NCAA Basketball is one of the legendary traditional sports games of the 16-bit era and it’s all thanks to Mode-7 effects. Other notable Super Nintendo games built on Mode-7 include the racing classics Mario Kart and F-Zero, as well as the sports title NHL Stanley Cup. NCAA Basketball plays less like its dizzying hockey cousin and more like the riveting racing games which use Mode-7. The user’s Player remains down screen and proceeds, with a seemingly magnetic pull, toward a fixed point up screen, the basket. The result is a highly anticipated journey to the hoop climaxing in a swished shot or slam dunk; a task you’ll want to undergo again and again, all the way to the March Madness tournament and penultimate National Championship Game.
NCAA Basketball features all the necessary game modes you would come to expect in a team sports title. A Player can choose a real college teams and take on a fellow gamer or computer player in a head-to-head match-up. For more in-depth challenge and enjoyment, the Player can begin a full-length season. The team with a good enough record after conference play will advance to the NCAA tournament of 64 teams. Just like big-time college basketball, the “big dance” is a real treat, and in NCAA Basketball an appreciated change from playing the same eight teams all season.
Choosing your team for a season is important because every player has strengths and weaknesses only revealed on the hardwood. The player names are made-up by the game’s creators, but real college basketball rosters are so fluid there’s not much missed from the absence of that license. It would be nice for all NCAA conferences to be available, but even this limitation challenges the Player to explore unfamiliar teams and conferences. The game’s final mode, which places your team into the bracket of 64 championship from the start, is perfect for trying out new teams and strategies.
The gameplay of NCAA Basketball is solid enough to invite replaying, despite a few flaws. One of the better aspects of the game is highlighting the teammate available for a pass with a colored marker; the marker changes colors based on the likeliness of a successful pass. Both offense and defensive sides of the ball chose a formation or “play” to run which can be changed at any time by the Player. It’s a fun challenge for the Player to adopt a style conducive to the opponent. However, some of the formations the computer picks are easily schemed against. Still, choosing the fast-break approach keeps the game fast-paced, and guarantees a large amount of crunching slam dunks.
The place NCAA Basketball missed its full potential was in its lack of AI adaptability. If your team is winning by one point with thirty seconds to go in the game, the defense usually won’t attack in order to win the ball back, allowing the Player to run out the clock and win the game. There are several minor glitches in which the Computer’s player become’s stonewalled by a defender, a scenario best resulting in a three-second violation, and at worst a mundane half-minute. Although this is an example of Mode-7’s downside, in most cases the Player can use the Computer’s confusion to run off a pick and then–you guessed it–gain yet another satisfying slam-dunk.
Although it eventually becomes endearing, the void of blue surrounding the basketball court is startling for a newcomer to NCAA Basketball. To twenty-first century eyes it has the effect of seeing a game filmed with a green-screened back-drop. After a while the Player ignores the blue void and is drawn into the real focus, action-packed game-play. Otherwise, the graphics are very good, in particular the variety of slam dunks which reveal a player’s athleticism. The players themselves don’t have distinguishing facial features, but player strengths and weaknesses are consistent enough to not make this a problem. Overall, the graphics are a strength.
Sound effects and themes are not a strong point, but they work for me. The soundtrack, though uninspiring, allows the action of game play to speak for itself. Often I’ve played a Madden football game on Super NES, and once my testosterone levels are pushed through the roof after the theme song, I find the game itself pedantic and tranquil. There’s no “supah-slammin!” announcer in NCAA Basketball, only a lackadaisical voice from behind the booth who calls players by their positions. The positives are crowd cheers and band jingles that feel well-earned when they come around, and the 16-bit slam dunk crunch I can’t applaud enough.
Beyond its success in using Mode-7 effects, NCAA Basketball is solid in keeping true to the maxims of basketball. Play conservative when comfortably ahead, no matter the draw to push it up quickly toward the basket; work hard for and then take the open shot; ride the momentum of big plays. The ingenuity of making a basketball game that wasn’t a side-scroller has helped this game stand the test of time. Once you try NCAA Basketball, you will want to play it whenever March rolls around, and perhaps many other months besides.
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