This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at NCAA March Madness 08.
I wasn’t able to enjoy any of the college basketball games while they were still being developed, as they couldn’t be licensed for release outside of North America. As they were console-only releases, and none of the consoles I owned were region-free, I wasn’t able to import NTSC games with my PAL hardware. Since then, a friend gifted me their old PlayStation 3, which means that I can finally import NTSC games! Needless to say, the college basketball titles from EA Sports and Visual Concepts were the ones that I was the most interested in.
As such, I’ve been able to get my hands on NCAA March Madness 08, NCAA Basketball 09, and NCAA Basketball 10 by EA Sports, and College Hoops 2K7 and College Hoops 2K8 by Visual Concepts. I’m very happy to have finally added them to the collection; after all, I find that checking out basketball games that I missed the first time around can be just as fun as dusting off some old favourites. Obviously, I enjoy sharing my thoughts on them as well, and in that spirit, I’m beginning with NCAA March Madness 08. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Because EA’s NCAA series shares technology with NBA Live and I know the latter very well, I get a real kick out of seeing the differences in familiar elements. When you fire up NCAA March Madness 08 and advance past the title screen, you’ll find yourself shooting around with cover player Kevin Durant, tossing you into gameplay before you see a single menu. In that regard, it’s very similar to Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady in The Temple in NBA Live 06 and NBA Live 07, or Gilbert Arenas in NBA Live 08’s empty stadium. This time however, you’re shooting around on an outdoor court located on a college campus, with the banners of your selected school.
It’s here that you’ll get your first feel of NCAA March Madness 08, and if you’ve previously played NBA Live 07 and NBA Live 08, it’s an interesting experience. It doesn’t utilise the Quick Strike Ballhandling tech that was introduced in NBA Live 08, so dribbling moves don’t feel quite as fluid, and you can’t perform quicker crossovers with more rapid stick movement. At the same time, it feels a bit more polished than dribbling and player movement in NBA Live 07, making it something of a midway point between the two NBA titles as far as technological evolution. There’s also no hitch to jumpshots, and dunk and layup animations are slightly better.
Advancing into the menus, it’s likewise strange to see references to the NCAA and a few different games modes in a familiar frontend. Scrolling through a much larger selection of teams filled with generic players is also a weird experience when you’re accustomed to NBA titles. Instead of trades and free agency in the roster management screens, there’s the ability to completely edit the generic players, and automatically generate names for them if you wish. At this point, I must express my admiration for those who have made custom rosters for NCAA games over the years. An immense amount of time and effort would have to go into such projects to get them done!
Before I dive further into modes and gameplay, I need to touch on the soundtrack. Whereas the NBA titles licensed commercial tracks from a variety of hip-hop and R&B artists, NCAA March Madness 08 features the MEI Marching Band performing original compositions reminiscent of college fight songs. Combined with the menu’s background imagery featuring an aerial view of a lush college campus with its clock tower, the game’s vibe and atmosphere is suitably different from NBA Live. Again, it feels a little strange to me because the rest of the menu is so similar to NBA Live 08 and thus very familiar, but it’s very successful in creating a collegiate atmosphere.
In addition to exhibition play through Play Now, NCAA March Madness 08 includes its own version of Dynasty mode with multi-season play. When online support for the game was available, it also provided online leagues for up to 32 users. For those who want to jump straight into tournament play and get to the eponymous March Madness much quicker, there’s the NCAA Tournament with customisable brackets. You can also play a standalone Maui Invitational Tournament, and the National Invitational Tournament. These tournaments are also included in Dynasty mode, where you may choose to compete in one or the other (or indeed, neither) before the season tips off.
As someone who is much more of an NBA fan than a college basketball fan, I have to say that exploring Dynasty mode in NCAA March Madness 08 made me somewhat wistful. Sure, NBA Live 08 brought us the new “push” approach to Dynasty which included some nifty features, but it just feels like the NCAA mode is so much deeper. You can allocate your budget, balancing your ability to recruit top prospects out of high school, keep the team in check so that it adheres to NCAA guidelines, and hire assistants that will help you to formulate a solid gameplan. You can also customise your schedule, or leave it alone if you’re satisfied with the one you’re presented with.
There’s also the ability to cut and redshirt players, and begin recruiting high school prospects before the season begins. The Athletic Director recommends objectives here, such as pursuing a player of a certain position or skillset. Recruiting is a much more in-depth process compared to scouting the fictional college players in NBA Live 08’s Dynasty, but there are some helpful instructions via messages from the Athletic Director that explain the basics. With the aforementioned budget, there are more factors to consider, since recruiting from your school’s home state is cheaper. After that, you can set pre-season training time, which is identical to the system in Live.
The main Dynasty hub is modelled after ESPN.com, which is a nice touch. The menu is a bit cumbersome as backing out of a submenu with Circle (or B on 360) closes the menu entirely; go back too far, and you’re shooting around with Kevin Durant again, though pressing Start returns you to the Dynasty menu. Rather than free agency, trades, and so forth, you continue to focus on recruiting and developing players, raising school prestige, and lineup management. Beyond that, it’s just basketball: play through the season, qualify for the tournament, and win a championship. If you’d like to change player names and appearances during the season, you can do that as well.
In short, it’s a comprehensive college Dynasty experience, with a few wrinkles that I would’ve liked to have seen adapted for the NBA in Live. You were able to play up to 30 seasons, and also customise the experience by choosing whether or not players will leave early or can transfer, whether you need to worry about coaching contracts, and whether NCAA rule violations will be enforced. That last one is quite interesting, as choosing not to discipline players who get out of line – such as refusing to pay for a meal at a local restaurant – can damage the school’s reputation. Balancing appropriate penalties with the amount of discipline points adds a certain risk/reward factor.
Of course, deep modes don’t mean much without robust gameplay. Before you jump into a game however, you’re presented with the option of playing a mini-game during the pre-game shootaround. By scoring the requisite amount of points within the time limit, your Intensity meter will receive a boost. The Intensity mechanic goes hand-in-hand with Composure. By pressing L1 on defense, you’re able to taunt opponents, rile up the crowd, encourage teammates, and hype yourself up. The idea is to keep your composure while rattling your opposition, and was carried over from NCAA March Madness 07. Interestingly, NBA Live 19 adopted similar celebration controls.
The in-game presentation in NCAA March Madness 08 is top notch, with Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale on the call. Their commentary is quite lively, and although there is some dead air, it actually holds up quite well for a basketball game released in 2007. There are the familiar drawbacks of old video game commentary, such as the tendency to refer to something happening “all night long” while you’re still in the opening minutes of a game. Once again though, the atmosphere is great, thanks in no small part to Dick Vitale’s famously enthusiastic commentary. It’s right up there with Marv Albert and Steve Kerr in NBA Live 08, and arguably even superior to them.
As I noted, the gameplay feels like a more polished version of NBA Live 07. That is to say, it’s still a little rough and certainly dated, but NCAA March Madness 08 is a superior offering to its NBA counterpart. It’s not quite as smooth as NBA Live 08 though, but it’s still playable. Players are a little slow however, even at full stamina and using sprint. The controls are slightly different with a hard foul button, and the “Lockdown Stick” on defense takes some getting used to when you’re accustomed to NBA Live’s hold up for hands up, hold down for defensive stance, and hold L2 for defensive assist. As in Live, free throw shooting uses the down-up right stick method.
Playing with college rules, including a shorter three-point line and longer shot clock, also requires some adjustment. Again, it’s still playable, but it is similarly clunky to NBA Live 07. As I said, there’s some more polish, and the fact that it’s a college basketball game is a novelty for an NBA fan like me. Still, I have to admit that for all its good points, NCAA March Madness 08 hasn’t aged that well. Borrowed concepts from NBA Live such as right stick dribbling do make it easy to pick up, but you may have trouble revisiting it today, especially if you have no nostalgia for it. Of all the NCAA basketball games I own, I’d say that it’s probably the weakest on the sticks.
To that point though, I’m neither surprised nor disappointed. I’m very familiar with the shortcomings of NBA Live 07, so it wasn’t a shock to see NCAA March Madness 08 feature similar clunkiness in player movement, such as getting stuck in awkward-looking animations. No doubt it would’ve disappointed gamers back then the same way its NBA counterpart did, but all these years later, I had a good idea of what I was getting into. I do appreciate how it’s slightly more refined than NBA Live 07 though, and effort clearly has gone into strategy and replicating the college style of play. It suffers from some bad tech, but it’s far from a lazy effort, and I had some fun with it.
One very interesting feature of NCAA March Madness 08 is the inclusion of All-Time and Classic Teams. You may be wondering how that’s possible without licensing any players, and the answer is that they’re generic as well. For example, if you play with the 1982 North Carolina Tar Heels, there’s an athletic shooting guard wearing number 23. He doesn’t look exactly like Michael Jordan, but you get the idea of who it’s supposed to be. It’s a cool feature, but it would’ve been even better if EA Sports had licensed the players, or not walked the line making the placeholders resemble who they were standing in for. Instead, it led to Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit.
NCAA March Madness 08 was a decent release for its era, though sharing tech with NBA Live 07 does mean that it’s noticeably rough in places. It’s more polished than that title, with some suitable tweaks to the controls and gameplay mechanics to fit the college game. The atmosphere is also perfect, and the collegiate version of Dynasty is deep, to the point where it’s a decent management game if you wanted to forego all gameplay. I think that would be a waste, but if you do go back and play NCAA March Madness 08 today, keep in mind that it does show its age and roughness in many respects. Nevertheless, it’s a game I’m glad to have finally gotten my hands on.