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NCAA March Madness 99
(PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: November 1998

Background Info

Ah, college sports. I love 'em, particularly college football and college basketball. There is something about college games that the pros just can't touch, in my opinion. Whether it is the exuberance and love of the game that the players display each and every time out, or the zany fans and marching bands that create such an electric atmosphere, college sports is simply a wonderful world all its own. EA Sports already struck gold this year with NCAA Football 99, which nailed the feeling of college football like no game before it. Now they turn their attention to college hoops with March Madness 99. Last year's version was a bit ragged around the edges, but offered some deceptively deep game play. With over 100 men's teams and 16 women's teams, can this year's edition improve upon last year's promise?

Presentation/Graphics : 60
One of the less-than-stellar elements of March Madness 98 was the graphics. They were far from the "next-generation" graphics that we have come to expect from the Playstation. Does March Madness 99 improve upon this all-important category? Well, yes and no. The courts look fantastic, each of them drawn up as they appear in real life. The arenas themselves look OK, but seem a bit generic in some instances. The first few rows of spectators are animated, though as usual they seem to be missing some frames of animation.

What is really important is how the players look, and they too are a mixed bag. The overall look of the game is a bit grainy in my opinion, as if the picture needs to be focused. This does not help the appearance of the players. They too seem to be missing some frames of animation, though this may be because the game plays so slow and choppy. If you have tried NHL 99, you know exactly how this game looks, both in terms of graphics and choppiness. And unfortunately this has a very negative effect on the overall look of the game. Even with some new animations added, such as back pedaling, the results are so choppy it is nearly disorienting. Watching a player slam dunk is almost surreal; the player flies in as if shot from a cannon, and dunks the ball in such a hurry, you get the feeling you missed something.

The uniforms seem very accurate, with both home and road jerseys present. Of course the overall graininess of the graphics and the sub-par frame rate is far too much a burden for great looking courts and jerseys to overcome.

Presentation/Audio : 50
With their recent college football game, NCAA Football 99, EA Sports raised the bar dramatically for audio content in sports games. NCAA Football 99 created an atmosphere so rich there was no mistaking that you were playing a college football game. With interactive crowds, a fine PA announcer and marching bands galore, NCAA Football 99 gave me very high hopes for the audio and atmosphere in March Madness 99. And sadly, EA Sports dropped the ball here as well. For one thing the crowd is pretty abysmal. Yes, they hoot and holler when things are going well for the home team, and show displeasure when things are not going well. But these instances are rare, and in between is almost dead silence. There is no in-between; the crowd will be silent, then suddenly rise up for a great play, then almost immediately return to silence. It is actually quite disorienting and will sometimes distract you as you play.

The PA announcer is similarly missing in action. He does not indicate who scores each basket, but instead will sometimes pop in to announce 3-pointers and turnovers. His silence is deafening.

The marching bands are present, but seemingly only play as the home team is being introduced. That's it as far as I have seen and heard. Again, the bands add so much to the real game, and EA's lame handling of this aspect simply takes away from any college feel the game is trying to build.
The in-game sounds are decent, nothing more. Even the squeaking of sneakers is a bit muddled. Overall, MM99's sounds are very substandard.

Interface/Options : 65
EA Sports prides itself on its interfaces, and there is good reason for that; they are among the best in the business, with their simplicity being matched by their elegance in most cases. Unfortunately, this is not one of those cases. The menus for MM99 are decent enough, relatively intuitive and, for the most part, easy to navigate. However, there are some niggling problems that make you wonder just what was EA Sports thinking. Want to save your season in progress? Well, OK, but first you must delete the save you had made prior; you cannot simply write over your previous save. This is time consuming and not very user friendly at all. This is the sort of save-game interface that came with the first generation of PSX sports games. That EA chose to incorporate this ancient mode of saving games simply boggles the mind.

On the plus side, MM99 gives you not only the polls (CBS and ESPN), but also the RPI rankings, which take a number of different statistical categories into account and then rank the teams accordingly. Statistics are tracked, though not to the level of NBA Live 99, which is probably due to the massive number of teams included. However, even here EA Sports stubs its toe; there is no way to see how many points players are averaging per game! Instead you can only see the total number of points scored. This is simply ludicrous and unacceptable in my opinion.

The standard options are here, including a "create player" feature. But there is no way to name your player, nor can you rename any of your existing players. In fact, even in the dynasty mode, in which you play season after season, none of the recruits you bring in have names, just positions and numbers. Dynasty mode itself is awkward, as you must invite players to your home games to try to sway them to come to your school. This is a really neat idea, but the way it is implemented is clumsy and hardly user friendly.

A Practice Mode is available, which lets you practice everything from your passing and shooting skills to running set plays.

Gameplay : 70
OK, so far MM99 is a major disappointment, but all could be saved with superior game play. Well, EA stumbles here as well. The AI is much improved, as the computer's offense is much more aggressive in attacking open baskets. It will even set picks for itself, and seems to respond to the different defenses you call, be it zone or man-to-man with double teams. Similarly, the computer seems to set up properly on defense, with the players being mostly in their proper positions. This forces you to run set plays and execute them properly, a very welcome change from the haphazard run-and-gun found in most basketball games. So far, so good. Now onto the bad.

There seems to be an inordinate amount of steals, making passing the ball much more difficult, even with Icon Passing implemented. There is no spin move on offense, another puzzling omission. Fast breaks are few and far between, as the defense is almost always back and set up even as you pull down a rebound and make a long outlet pass. I have watched this countless times on replay, and I still can't figure out what my teammates are doing during a potential fastbreak. They hardly respond and get down the court at their own leisure. And how the CPU manages to get all it's players down court and setup in such a quick manner is still beyond me. It just doesn't feel right, as if the CPU has an unfair advantage of knowing a fastbreak is going to happen even before it begins.

As is the usual case, EA Sports has made sure to flub up something big that detracts from the realism of the game. Remember NBA Live 98 and the foul bug, where the CPU would rarely (if ever) foul you during the course of a game? Well, March Madness 99 has it's own problem with fouls, and while not as drastic as Live 99, it's a doozy in it's own right. Simply put, there is a distinct lack of foul shots. The CPU will rarely foul you enough to get you to the line, except at the end of a game when you are ahead. Here the CPU fouls you every 1 to 2 seconds, even away from the ball, giving you a feast of free throws in a very short period of time, which completely ruins the flow of the game. It also doesn't help that the CPU will use this strategy every single time you are ahead in the waning moments of a game, whether you are up by 2 points or 30 points. That's right, even when the game is hopelessly out of reach, you will still be stopped and forced to shoot free throws every other second.

By playing your normal defensive game, you will rarely foul the CPU enough to send him to the line even once in the course of a 20 minute game. You almost have to try to foul in order to get called for one.

Difficulty : 75
MM99 offers up the usual different levels of difficulty. You can make the CPU opponent as easy or as challenging as you like, which seems to be incorporated by simply giving the CPU better skills. At the highest level of difficulty, the opponent will seem superhuman to you, as it steals with abandon, blocks an incredible number of shots and rarely misses its own shots.

The game is very customizable as far as rules are concerned. You can toggle many options on or off, such as the shot clock, backcourt violations or even out of bounds violations. This makes the game easy to tailor to your needs, but in truth, how many people out there are going to toggle off all the rules of real basketball?

In short, MM99 offers different ways to set difficulty, though they are all pretty much standard fare. And when moving up the difficulty of the CPU, you will get a challenging game, but not necessarily a fair one.

Overall : 64
It saddens me to say that, for me, March Madness 99 is probably the biggest gaming disappointment of 1998. I had really high hopes for this title, based on the vastly improved Madden 99 and the groundbreaking NCAA Football 99. EA Sports managed to not only fail to meet these expectations, but to fall ludicrously short of them as well.

By: Jim S. 1/14/99

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