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NCAA College Hoops 99 (N64) Review

Publisher: Fox Sports
Release Date: November 1998

Background Info

Few American sports evoke the passion and drama of college basketball. The bands, the crowds, the chants, the "Madness" - no other sport stirs up the same energy and excitement. Perhaps the challenge of recreating this unique experience helps explain the lack of college basketball videogames. Fox Sports College Hoops 99 takes a shot at delivering a game with "authentic college basketball look and feel" for the Nintendo 64. While many NBA titles are already available for the N64, this is the first, and apparently only, college basketball title available for the N64 this year.

Presentation/Graphics : 70
Let me start with a few positives: the crowds are nicely done, almost photorealistic, and are slightly animated; many of the shooting, passing, and dribbling animations are well done; and the courts look shiny and polished. The game has some nice animated touches as well - the starters run out onto the court as they are introduced, substitutions walk in from the side of the court, and at the half, players run into the tunnel towards the locker room.

But with those positives mentioned, let it be said that this game simply doesn't do justice to the graphical capabilities of the Nintendo 64 system. The players' bodies look stiff, angular, and boxy. They don't move naturally or fluidly. The animation is choppy. Some of the movements look outright silly: for example, you can "walk" upcourt by gently pushing the analog stick, but the walking animation looks more like a little kid sneaking around on his tippy-toes. And as I mentioned above, there are some nice shooting, dunking, and passing animations, but they don't blend with the other player motions at all, providing a jarring visual effect. There are also some incongruities in perspective between the players and the arena. Example: If a player takes the ball out of bounds on the sidelines, when he stands directly in front of the crowd, he looks way too small compared to the crowd behind him. Suddenly, your six-foot-eight forward looks about three feet tall.

But the biggest and most glaring graphical problem is the overall speed of the game. In general, everything looks like it's moving at 80% of real speed. This sluggish gameplay is especially evident once you shoot the basketball. Once the ball is in the air, it looks more like a slow-motion instant replay than live action. If you cut to the basket for a dunk, the animation looks good, but it looks like it's moving at about half the speed it should.

Finally, there are some graphical nitpicks any fan of college basketball is bound to notice. The court logos and team uniforms are not correct for many teams. Both Kentucky and North Carolina's courts are wrong, and many of the uniforms are correct only in terms of colors, not design or trim.

Despite being the newest basketball title available for the N64, it has the poorest graphics of any basketball game available for the system.

Presentation/Audio : 70
Sound in Fox Sports College Hoops is adequate, but nothing special. The crowd is pretty generic, with no team-specific chants or cheers. The crowd will cheer for you as much at home as it will on the road. Every once in a while, the band strikes up a tune, but it is all generic music, no team-specific fight songs. From time to time, you hear a horn blast and some random shouting from the crowd. In general, however, there's nothing in the sound or music that gives you the sense that it is a wild college-basketball environment, or even anything to make this game sound any different than an NBA game.

Interface/Options : 65
The game menu is simple, readable, and easy to use - easy in part because the game has few options to choose from. As you select a team, there is a player on the side of the screen, practicing his dribble, and his uniform changes each time you flip to a new team. It's a nice, smooth effect.

Before a game, you see a scouting report on the team you are about to play. This is well done. You can see the strengths and rankings of your opponent, and read about which players you need to keep an eye on. It also shows you your record and your current prospects for making the NCAA tournament. The scouting report adds a storyline to each game, especially when you're playing some school you've never heard of early in the season. As with all college games, NCAA rules prohibit the use of real player names. Some games handle this by simply using player numbers. College Hoops goes with the other option - creating phony names for actual players. North Carolina's Junior Point Guard Ed Cota, therefore, has the correct attributes and number, but becomes known as "Elrod." Some people dislike the phony names, but I think they keep a game from becoming too sterile. It would be a nice option, however, to be able to toggle between names and numbers, or to be able to edit names, as you can in EA's NCAA Football 99.

During a game, Fox does a nice job presenting statistics and information. In fact, this is the first basketball game I've played where the box score is displayed in full on screen, just as it would read in a newspaper. It is the best statistical display I've seen in a basketball title. You don't need to scroll at all to see how your team is doing (or did) statistically. After a game College Hoops does a nice job presenting players of the game for each team, as well as showing the statistical leaders for each team.

The problem with College Hoops' interface is that it is very limited. While it displays stats very well in a game, there are no season stats, standings, or team rankings whatsoever. And so far as I can tell, there is no way to look at your overall schedule beyond your next game. You can't skip a game by having the computer simulate it for you - I wanted, as North Carolina, to skip ahead to the middle of the season to play Duke, but couldn't.

The in-game interface is very limited and inadequate as well. While you can trigger a flashy instant replay during a dead-ball situation, there's no way to pause the game and start one from the menu or adjust the instant replay camera angle - you can only have the angle they give you. Likewise, while you can call offensive and defensive plays on the fly from your controller during the game, there's no way to set them from an in-game menu. This is a real pain, because, unless you love this game so much that you memorize the button combinations required for various plays, you will need to constantly consult from a manual rather than simply selecting plays from a list somewhere in the game.

Finally, the game makes little effort to reward you for winning the NCAA title. I played a Final Four and won the whole thing, to be rewarded only by a small text box that noted that I had won the championship, then said "Thanks you for playing our game!" No special animation or on-court celebration, just a text thank you note from the programming team. Why bother? Even NCAA Basketball for the SNES, a distant ancestor of this title, had a more exciting payoff for winning the championship.

As mentioned above, the options and features of this game are very limited. You can play an exhibition, a season, a tournament, or a Final Four. Needless to say, there is no "dynasty mode" or anything similar to extend the game's replay value. You have no ability to skip games or create a custom schedule. The in-game options are very limited as well.

In short, this game has very little depth. When Fox Sports Interactive designed it, they must have figured that the game would stand on its own and wouldn't need extra features to keep it interesting. They were wrong.

Gameplay : 60
One word describes the gameplay in Fox Sports College Hoops: BAD.

Aside from the previously noted slow gameplay and sluggish animation, the control is very unresponsive and awkward. The most obvious problem is the passing system. Most basketball games use either a directional passing system (point towards a player and push the pass button) or an icon-based passing system (hit the button for the player you want to pass the ball to) - this game's default passing system is "pass to your closest teammate." This is the dumbest passing system I've ever tried. The simple fact is that in basketball, more often than not, you aren't passing to the nearest teammate, but to another player across the court or near the basket who is open or in a position to score. You can make a directional pass by holding the C-down button and A-button at the same time, but even that doesn't seem to consistently get the ball to the right person. Worse still, the game gives you no option to re-map the controls yourself, so you are stuck with an idiotic controller layout.

Many other customary controls are missing form this game: there is no "pump fake," no "speed" or "turbo" button, and no "spin" move. There is a "first step" button, which works well, actually too well. Even at the highest level of difficulty, I found it easy to use the "first step" button to cut through a defense and score. It's a special move that's too special - they should have called it the "easy score/cheat" button.

Still, the gameplay is somewhat challenging. Unlike many basketball titles, steals seem rare, so you can't steal-and-score all game. Also, it's sometimes hard to get around a defender and cut to the basket, so you are forced to pass the ball (or attempt to pass the ball). The computer does do a nice job stealing the ball from you if you try to drive the lane recklessly, and often intercepts your passes. But overall, after a few games, regardless of the difficulty level, you find that once you get the ball inside the paint, it's easy to score. Computer defenders seem unable to stop you from scoring once you get down low, regardless of which player you use.

The computer AI shows a lack of fundamental basketball savvy. It rarely seems to handle game situations appropriately - the computer plays the first minute of the game the same as the final minute. For example: In one game against the computer at the highest level of difficulty (the national championship game, no less), I had the ball and a two-point lead with twenty seconds to go. I stood beyond the arc dribbling as the clock ran down, and the computer never attempted to foul me or strip the ball from me to give it a chance to win. It let the clock expire, essentially conceding the game. So much for the notion of a hotly-contested national title...

With all that said, let me be fair and say that you can still have fun playing this game. I had several games come down to the wire and enjoyed the challenge of hanging on for a win or fighting to make a miraculous buzzer-beater. Despite all the gameplay problems and sluggish animation, the game is still somewhat fun to play - but many people may not be as patient or as forgiving as me, especially after paying $60 for this game.

Difficulty : 70
There are three difficulty levels: Freshman, Senior, and All-American (Translation: Very Easy, Somewhat Easy, and Easy). Actually, I didn't find it easy to blow out the computer on every game, but regardless of difficulty, I found it easy to score and stay close against any team.

Overall : 67
Unfortunately, Fox has missed a wide-open opportunity to establish itself with the best college basketball title available. With no real competition, they could have locked up the market for countless college basketball fans eager to play as their favorite team. But they shot an airball. In almost every way, this is a bad game. The graphics are a disservice to the N64, the gameplay is sluggish and hard to control, the sound and music fail to provide a sense of the NCAA "madness," and the interface offers few options and features to keep the game interesting. Even for the most passionate NCAA basketball fans, I'd recommend a rental at most for this game. For $60, there are just too many better games out there.

By: Matt P. 12/8/98

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