Often, when it comes sports games, the desire for authenticity of statistics, tournaments and players is more than enough in the punter's mind to justify certain shortcomings on the field itself. FIFA Football, for example, outsells the vastly superior Pro Evolution Soccer series on an annual basis, largely thanks to EA's skills in moulding David Beckham, Thierry Henry and the like out of digital clay, as Andy Gray and John Motson's commentary faithfully charts their convincing path through prestigious tournaments we all watch on television year in, year out. As a result, reviewers are just as often left gasping for superlatives in a hopeless attempt to play down the significance of the presentation, and tip a few more people in the direction of the superior product. It doesn't work.
Pool Paradise puts us in a very similar position. It may not have all the right waistcoats, cue sponsors, haircuts, arenas and tournament titles, but, when it comes to matters on the table, it happily outstrips its rivals in effectively every sense. Were it not for Virtual Snooker/Pool's wonderful keyboard-and-mouse control scheme (of which we will never grow tired), we'd have no hesitation in labelling this the best rendition of the traditional pub game ever committed to disc. As it is, it's probably just the best and most intuitive clack-'em-up we've ever seen on a console. Which isn't a bad consolation. How does it manage it? Stick a quid on the table and maybe we'll tell you.
[Rummages through pockets] Clink
Cheers. In the absence of the Ronnie O'Sullivan, snooker's Embassy World Championship, BBC Grandstand-issue presentation, or even Sky Sports' wonderfully excitable pool commentators, Archer Maclean's team has been forced to compensate somewhat, so in the presentation stakes the game is a bit of an oddity. The premise, such that it is, has you turning up as a washed-up nobody on an idyllic island resort, which just so happens to be occupied by a beach-load of pool sharks, all of whom are happy to play you if you can put up the requisite stake, and many of whom are caricatures of real-life figures, or just-plain-caricatures like hippies and monkey wizards.
As you start out, you borrow a couple of hundred dollars from a loan shark (who is quite literally a shark), and take on the folks on the bottom rungs of the local competition ladder, gradually picking them off one by one until you're playing for the biggest stakes and earning enough cash to top the table and unlock various mini-games (darts, skeeball, Dropzone), oddly-shaped and themed tables (T-shape, hockey rink, etc), new baizes for the tables, new cues and other pool-related paraphernalia. You can also practice on your own and sometimes you're invited into impromptu tournaments requiring a certain stake to join, generally sticking to one variety of pool throughout.
Variety, however, is not going to be a problem, as your potential adversaries are happy to take you on in countless variations on the version of pool set up in your local. Picking through opponents you'll find some looking for a game of 8-ball (US or UK), some 9-ball, some 6-ball, some 15-ball (red and yellow), some 14-to-1 (in which you just keep going until you hit a certain score, it seems), some killer (in which every time someone pots the other player has to respond in kind, or lose a 'life'), some bowliards, and plenty of others besides.
All of which is, to be honest, rather insignificant compared to the actual game of pool on offer. You don't care about the graphics - if we were to point out that they're largely functional (you play against a set of well-modelled disembodied hands, in a bar, with the occasional wandering Dodo or night/day cycle going on outside), for example, you'd shrug. Apart from the types of game on offer, you're probably far more interested in how it plays - otherwise you'd be off re-reading the World Championship Snooker review by now, or looking forward to the online-enabled 2004 version.
The good news, of course, is that it plays extremely well, presumably thanks in part to the guiding hand of a certain Jimmy White. It's easily the best implementation of the old pub sport we've seen on a console, and although we still covet the hallowed greenery of Virtual Snooker and Pool, Pool Paradise certainly comes very close to that system with its own analogue cue stroke mechanic, which has you setting up the angle of shot with the sticks, adjusting for spin with the D-pad, and then holding X while you draw the cue back with the stick before pushing through again. It's not unlike playing Tiger Woods or Links golf, in fact. And although it takes a game or two to get used to, you'll quickly be lining up shots, switching camera angles using the shoulder buttons, and knocking balls into holes as if it's second nature. It's a very intuitive system overall.
And it's a very accurate system, too. Pockets are necessarily a little forgiving, but even so you can get a handle on the angles very quickly if you have even a half-decent knowledge of pool (we're certainly better at this than we are in real life), and the subtleties of the analogue system mean you can play a very versatile game - you can even jump balls, swerve round them, and execute a lot of convincing plants that look and feel like the real thing. Heck, it's accurate enough that it'll influence your skill around the table in general - watching the snooker on the telly this weekend, we couldn't help but spot a lot of the shots before the players took to them, and even before Virgo pointed them out, and positioning the cue ball accurately after playing a stroke is a very realistic goal. In short, then, it's in off the red.
It's not perfect, mind. Being unable to rotate the camera whilst moving the cue ball for a free shot can be a bit of a pain, it could do with some in-game rules for the games (although having a control scheme layout pop up when you hit square is genius), the 17 instrumental audio tracks don't really do much except fill the silence (and were quickly muted, fortunately without having to sacrifice the clacky sound effects), and most disgraceful of all you can't steal an opponent's shot while he pops to the loo. In fact, AI-controlled opponents don't ever go to the toilet, although if the fully loaded bar in the background encourages you to mix up as many drinks as it did us, you will probably have to regardless. What the AI does do however is ramp up as you climb the ladder, meaning that you can generally find a reasonable challenge no matter how good you get - and cleverly enough that doesn't have to be 'very', because you can always stick to playing people closer to your own skill level elsewhere on the ladder.
Is it worth it, then? If you don't already have a pool game, and you want to play pool on a games machine and not in the pub, then yes it is - unquestionably. It may not have a licence behind it, it doesn't feature online play, and it could do with a few zanier tables and quirks to match the presentation, but until somebody comes along with a game of pool that plays this well - and is this accessible - it's by far and away our clacker of choice. It's extremely true to the physics of the real game, has just about every variation on the standard game that you could imagine, and is easy enough to pick up that multiplayer could very well become a regular fixture.
Scoring it is a problem though. Some would argue that spending 20 quid (or even less) on a pool game is folly. After all, this isn't some game of all-conquering athletes we'll never be able to compete with - this is the sort of thing we can go to the pub and play right now. It's the same argument that applies to pinball games, really. We don't just want realism, we want something imaginative like Kirby's Pinball or, most recently, Pokémon Pinball on the GBA. On the other hand though, pool is perhaps a little harder to get good at, and Paradise certainly slices off a bit of the challenge of doing so. It's an interesting dilemma whatever your view, and one perhaps best left for you to mull over. Do you need a pool game?
If you do, then for 20 quid or less, Pool Paradise is well worth it, and stands head and shoulders above almost everything else. Unless you own another pool or snooker title that you're reasonably happy with, or you answered 'no' to the question at the end of the previous section, there's very little excuse not to chalk this up and give it a whirlwind.
8 / 10