Pocket mode doesn’t include Nine Ball’s mode’s requirement that you hit the lowest-numbered ball, you’re scored based on the number of balls you sink on consecutive strikes as well as how many balls you sink in numeric order. So it’s definitely to your advantage to try and clear the table sequentially; in fact, you can’t easily pass the first round without doing so, and you can forget about even bothering with later rounds if you can’t knock them in one by one.

Pocket mode actually starts with a six ball setup — you’re given a certain number of shots in which to sink six balls and hit a score target. If you fail to pocket all the balls, it’s game over; but if you sink all six without hitting the required score, you’re given a second chance to do it with nine, provided you can do so within the shot opportunities left over from the six-ball attempt.

Your ace in the hole for Pocket mode, if you don’t mind my mixing game terminology, is the star icon that appears over random pockets every so often. If you can sink a ball in a pocket highlighted with a star, you’ll gain back two bonus shot opportunities. The star always seems to appear over the least convenient pockets, so making the most of those opportunities takes some real skill. But since running out of your shot allowance is the biggest challenge in nine ball mode, it’s a skill worth developing.

And… well, that’s all there is to Side Pocket. It’s super simple, but it’s hard to fault the game for that. I’m not really sure what else you would want from a portable pool game, besides the trick shot mode. If you can cope with that one omission, though, Side Pocket makes for a challenging yet oddly relaxing way to kill some time on Game Boy. While it’s a less impressive arcade-to-Game Boy adaptation than Data East’s last project — the shockingly good Lock ’N Chase — it plays well thank in largely part to its HAL-caliber ball physics.