This is it - the finale of Data Driven Gamer's 1984 phase; a humble pair of ZX Spectrum billiards simulators by author Michael Lamb, published through CDS Software.
I spent a weekend afternoon playing with my wife to wrap up this phase, which began just over two years ago now. We're both lousy, but this is an instance where we're about equally lousy.
Game 385: Pool
Pool, the first and simpler title, aspires to simulate a game of pool, but the rules aren't like any version of pool I've ever played.
- Six colored balls start on the table, three blue, three red.
- You get three lives, and on each life, three strokes to pot a ball.
- Blue balls are worth a base of 20 points, red balls a base of 10.
- The base value is then multiplied by the number of remaining strokes, and multiplied again by the number of frames elapsed so far. So for instance, if you pot a blue ball on your first stroke, during the first frame, it is worth 20x3x1 = 60 points.
- After potting a ball, you get three strokes to pot the next.
- After all six colored balls are potted, another frame is played, incrementing the multiplier.
- Fail to pot a ball on the third stroke, or pocket the cueball, or fail to strike a colored ball, and you lose a life and control goes to the other player.
- Once all players lose all of their lives, the game is over, and whoever has the most points wins.
I don't know if this lives-based approach has any sort of connection to English pool variants, but I'm speculating that Michael Lamb isn't emulating any particular rule set and just figured "three lives, advance to the next stage" was standard video game operating procedure.
We played several rounds, and below is a recording of two of them. I break as player 1 in the first game, and go as player 2 in the second.
And, well, we had some fun! It's a pretty basic game, with a simplistic but serviceable physics model and reasonably smooth ball action, though the old Spectrum was never the mightiest gaming machine and it shows here, with crude animation and sometimes flickering ball sprites.
I have to note - aiming is a bit tricky. Your aiming cursor circumnavigates the edge of the table, leaving it up to you to visualize line-of-sight from the cueball to the cursor's tip to figure out precisely where the cueball will strike and at what angle. I get that it's meant to simulate aiming with the cue, but the top-down perspective doesn't make it terribly intuitive.
GAB rating: Above average. As I said, Pool is a basic and pretty bare-bones package, but it's nice to not have a bazillion options and just be able to jump into a game with some confidence that the author set the parameters according to what he thought would be most enjoyable, if not necessarily realistic. Mobygames lists a baker's dozen commercial billiards games for the Spectrum, and going by Youtube footage, this is one of the better ones.
Game 386: Steve Davis Snooker
Not featuring world snooker champion Steve Davis' likeness or personality anywhere except the tape cover, Lamb's premium follow-up to Pool topped the UK charts for years on Davis' name and implied endorsement. That, and this product is actually a pretty good simulation considering the Spectrum's modest abilities, though that it also supported every computer popular with the British - Atari, Commodore, Amstrad, BBC, and even the MSX - certainly didn't hurt!
As I alluded earlier, Steve Davis Snooker is also one of a handful of games to support the Currah μSpeech module, so you can enjoy Stephen Hawking quality voice quips like "Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please!" If you can even understand it. I don't know how popular these modules were - the scant support makes me suspect not much - but for this one I used the trialware emulator Spectaculator as one of the few that supports it.
It's immediately obvious that this is a more sophisticated simulation than Pool, but we had a problem - we don't know the rules of snooker! The manual - really just a few paragraphs in the inner cassette cover, covers some of the rules, but it's incomplete. Fair enough, honestly, as I expect anyone buying this in the 80's would already know, but that doesn't help me much.
From playing and reading official rules, I gathered the basics, but there are still some aspects that elude me.
- You alternate between potting the red balls and the rest of the colors.
- After potting a red ball, you score a point and must select the next ball before making your next stroke.
- After potting a non-red ball, you score its value (between 2 and 7 points) and it is replaced in its original position. You must pot a red ball next.
- Once all red balls are gone, the rest of the colored balls are played in sequence (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black) and removed once potted.
- Fail to pot a ball, and your turn ends.
- Foul shots end your turn, award your opponent a 4 point minimum, up to 7 points depending on the value of any illegally struck ball, and if your opponent wishes, they may force you to take the next shot.
The fouls are serious business and also my biggest point of confusion. From what I can gather, fouls include:
- Failure to strike a legal ball
- Striking an illegal ball
- Pocketing an illegal ball
- Pocketing the cueball
We played a round, which took about an hour to complete, and "D" won. Our initial impressions were that this is a better simulation than Pool, but it wasn't as much fun for us, though this isn't the game's fault; we just don't like snooker.
I'd show you the video of our match, but frustratingly, the emulator ate the recording! I suspect emulating the Currah module might have had something to do with it. Not only was video proof of "D"'s victory spoiled, but so was proof of a particularly awesome shot that Stephen Hawking declared a foul for reasons neither of us understood.
But we played again, opting for a 'short' match with ten red balls instead of fifteen, and this time I filmed with OBS instead of Spectaculator's built-in recorder. We got better (not good, just better), and consequently enjoyed it more. We even played a third match.
Below is a recording of both recorded matches, with several minutes of time spent aiming edited out. She goes first in the first match, I go first in the second.
Some further observations:
- Compared to Pool, Snooker features a bigger table, smaller balls, and more of them. This invites a lot more opportunity for crazy physics tricks, and impressively, it runs fast and smoothly, with less flicker than Pool. Almost every strike, bounce, ricochet, and cascade feels plausible.
- Control is improved very much. The aiming cursor is placed anywhere on the table using that weird QAOP scheme, so you can be completely sure where you're aiming the ball at. It even moves with nonlinear acceleration, so you can move it from one side of the table to the other quickly and then make pixel-precise aim adjustments. Power control is more granular, and you can put spin on too, which wasn't supported in Pool.
- There is a very annoying air raid siren sound as you move the cursor. Thankfully it can be turned off, but not without resetting the game first. We did this on our replay.
- I do like the 'clink' sound when a ball hits another.
- The Spectrum's limited color palette is a bit troublesome. The yellow ball blends into the green table, at least to my eyes. Brown doesn't exist, so the brown ball is drawn with red and green stripes. Blue and pink are fine, but I personally struggle to distinguish them.
- The green ball poses a particular problem as the system only has one shade of green, and the table itself uses it, so a green ball on top of that would wind up being invisible. The solution used is to draw a while outline, but still, it's often difficult to spot, and looks strange on its
starting position overlapping the black lines on the table.
- Color clash in general is more frequent than it was in Pool.
- The game keeps track of your largest score in a turn (your "break") and should it be high enough, prompts you to enter your name for the high score table. Davis himself tops it with a nigh table-clearing 30 points.