When it comes to the realm of leisure sports and the games based upon them, the line between parody and straight simulation of said sports is often pushed so far in one direction or the other that it often seems as though there's really no room for compromise between the two. This is a convention that European pool enthusiast Archer Maclean is aiming to challenge with his latest offering, Pool Paradise. Pool Paradise is, without a doubt, the strangest game of pool to hit gaming systems in quite a long time. It features a roster of bizarre, parodic characters, a bizarre premise, and a whole host of quirky minigames and specialized pool tables. However, if you were to strip out the game's inherent capriciousness, underneath its eccentric nature you would still find an incredibly solid and inexplicably addictive game of pool, complete with all the standard variations on the game you'd expect in a modern billiards title.
Unlike most pool games, which are pretty straightforward, Pool Paradise features something of a premise, albeit a rather shoddily delivered one. You, the anonymous player, have washed up on the shores of a picturesque resort island, which for some reason happens to be almost entirely populated by the who's who of parodic pool sharks. To start the game, you find yourself borrowing $200 from the local loan shark (who happens to be, quite literally, a shark), and you set out on a personal quest to work your way up the ladder of Pool Paradise's resident elite. The roster of characters whom you will challenge in the game are as weird as weird gets, ranging from a rubber fetishist, decked out in Pulp Fiction-esque "gimp" gear, to an intimidating, glove-wearing fellow named OJ Stumpstem. Throw in a kung-fu guy, a few modern takes on some classic horror monsters, and a monkey in a wizard costume, and you've got an incredibly odd assortment of characters to play against.
As you play, you'll be presented with a list of challenges from each opposing character. Listed on each challenge is a type of game that the characters wish to play, the number of frames or set score to play to, and how much money they're willing to stake on the game. Opponents will challenge you to any of the different rule-type variations of pool contained within the game; there are several to choose from, including 6-ball, 15-ball, 9-ball, rotation, 14 to 1, killer, bowliards, and US and UK variations of 8-ball. In order to build up your reputation and climb Pool Paradise's ladder, you'll have to increase your bankroll. Doing so not only moves you up the ranks, but also gives you the opportunity to purchase any one of the game's hefty list of unlockables. Some of the things you can unlock in Pool Paradise include crazy tables, which let you play normal pool games on oddly shaped and themed tables, such as a hockey-rink-themed table and a table that's just a big T shape; subgames, such as a basic darts game and a billiards-themed game of skeeball; new baizes for your pool tables; new pool cues; and even a few gadgets to aid in your game. Between the crazy tables and subgames, there's plenty of fun stuff to unlock, and the additional perks give you even more incentive to earn as much cash as you can.
Granted, there wouldn't be much incentive at all to unlock all the game's extras if Pool Paradise's gameplay weren't well designed; thankfully, it is. The basic gameplay mechanics of Pool Paradise aren't too dissimilar to some of the better offerings already out there on the market. Multiple camera angles are at your disposal, though obviously the most useful one is the cue's-eye-view angle. When lining up a shot, you can select a specific ball and pocket, which will in turn bring up an icon over that pocket, displaying the ball you've just called. After that, simply line it up with the left analog stick, hold down the X button, and then use the stick in a back-and-forth manner to hit the shot. The analog control is actually fairly sensitive, so it does take a bit of experimenting to gauge the proper amount of movement for each shot. Additionally, you can add backspin using the controller's D pad, which gives you more control over how you want your shot to go. Overall, the controls are mixed just right so anyone can grasp them easily, and at the same time, pool enthusiasts can configure their shots as many different ways as they please.
While the actual game is a lot of fun, Pool Paradise isn't quite as impressive in terms of presentational value. The game's graphical style is obviously modeled after an ocean resort, and in that respect, it does manage to capture the sort of tropical, leisurely style the game is going for. The trouble is that pretty much all of the game's visuals have a decidedly low-res look to them. Backgrounds look muddy and jaggy, and even pieces in the foreground, such as the pool tables, don't look much better. Furthermore, none of the game's characters actually appear in the game in any way other than as a static portrait. During matches, you're playing against a pair of disembodied hands, which themselves are somewhat fashioned after their represented character. It's kind of creepy to watch these bodiless hands walking around a pool table, carefully inspecting their next shot; it also speaks to the generally unimpressive nature of the game's visuals. The graphical differences between the PS2 and GameCube versions of the game are practically nonexistent. The on-the-table action seems to run a tad smoother on the GameCube, whereas some of the camera cuts look a little less jumpy on the PS2. Otherwise, the two are basically on an even keel.
The game's sound design is also rather sparing, though, thankfully, it is produced a bit better. Background music comes in the form of 17 different instrumental tracks, ranging from simple reggae rhythms to ambient music, the likes of which you'd expect to hear on a "Pure Moods" CD. It's all decent stuff and provides good background sound. The game's sound effects don't ever really reach beyond the scope of cue balls cracking and balls falling into pockets, but again, these effects sound just fine for what is necessary.
Pool Paradise is one of those rare, surreptitious little games that drives you to fritter the hours of your life away playing it, without ever providing you with so much as a clue as to what it's doing to you. Its puzzlingly addictive nature simply cannot be reasoned with, yet at the same time, it helps solidify the game as one of the best games of pool to come out on a console platform in many years. Even if you don't appreciate the game's offbeat sense of humor and strange presentational design, you simply cannot deny that it provides some of the most polished pool gameplay around, as well as an extremely deep inventory of pool games and bonus games, which also happen to be quite fun. Though there are other pool games available for the PlayStation 2, few, if any, are as enjoyable as Pool Paradise.