I’ve never been particularly good at it, but I’ve always enjoyed playing a game of pool whenever I get the chance. As a maths nerd I always liked trying to figure out the angles that would lead me to victory in the battle of solids versus stripes, and who can deny the satisfaction of that first shot of the white into the big triangle of coloured balls. I personally don’t think that pool has ever really translated well into video game form though, or at least not until Subpar Pool.
Subpar Pool is a top down 2D pool game which tasks you with potting all the balls on a table within a certain number of hits of the cue ball. Each round presents you a randomised different number of balls to sink and a different shaped table, but as long as you don’t miss too many shots you’ll happily clear it and move onto the next one. It’s a delightfully simple concept, and one that gets shaken up almost immediately.
Before you play a round of five tables of Subpar Pool, you’re given different cards to select that will change the way the game plays out. This mainly involves giving you different types of balls to pot, like the ridiculously big Chonker, or a ball that splits in two on impact. My favourite of these to add was the crystal ball, which shatters and shrinks in size every time it hits another ball or a wall, until eventually disappearing entirely without the need to pot it. There are so many creative ideas in Subpar Pool, and every round is so different because of them.
Cards also dictate which of the game’s four courses you’ll be playing on, which despite featuring randomised holes all have something unique about them. The first course just features basic tables so you can learn how to play in peace, but after that you’ll be introduced to holes that disappear when you sink a balls in them, or a course full of portals that you can use to teleport the balls all over the shop. My favourite course is the last one you unlock, which is made up of loads of conveyor belts that just make everything feel a bit mad.
As well as using cards to add different types of balls to a run and pick your course, there are also cards that make the game more challenging by imposing certain rules. One card makes it so you can’t choose where you place the cue ball when you start a game, another removes the bounce line entirely so it’s harder to predict where a ball will go when you hit it. The different combinations of cards make for some seriously challenging gameplay, and in order to unlock more you’ll have to experiment with them all.
You start with only a handful of cards at first in Subpar Pool, and the aim of the game is complete objectives to unlock more. At any one time a few of your cards will give you a task to complete with them active, and after beating three you’ll get access to something new. Perhaps you’ll be tasked with sinking two balls at once with the Chonker card active, or challenged to win a round without ever potting the cue ball without the bounce line visible. The challenges always feel doable if tricky, but if you’re clever you’ll find a way to beat the system.
Sometimes you just need to work out the best way to beat an objective, even if it makes a particular run of the game way too hard. One challenge that seemed impossible tasked me with sinking two balls at once four times in a single game, but when I realised I could activate the “More Balls” card to ensure each table was full of balls and played on the portal stage the objective was complete first time. Especially later on in the game it makes much more sense to complete one objective at a time instead of multiple at once, and it makes for some interesting runs when you do.
I think my only real complaint with Subpar Pool is that it ended, and I’d unlocked everything in the game in only two hours playtime. The challenges keep coming and there are plenty of things to experiment with once you’ve “beaten” the game (like the endless mode or trying to complete a run with a ridiculous amount of cards active) but the lack of unlockables did mean I felt a bit less invested. I also think that four courses felt a little lacking, and would’ve liked a couple more creative course options to choose from.
Subpar Pool is one of the most compelling games I’ve played in a long time, with so much variety and that arcade-magic that makes you keep playing for “just one more run”. This is one game I’m never deleting from my Steam Deck, and in a year full of epic AAA adventures might be just the change of pace you need.
Sublime arcade action
So much variety
Finding the best way to accomplish a mission feels amazing
The perfect "just one more run" game
The unlocks stop a bit too soon
Not enough courses