You know that Vince McMahon reaction meme? That is almost how I reacted when I saw the email notification for grapefrukt games’ subpar pool ($4.99). You see, I love golf games, pool mini-games, and games by grapefrukt like rymdkapsel, so having all three of those together felt like a game that was literally made for me. About 15 minutes after I started playing subpar pool, I bought it on Steam and gifted it to a friend. It is that good. In fact, I like it so much, I almost did this entire review in lowercase, just like grapefrukt intended.
So what is subpar pool? It is a blend of pool, mini golf, procedurally generated levels, different kinds of balls, gorgeous visuals, superb sound design, and more. You start off with subpar pool feeling like a pleasing pool and golf hybrid, but slowly start to see the genius unfold. Not only is this one of the most well-designed games I’ve played in 2023, it might actually have surpassed rymdkapsel for me from grapefrukt, which I’m shocked to even think about.
After a few rounds, you start unlocking different modifiers through cards. These let you augment your runs to try and complete more challenges and progress. You can pick and choose cards based on what you’ve unlocked, but things can get difficult very quickly. There are multiple areas and ball types you can mix and match as well, but the humor and gorgeous visuals are constants. The different ball types in particular dramatically change how things go in a run. If you somehow fail to pocket every ball in a stage, the game hilariously starts moving into a scary or anxious state where your ball starts sweating and such. Any ball you miss pocketing becomes a black color ball that remains for the next table.
subpar pool’s game flow and structure combine to be very addictive, but the controls were a big surprise. You see, I initially was puzzled at the lack of the slingshot-style control for aiming the ball as we see in most golf or pool mini-games. It turns out, the level design, screen size on mobile, and general structure made it so that the slingshot control scheme wouldn’t work. Instead you have the ability to place the ball, drag to aim, and then double tap to shoot. The touch controls on both iOS and Switch feel great, but there is full controller support on mobile if you prefer that. I used my Kishi V2 and it played great, just like it does on Switch with Joy-Cons.
In terms of accessibility, you can reduce shaking, toggle haptics, enable a left handed mode, and even unlock everything. These are all available in the options menu at any time. You can also reset progress if you’d like. I’m not sure if this is by design, but I couldn’t get my progress to sync across iPhone and iPad. I verified this in a few other games where it did work, so I’m not sure if subpar pool doesn’t support iCloud saves, or that it was just bugged. I hope this can be resolved or clarified in the future.
Visually, I’m not sure how subpar pool managed to pull off a blend of cozy designs for the balls, subtle yet whimsical animations, and some superb patterns for the environments around the actual stages. This is all complemented by stunning typography and iconography throughout. subpar pool feels like a game Apple would’ve funded on Apple Arcade a few years ago. Thankfully, it is a premium purchase and available on Switch and Steam as well as mobile from day one.
While a lot of the music in subpar pool is very chilled out, I ended up liking all the tracks used a lot. I even left the game idling on Switch docked to listen to the music while writing this review. Barring the music, the sound effects are just lovely. The sounds accompanied by different animations and changes based on how close you are to a game over are also worth highlighting. The team thought of *everything* here.
subpar pool also excels in how it dangles unlocks and challenges making you feel like you’re always close to the next major part of the game. Getting a game over in subpar pool never feels bad. Working towards more unlocks remains fun, and each run feels different.
The only part of subpar pool that might not work for some folks, is in its structure with how you mix and match to try new runs. I adore the freedom to tweak my playstyle and runs here, but those who prefer a more guided experience might not like it. If you aren’t a fan of golf or pool mechanics at all, this might not be for you. I love all of that, so subpar pool is one of my favorite games of 2023, and I feel like I’ve said that a lot recently, but 2023 remains a crazy good year for game releases on all platforms.
Subpar Pool is out on iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, and Steam right now. I’ve played it on iPhone 11, iPhone 14 Plus, iPad Pro (2020 11″), Nintendo Switch docked, Nintendo Switch handheld, and Steam Deck. I like the game a lot, but it definitely shines on Switch in handheld and on iOS. Both offer touch and controller support, and run the game very well. If you aren’t sure where to buy it, I would get subpar pool on iOS above other platforms. The one more run style gameplay, amazing portrait and landscape support, lovely use of haptics, and gorgeous visuals on modern screens makes it really feel at home on iOS and iPadOS devices.
If you enjoy mini-golf, pool, and have liked grapefrukt games’ past releases, this should be the easiest purchase you make all year. Even if you’ve never played a game by the developer, subpar pool is the perfect entry point into an amazing catalog of lovely games. I would like some sort of an in-game glossary for specific terms though, because a few challenges seem a bit vague requiring trial and error.