Having grown up in the heartland of one of pro football’s most loyal fanbases, moving to the heart of the South was a bit of a culture shock. Since my childhood had a steady diet of playing Tecmo Super Bowl on NES and watching the Green Bay Packers every Sunday, I felt myself in unfamiliar waters as my classmates chattered enthusiastically about the college game. “Why is there no playoff system?” I wondered. “You’re telling me your team’s out of championship contention with just one regular season loss, yet everyone and their mother can make it to a Bowl game?” Had I known that only three out of 22 American football games released for the Super Nintendo featured the college game, I might not have felt so out of place.
The name is deceptive: NCAA Football, not to be mistaken with the long-tenured series by EA Sports, was developed and published in 1994 by Mindscape. Its distinctiveness comes foremost from its horizontal gameplay. The other distinction comes from substituting a plethora of game modes with an effort to paying homage to its past as one of the most patriotic competitive sport in America.
After a regal melody sets the mood for amateur competition in large stadiums, the menu screen presents a deep crimson background with negatives of what seem like legendary college football players from the past. This motif of heritage carries over to showing in-game scores which also show pictures accompanied by a prestigious tune. Less subtle are the tournaments comprised of teams compiled from either the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s.Custom tournaments can be played as well. However, had NCAA Football included a scenario mode where classic matches from the past could be replayed, the adage to history could have been much more effective.
When you’re ready to jump into a match against the computer or a human opponent, Exhibition mode allows you to choose one of the game’s 40 teams. Yardage statistics from the 1993 season are shown, although it’s not clear whether these tendencies carry over to the actual game. There are no rankings or records listed. It would have been a fun bonus to know which teams won what bowl games, but that probably would have taken further licensing. As for modifying the game experience, choosing quarter length from five, ten, or fifteen minutes is the only option given.
On the field the teams are bedecked in two-tone garbs that are slightly more illustrious than the box art would suggest. The players are neither named or numbered, and in fact there doesn’t appear to be a purposeful talent distribution of any kind. So don’t expect your favorite early 90s Heisman winner to make a splash! The game is played implementing the horizontal method of gameplay that I believe works best for football games of this era. There are 60 plays to choose from on both offense and defense. All players are visible onscreen at the beginning of each play, helpfully making formations clear. Players traveling off-screen can be located on a radar placed top right on the screen (and disappears by pressing select). The field is usually a bland green color, but for some matches will show brown spots to indicate wet conditions.
The controls feel a bit odd at first. Players are given a momentum or “glide” mentality, so that when moving your defensive man pre-snap it’s easy to bump a lineman offside for a 5 yard penalty. On offense, halfbacks are sometimes incapable of finishing their pass routes in-bounds, but instead glide way out of bounds in a completely erroneous manner. Just as there is a button triggering pass and receiver cycling, so the A button makes your player dive. Because college rules declare a player down once his knees touch the ground, it’s easy to absentmindedly tap the A button trying to avoid a defensive sack and in turn commit a self-sack! On the other hand the dive button, which could also be called the “launch” button, makes it easy to reach the first down or end zone from several yards away.
Once you’ve gotten past the first blush controller frustrations, the most important aspects of gameplay feel solid. Passing feels clean and produces best results when thrown to a runner who’s finished their route (in bounds, of course). Running is difficult up the middle, but pitches to the outside can be run regularly for long gains. When defending it’s fun to guess which way the offense is running and tear in for the tackle, and thankfully plays develop accurately and the computer makes decent decisions. In the kicking game a horizontal power meter is used to dial in power and accuracy. I wouldn’t recommend trying onside kicks, but it gets the job done for kick-offs and field goal situations.
The weaker aspects of gameplay are for the most part avoidable. Unless the play designates to do so, making the quarterback a runner is exceptionally awkward and requires realigning him forward before passing. That precious half second will often allow a defender or three to close in on him. Defending the pass is frustratingly difficult because you can’t become the defender nearest the ball until the receiver has had a chance to catch it; the tradeoff is that as a defender you can nudge the player off the ball path for the interception without a costly pass interference penalty called. The kicking game is limited so there are never long returns made, unless you can manage a fumble forward to a teammate. The passing game has its frustrations because of how often players drop the ball when wide open. This is one of the cases in which they could have taken a page out of Madden’s book and provided a button to put the receiver’s hands up.
Although I’m not nearly as familiar with collegiate as I am the pro game, I can see ways in which NCAA Football has captured some elements unique to the college game. Unless you try to do too much, offense is very easy and racking up ridiculous numbers in both yards and points is possible even with five minute quarters. There is plenty of opportunity for “option” plays in which the quarterback runs around the offensive tackles with the option to pitch the ball to his running back before getting smacked by a lineman. Running the “wishbone” is incredibly fun, as you have the split-second choice of feeding the pigskin to either a back running north or south. Though some may not consider it a positive, the pacing of NCAA Football seems about right; that is, it’s a bit slower than you’d expect a pro game to play. The pedantic speed can have the result of encouraging you to scheme wisely, but it can also produce a reliance on cheap plays.
Like many sports games, there are holes in NCAA Football’s design that can take the excessive offense and defense to a whole ‘nuther level. I’ve played entire games where the only formation I employed on offense was the wishbone, where I pitch the ball to whatever sideline I’m opposite from, gaining an easy score in only four 20-yard runs. Defense becomes a paltry affair when running a “punt block” or “field goal block” formation and manning a lone defender in reserve. If taking advantage of computer makes you feel guilty, then I guess you’ll have to play with a friend! The A.I. in NCAA Football is not so egregious that it can’t be compensated when two humans share the burden.
So, if you’re wanting to try College Football on SNES, NCAA football is your ticket for a solid and unique experience. Even with its quirks, the game plays well overall and any inefficiencies are easily overcome playing with a buddy.
I appreciate the heritage element of the game. But there is so much more that could have been done had they really run with the concept. The statistics from the 1993 season for each team are nice, but some distinctiveness by means of jersey numbers, or even fake player names, would go a long way in making the game stand the test of time.
In a way NCAA Football by Mindscape is the opposite of the NCAA series by EA Sports, which for 20 years featured the latest and greatest teams from the college game. But each SNES game chooses its legacy, and in 1994 Mindscape’s was to take a look into the past.
Three Stars out of Five
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