Bored, determined, and terrified: the three game faces of alley pool.
PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
RELEASE DATE: 1986 (JP)
I know billiards are considered a sport, but I’ve always seen it as more of a drunken pastime. A way for hip twentysomethings and grizzled bikers alike to congregate in bars, slosh back a few beers with friends, and forget their earthly troubles. In other words, pool is just as much about a certain atmosphere as it is about the game itself. Sure, you could play eight-ball in a well-lit room of your house, surrounded by friends sipping red cups filled with Dr. Pepper, but that puts the kibosh on pool’s contemporary, seedy charm. Unsurprisingly, Champion Billiards isn’t able to recreate the dive bar/pool hall feel one associates with the game, but it does possess an otherworldly vibe that accentuates the game’s otherwise straightforward nature.
Indeed, Champion Billiards succeeds because it’s so simplistic. There’s no options to play 8-ball or 9-ball, no maneuvering the physics of the tables, no Marlboro-sponsored pool sharks for you to contend with (unless you play against a friend and they happen to be a Marlboro-sponsored pool shark). If you want to make up a story for Champion Billiards, you could say that you’re an up-and-coming cue junkie, hungry for power, money, and all the 8-balls you can handle. In reality, you control a glowing colorful cue ball via cursor, and you hit other balls into the pool table’s side pockets – that’s it.
The Illuminati, of course.
Even more than a physical game of pool, Champion Billiards is easy to pick up and play, but it’s the game’s design and aesthetic flourishes that keep you from growing bored. For instance, the constantly moving power meter at the top of the screen controls the speed and force of your hit. Hit too hard and you might sink a ball, but you also might sink yourself. Hit too slow and the other balls will laugh at you, but you’ll be safe. You start off each level with six shots. Use all six shots without sinking a ball and your cue ball shatters into dream dust on the table.
And speaking of tables: each level presents a fresh table design. None of that standard green-colored, corner side-pocket snoozefest here. Some tables lack walls, while others have raised portions in the middle that affects the direction the balls move; only champions need apply. The backgrounds deserve mention too: images of disembodied old man heads, floating pool lingo written in cursive English (I guess it’s pool lingo – “Glidin”?), and all-around trippy colors, accentuated by the SG-1000’s minimalist color palette, makes for a surreal pool journey unlike any other.
Well, almost any other. If SegaRetro is to be believed (and they usually are), Champion Billiards is actually the first in Compile’s “Lunar Pool” series. If you’ve played Lunar Pool on the NES, you’ll see the similarities immediately: the trippy music, the squealing cursor, the “Is this really pool?” questions that arise in the back of one’s mind. Champion Billiards has the edge for me, though. Lunar Pool‘s “pool on the moon” theme is innovative, but I enjoy the whatever-the-hell-we-feel-like-doing design of CB just a bit more (Floating old man heads, Compile? Really?). I think Lunar Pool tightens the series’ style and gives it focus, but the freewheeling looseness that Champion Billiards has is very refreshing – especially when compared to the other stale entries in Sega’s “Champion Sports” line.
“And with one shot remaining, Texas Slim shakily lines up the cursor with the purple jawbreaker.”
Champion Billiards succeeds as a pool game because Compile seems to understand that straight virtual pool just isn’t very much fun. Without the literal background noise of the bar, the feeling of friends close by, a cold beer giving you confidence in your skills, the pool cue in your hand, the crack of the balls against the table, what you’re left with in most virtual pool games is a blank background, a standard table, standard 8-ball games, some cheesy music (or no music at all), and maybe a computer opponent designed to piss you off. No thanks: I’ll take Champion Billiards physics-driven disco insanity any day.