On Her Majesty’s Sega Mega Drive

Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker

Normally, North America gets near enough all the good game releases they want, leaving us Brits staring over the pond sullenly, like someone’s just disposed of all our tea into a large body of water. Yet, there have been a few times, rare as they are, where we have gotten a stroke of good fortune – the games come over to Europe and the UK only. With the popularity of the Sega Mega Drive in Europe (this isn’t hyperbole; Sonic is far more beloved than Mario here, and the Mega Drive didn’t even leave the market until 1998!) it makes sense that we (rightfully) got our hands on a few exclusives. This series, then, is all about those games; the ones that never saw the light of day across the Atlantic. You’ll only find them on one place, though. Where? On Her Majesty’s Sega Mega Drive.

When you make it big as a sportsperson, the cash starts flowing faster, and the contracts get pushed into your face at increasing rates. Loads of sporting figures get their own games, too – John Madden, Tiger Woods, Tony Hawk all come to mind. However, there’s one name; well-known and beloved in the UK, that you won’t be seeing on any sporting video game lists any time soon: Jimmy White. No relation to a soul singer or a meth slinger, Jimmy White is one of the finest snooker players to have ever lived. Known as “The Whirlwind”, he was known for a fast style of play that injected life into a stodgy, slow-paced “old man’s game”, revitalising the sport and inspiring thousands of players in the process. His influence on the game was incalculable. With that came the aforementioned cash and contracts, which led to Ocean Software seeing an opportunity. From there came Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker for the Mega Drive. If we’re going to do a series on Mega Drive games that came to the UK but not America, why not start with something quintessentially British as snooker?

One hopes that they didn't spend all their resources on this lovely title screen.

One hopes that they didn’t spend all their resources on this lovely title screen.

For those of you that don’t know, snooker is a table-based game like pool or billiards, yet it lacks the more fast-paced elements of those games. The player has 15 red balls and 6 colour balls on the table; first, they must pot the balls alternatingly – red, colour, red, colour, red, etc. The reds are taken off the table, but the colours remain. Once all the reds are gone, the player then pots all the colours in order – yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and finally black. If you fell asleep during that description, I don’t blame you – snooker can be notoriously dry. One must have surely thought, “Yes, the audience for a video game is there, but how the hell are we going to do it?”.

The answer to that question is, “Surprisingly well.”. The Mega Drive is mostly known for 2D games, but it brings the snooker table to life using ‘simulated’ 3D graphics, in that the objects are all two-dimensional, but simulates depth by making objects smaller and smaller the further away they are. What we’re essentially looking at here is a 2.5D arrangement – in the sense of games like Doom and Castle Wolfenstein – 2D sprites creating the semblance of a 3D world. Considering that the snooker game format didn’t really come into its own until the fifth generation and 3D graphics, this is amazing. The game is also bursting with colour, to the point where the balls seem to just leap off the screen, and the action moves nice and smoothly. Snooker’s not a ‘sexy’ game by a long chalk, but Ocean have done a good job at making it look attractive on the Mega Drive.

Ocean also worked hard to make the snooker experience translate to home consoles. Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker is stacked with options – this isn’t some lame, half-baked sim, where you just shoot and simply move onto the next one; you can set shot power, top spin, side spin – you can even chalk the cue up to make your shots more devastating. The little touches make a game what they are, and this game has them in spades. All these nuances serve to make the gameplay better, which creates a functional and even fun game of snooker, but be warned- Whirlwind Snooker was a complete leap forward and would have been a complete culture shock for some gamers.

While that may sound like a positive, the game’s complexity works against it. Today, controllers tend to have two analogue sticks, four face buttons, directionals, shoulder buttons, and triggers; allowing for much more control over our games. The Mega Drive controller boasts much less, which makes traversing the table and selecting the power and direction of your shot much harder than it should be; it really would have benefited being played with a higher-capacity controller. The action extends to two players, which is the preferable way to play this game – the AI, even on the easiest settings, can pull off Godlike shots, while you’re still struggling to pot a red at close range. Don’t get me wrong; this is not a badly designed game, but it’s one that’s hard to learn and get right – this makes for a punishing difficulty curve and may put off players who want to get right to the action.

The visuals are stunning for a mid-90s game. Based on SNOOKER, no less!

The visuals are stunning for a mid-90s game. Based on SNOOKER, no less!

I have to commend all the humorous little touches that Ocean Software put it. Snooker’s can be a bit dull (or to use the polite term, ‘special interest’), but there’s a sense of irreverence here that makes the game all the more enjoyable. This is a serious simulation, but if you take too long to line up a shot, the balls on the table will gain sentience and begin to taunt you, either by miming a raspberry or holding up signs that say “Get on with it!”. I enjoy serious games, and I love them even more when they don’t take themselves too seriously – and how can I possibly be mad at a game with anthropomorphic balls?

I would have liked to see more snooker pros show up: Jimmy White’s one of the biggest names of all time, sure; but this game came out in 1994, a time when old and new were beginning to blend. The old guard were going out – names like John Parrott and Steve Davis saw their careers start to wind down, while the new blood emerged – future champions like Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan burst onto the scene. A bevy of snooker talent could have been tapped into here, but instead, the only players we get to compete against are the man himself, Mr White, and…a ragtag bunch of scallywags called Tom, Dick and Harry. A neat joke, sure, and it fits as part of the game’s cheeky charm, but so much more could have been given here in terms of the roster of players available.

Also, the sound direction is disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps the team had spent all their collective energy on making the game look right, or the sound manager had been dodging their calls for six months – either way, the music is simply a let-down. After a catchy opening jingle that pays homage to seminal British TV show Pot Black (yes; America had The A-Team, we had snooker as part of our prime time lineup) we’re left with…nothing. No, apart from the appropriate and expected diegetic sounds, such as balls smacking together (behave), we simply play in silence. Some might welcome this – after all, silence is golden, and it might help us achieve Zen to create the perfect shot, but I see it as a missed opportunity. The Mega Drive was the home to many great soundtracks – Sonic the Hedgehog, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, Gunstar Heroes – if we lived in a perfect world, we’d be talking about how great the jaunty and happy-go-lucky soundtrack of this game is, but unfortunately, we can’t get everything we want.

Gunstar Heroes is as well-soundtracked as it is destructive.

Gunstar Heroes is as well-soundtracked as it is destructive.

The worst thing I can say about Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker is that it seems to have been too ambitious for its own good. Ambition is good, and so is the Mega Drive, but the console just was not strong enough to support the dreams of Ocean Software. This isn’t a bad game by any stretch, but if they had simplified it a bit, this would have made a much more elegant and exciting experience.