One of my favourite studio names of the last few years comes from the team that made PinOut. PinOut was basically Tron: The Pinball Game. Against a humming, buzzing, looping backdrop of glorious retro-futurist dance music, you raced across the highways and gutters of an endless swooping, arcing table, ricocheting off bumpers, finding secret paths and feeling like you were the single most vital part of a luminous living machine. It was a rush, a trip. And the studio? The studio was called Mediocre.
Such a brazenly inaccurate name speaks to a great and quirky seam of buried confidence, I think. It’s intoxicating. Who wouldn’t love a studio that made a classic and still named itself Mediocre? And now – nobody, as far as I’m aware, from Mediocre involved – who wouldn’t love a brilliant pool game called Subpar Pool?
Subpar Pool. The thrill of it. Incredible Pool? No thanks. Brilliant Pool? Move along. Subpar Pool? My cheeks grow flushed. My hands sweat a little. The night, as the poet says, opens its eyes. And all this before I’d discovered that Subpar Pool is the work of Martin Jonasson, who bent resource management and puzzling into such ingenious ludic pretzels with games like Rymdkapsel and Twofold Inc. And who, with Holedown, gave us a preview of what we’re getting here: playful physics, confidently weaponised. Nothing Subpar about it.
As the name suggests, Subpar Pool is pool with a bit of golf – and with some lovely squelchy frog-and-toad music by Niklas Ström on top. Sink the balls, but do it before you run out of shots. It’s an interesting mix, but let’s put labels aside here, because it’s pure videogames when you’re actually playing it. It might as well be asteroids and planets you’re flinging around out there – half the time it feels like it is. This is really a game of timing, trajectories, vectors and lucky outcomes. It’s gorgeous stuff. Elastic physics, clicky audio and movement so fast and smooth each match feels like the game is telling you a series of one-liners.
The basics are thrillingly basic. With one stick you place your cueball on a table, and with the other you aim and fire it at a series of other balls you want to sink. Pockets are scattered about, and the game shows you your trajectory, as well as the directions in which both you and the ball you hit will move in afterwards. Newton would be very satisfied. Pocketing a cue removes your flawless rating for each level, but also allows you to reposition for your next shot. Sinking a ball you’re after is all well and good, meanwhile, but you really want to be working with trickshots: rebounds, long shots, posthumous shots (this means you pocket a ball after you’ve pocketed yourself), multiple sinks with one shot, onwards and upwards.
Go over par, and any balls left on the table will be added to the next table in the form of ghostly hulks. It’s elegant. It’s playful. You can tell that someone’s had real fun revisiting the rules of pool and golf and screwing around with them all.
Thing is, this setup is just the beginning. It’s the ice cream – sorry, I know we were talking about pretzels earlier, not to mention asteroids – and the rest of the fun comes down to the toppings.
So the tables you play on are procedurally generated with their own lumps and lacuna. That’s fun! But then a series of different table designs bring their own quirks: portals, pockets that close and open, or little moving tracks that remind me of sushi conveyor belts.
Beyond table types, you can also play multiple cards that allow you to change the rules on a deeper level. Maybe you want the balls to be made of glass, or locked in place, or filled with a bit of cue-seeking ability. Maybe you want lots of balls on the table, more space, more walls? These cards are unlocked by little missions – sinking balls in certain ways, playing without pocketing the cue and so on – and you can have multiple cards in play at once. So really, Subpar Pool is as much a game about making the rules as it is a game about playing by those rules. I love this, and I can see a world in which players share card recipes they’ve found. Here’s one for starters: fixed time, which means a clock ticks down as you make your shots, hunter and crystal, which means one ball comes for you and another breaks into pieces when struck. That’s an afternoon right there.
This all sounds complex, but it’s a friendly rabble on the table itself. And at best, it’s genuinely euphoric. This is my favourite thing about the game, which I have left to tell you about last. At best, Subpar Pool doesn’t remind me of pool or golf so much as it reminds me of something like Max Payne – Max Payne when he’s diving through a window and aiming twin pistols and time slows until it feels like clear gel you’re all moving through together. This is because – whisper it – after you take a shot in Subpar Pool, you can hit your ball again while everything’s still moving, triggering a bit of bullet-time and allowing you to clear a complex table in seconds, and with no chances for the cue to come to a halt.
That’s beautiful. That’s thrilling. Yep: nothing subpar about it.
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