Ever since two versions of “Basketball” were introduced on the Atari 800 & 2600 in the late 1970s, video gamers have enjoyed simulated action of the classic American sport (1). The 16-bit generation made its own contribution with a slew of solid NBA Jam titles, as well as kicking off the NBA Live series. Released on the SNES in November 1994, EA Sports’ Live ’95 set a new standard in basketball video gaming by piling on many fun season options to its outstanding gameplay. Just a few months later Mindscape would release NCAA Final Four Basketball at the height of March Madness mania, and there could hardly be two more different games in the same sub-genre. Far short of having something to offer in a corner of the video game market that had seen great things, Final Four instead stands in memory as a game whose candle dimmed quickly after a heavily marketed release.
Let’s begin with the positive. NCAA Final Four Basketball has a glowing visual presentation. One can walk by the game playing on demo mode and do a double-take in thinking there is a real game being played. The players move gracefully on a well-lacquered court, semi-enthusiastic fans cheer on three sides and a gaggle of media personnel (or are they judges?) sit frozen in their seats. The booming voice of the announcer adds a realistic presence. The first-person foul-shooting is a nice pace breaker as well. Sadly, these are the highlights of the game: watching a demo unfold, and a free-throw mini-game.
Final Four is deceptive from the get-go with a crowded menu. We have the equivalent of two practice modes: one for the free-throw mini-game, and another for mastering basic gameplay controls. Options mode allows for changing halves from 10, 20, 30 or 40 minutes, as well as changing audio from stereo, mono or “enhanced” (?). In-game options include substituting from your fictional roster of players who are rated on 13 categories, as well as changing defensive strategies during time-outs. Exhibition is your standard single-game mode where a player can face the computer or another human with one of the 64 provided teams. Lacking a season mode, Final Four allows the user to edit any or all of your players’ names. The game’s main feature is the big dance where six straight tournament wins earns you the championship trophy.
While on the one hand 64 teams sounds like a lot, it’s not as if the teams accurately resemble real college teams. Eventual tournament winner UCLA and runner-up Arkansas may be clearly above average, but one can’t expect a game released before its real-life counterpart to be accurate. As a result, the 64 teams on the game aren’t even a time capsule of that year’s tournament. This was a particular sore point for alum’s like myself whose UT Chattanooga Mocs actually made the big dance that year, but aren’t recognized on the game! So why even put “1995 Seattle Final Four” at all? The easy answer is that this game was released on marketing power and not much else.
Whether a sports title has licensed player names or not pales in comparison to the gameplay, and unfortunately, NCAA Final Four is a pill to play. Players are clunky to handle, and the button mappings don’t make much sense. It takes pushing the left trigger just to highlight another player to pass to. While pressing turbo and shoot together to drive to the hope is a good idea in concept, in practice it is far removed from the intuitive turbo mechanism we have in NBA Jam. Aside from some minor crowd excitement there is no clear indication of possession change on steals or rebounds. It’s not that fun to play the fast-break game because there are no fancy dunks to enjoy. Typically I enjoy the rewards of playing stingy defense and picking rebounds off the glass, but foul calling and rebounding is so nebulous, there is no joy in this either. All these flaws sinks Final Four so low that not even a healthy injection of two-player competition can resurrect it.
The realistic presentation Final Four was shooting for, and ultimately failed achieving, was less like the Live series and more like an earlier classic basketball title, Konami’s Double Dribble (1986). Double Dribble featured just four teams who resembled the NBA’s Bulls, Celtics, Lakers and Knicks. The game had good 8-bit graphics, including cool black-and-white slam dunk sequences, and it was easy to jump in and play. Even with an overuse of flashing and its mild misrepresentations of the sport, Double Dribble embraced its limitations and still shone brightly. Almost ten years later, there’s nothing which shines brightly about Final Four other than being a game that looked slick in its time.
While the 1995 Final Four tournament held in Seattle may have been an exciting affair in reality, one wouldn’t know that by playing NCAA Final Four Basketball. It’s way beyond the status of a poorly aged game—it’s a game that was trash from the get-go. Thankfully for college basketball fans, College Slam is a solid third release in the NBA Jam series, and even the archaic NCAA Basketball has its charms. All told, the SNES certainly had its contributions to the basketball sub-genre, but NCAA “Final Fail”Basketball was not one of them.
1 out of 5 stars.
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