The past year has been stellar for videogame basketball. NBA Live 97 and NBA Shootout 97 have set the model for next generation full court action, giving future games shoes bigger than Shaq's to fill. But while NBA titles have the marquee value of Jordan, Rodman, Drexler, Robinson, and their heavily hyped teams, NCAA video games have yet to generate the same excitement; it would seem as if the only people who really care about college basketball are spirited students, college alumni, NBA scouts, point-shaving bookies, and ESPN2.
Let me preface my review by saying that everything I know about college basketball I learned in a fifth grade betting pool on the NCAA Tournament where, for a two dollar entry fee, I got to pick sixteen of the sixty-four teams competing. Years later my knowledge of college hoops was expanded by the Nick Nolte/Shaquille O'Neal film Blue Chips, a tragic tale about the corruption of college basketball players, but aside from Nick Nolte yelling DID YOU TAKE MONEY!!? I didn't learn much. Needless to say, I was excited about the game NCAA Final Four 97, if just to see how this NCAA title would stand up to the NBA big boys and how my hard-earned knowledge would factor into my enjoyment of the title.
With NCAA Final Four 97 Mindscape aims to build a complete basketball title. Included are the obvious licenses: the Final Four Tournament, Collegiate Licensed Products, and the NCAA itself. The game is split into three modes of play: exhibition, tournament, and a thirty game season. The rules can also be configured to arcade, simulation, or a custom mix, which affects what fouls get called and how your players hold up during a game. You can also choose from a variety of controller configurations, difficulty settings, game lengths, and camera angles to alter the game to your tastes. And of course, everything is rendered in 3-D. It's as if Mindscape studied what makes NBA games good and went from there.
Unfortunately though, Mindscape misses the mark in many areas. The selection of teams isn't based on this year's tournament, but rather on the more popular teams who have made it to the tournament in years past. The game's large quantity of camera angles, while varied, only contains four that are effectively playable. And while the 3-D graphics look above average, the players do not move smoothly or in a realistic fashion (witness the forward moonwalk done when pressing the run button or how players hold the ball - like burn victims with bandaged hands). Experienced gamers will most likely have a bone to pick with the AI as well; even on the harder levels, it's no harder than NBA Jam. Also, and this is not Mindscape's fault, the NCAA does not allow player licenses, so each team is made up of psuedonymed players based on each team's 1995-1996 season statistics.
Then there are the areas where Mindscape succeeds. The passing and shooting interface, for instance, is done quite well - there are no gauges to watch; to pass, just tap the short or long pass button and point towards a player; to shoot, tap the button once to go up, then again to release. This works well and each play flows smoothly. The tournaments also move quickly since Mindscape allows you to simulate an entire division's worth of games and then only play out the ones you're interested in. And the sound, which includes play-by-play commentary, rap instrumentals, ball thumps, and sneaker squeaks works well despite being fairly unoriginal. The multiplayer mode is also of note - when playing against your friends (up to eight at once) the game overcomes any challenge problems (unless, of course, all your friends suck).
In the end, NCAA Final Four is a step above average, but doesn't succeed in putting college basketball on the level of the NBA. Hard-core basketball fans will remain satisfied by EA and Sony's future releases, but it's nice to see that a company is trying to diversify the overpopulated landscape of me too hoop games. Providing they decide to do it again, Mindscape's next effort could be well worth checking out.