Of all the games shown during the March "Nindies"-themed Nintendo Direct, I'm not sure any caught my eye quite like Pool Panic. Starring an anthropomorphized cue ball and sporting an art style that resembles the grotesque-yet-lovable Adult Swim cartoon Rick & Morty (which is fitting, considering Adult Swim Games is publishing the title), Pool Panic is an eclectic collection of chaos.
The announcement trailer shows our cue ball hero stealing hats, participating in a stage play, carving out tunnels Dig Dug-style, and fighting a giant spider. And yet, based on my demo during PAX East 2018, that trailer doesn't even come close to encapsulating the absurdity of the final product set to arrive later this year on Switch and PC.
Developers Mike Robinson and Angus Dick explained what I assume to be the entirety of the game's controls: move with the left analog stick, aim with the right stick, perform a hard shot with the right trigger, perform a soft shot with the right bumper. And that's... pretty much it. Instead of focusing on complex maneuvers, Pool Panic creates challenge by giving each of its 100+ levels a new set of rules to learn and adapt to. The need to stay on your toes keeps things interesting, and it's impossible not to be delighted at the increasing absurdity.
New level, new game
The first level I played was pretty much billiards to a T: hit all the other pool balls into the pockets of a table, then sink the 8-ball. Easy enough, especially factoring in the cue ball's ability to walk around on two legs for prime positioning. But by the next level, I was walking through a forest full of bear-shaped balls (or would they be ball-shaped bears?) that would charge me if I got too close or started to aim my shot near them. There were still holes like before, but these were randomly spread across the ground instead of evenly-spaced like on a pool table.
A level after that, I needed to take out a piece of heavy construction equipment being operated by an 8-ball. A level after that, I was on a moped and knocking biker balls off their motorcycles as we sped down a highway. A level after that, I knocked an 8-ball away from the marching band he was leading and stole his baton. A level after that, I shrank in size and squeezed myself through the holes in a piece of cheese.
Every level of Pool Panic plays with a new setup so that the only constant is its simple controls. I was eager to see what was waiting for me each time I loaded an arena, and delighted each time I deduced the solution to a given puzzle. Some were relatively straightforward and simple, like hitting the construction equipment without getting scooped up, while others required a bit more strategy and thought, like leading the marching band to its pocketed doom.
If you really want to test your mettle, you can attempt to beat each level within a certain time limit, without any scratches (that's pool lingo for the cue ball falling in the pocket), or within a certain number of shots. There are also optional trick-shot challenges and a multiplayer mode where the methods for battling your opponent are every bit as wild as the main campaign. Whether you're trying to knock your competition into zombie pool balls or racing to see who's a better grass-cutter (yes, really), it's a hoot just to watch the chaos unfold.
In a way, Pool Panic feels not too dissimilar from WarioWare's story mode. I'm not sure it's balanced or particularly deep, but I also don't know if it should be. By breaking itself up into bite-sized, mini-game-esque challenges, Pool Panic looks like it'll be able to maintain a sense of surprise and delight with every level. Count me in.
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