Two games enter, one game leaves in a battle of digital supremacy.
“The following is a contributor post by the Thunder Mage.”
Mode 7. The mere mention of the term sends shivers of either nausea or nostalgia through retro gamers everywhere. Some consider it a Super Nintendo system differentiator to the Sega Genesis while others see it as a mangled mess of blocky pixels disguised as a functional feature.
But regardless of how you feel about the tech, a slew of SNES classics used it. Some utilized it sparingly (Super Mario World, Link to the Past, Final Fantasy IV and VI, etc) and others had it fully ingrained in their DNA (Pilotwings, F-Zero, Super Mario Kart, etc).
And now, with the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament over and the NHL playoffs about to start, we look at two traditional sports games who relied 100% on the pixel-scaling phenomenon. Prepare to be dazzled as these sultans of the stadium collide with vengeance and violence to see who will reign supreme in the Retro Thunderdome. Lace ‘em up, boys!
NOTE: If you’re unfamiliar with Mode 7 graphics, what they are, and the controversy behind them, I recommend watching this handy (yet extraordinarily detailed) YouTube video. You’re welcome.
In the Blue Corner!
Developed by Sculptured Software and released in North America on October 1992, this-16 bit marvel stretched the boundaries of what a kinda sorta 3D sports game could look like on the SNES. Featuring 44 real college teams across 5 Division One conferences, this title comes to the ring with real world firepower. Welcome to the ring, NCAA Basketball!
In the Red Corner!
Also developed by Sculptured Software one year after NCAA, this game could be seen as the title’s younger brother. With lightning fast gameplay and a full stable of NHL teams at its disposal, this ice hockey titan felt poised to become the new standard in electronic sports games. While the industry passed it by, it still feels like it has something to prove. Welcome to the ring, NHL Stanley Cup.
NOTE: We won’t be discussing Sound Design because neither game has much aside from the requisite sneaker squeaks, stick hits, and grunts required for sports games. It’s a draw and an uninteresting one at that.
Feature Set (Modes, Options, etc)
Both games come out of the box with similar options and modes. As mentioned in the intro, NCAA boasts a full suite of real college teams while Stanley Cup features all 26 NHL teams as of 1992. What both games lack are full rosters. Not a big deal for a transient sport like college basketball, but a bit of a bummer for fans of the NHL. Oddly, player numbers are accurate in Stanley Cup but since there’s no NHLPA license, names are left to our imaginations or obsessive recollections.
Each game presents the standard suite of game play modes including single / two-player exhibition and full seasons. Stanley Cup tacks on a two-player best of seven series and NCAA features a team roster option so you can intelligently pick a team before play, but the extra mode gives Stanley Cup the slight edge and victory.
WINNER: Stanley Cup
No offense to Mode 7 apologists, but neither game holds up visually. For all of its technological wizardry, Mode 7 is a fuzzy mess from afar and pixelated goop up close. On 24-inch CRT televisions, it might have been passable, but on modern monitors, it’s rough.
With that said, Stanley Cup tries to do more and in the process manages to look worse. The top scoreboard takes up nearly half the screen and is littered with useless giant team logos and NHL shields. Stanley Cup is proud of its license and wants to make sure the player knows they have one to the detriment of the gameplay.
On the ice, the camera sits behind the player at a low angle, making the playing surface feel cramped and compact. Aside from the baffling blue ice hockey games of the period used, the rest of the presentation is fine by Mode 7 standards. Players look like players and goalies have a fair amount of animations. Small touches like scratched ice and an intermission report give Stanley Cup a touch more realism, but in the end, it’s still pixel people flying around a pixel rink.
In comparison, NCAA is cleaner and more well defined. The info section is smaller, compact and easier to read giving the playing surface room to breathe. On the court, player animations and design equal Stanley Cup’s but the overall presentation feels more like a demo than a fully featured game. As odd as it’ll sound, this is a good thing. The lack of fluff allows muddy sprites to stand out and distinguish themselves. Players seen from the back court are still a blob of techno-sludge, but I can at least make out who I’m passing to. I’d gladly trade Stanley Cup’s cheesy goal scoring animation for NCAA’s no frills yet cleaner design.
WINNER: NCAA Basketball
In your hands, Stanley Cup plays loose and slippery, as if the players were on tennis shoes instead of skates. Player momentum feels accurate but without a way to quickly stop and start progress, controlling your team feels floaty and unresponsive. NCAA, again due to the nature of the game, feels stickier to the court and easier to maneuver.
Offensively, passing works well in both games thanks to a color-coded success indicator that hovers over player heads, but scoring is another story. In NCAA, shooting, slam dunks, and three point attempts use standard basketball mechanics – release your shot at the top of a jump for better accuracy. In Stanley Cup, both wrist and slap shots are nearly impossible to control with any consistency. And according to the manual, you can’t. The game automatically aims the puck based on player stats yet always aims for either the goalie’s midsection or the crossbar. This lack of autonomy over the shot made goals hard to come by. After two hours of gameplay, I was able to score a total of three goals, even on the easiest difficulty setting.
In both games, your defensive verb set works as intended. NCAA slap steals and shot blocks are easy to pull off, especially on lower difficulties while stick, body, and cross checks work equally well in Stanley Cup.
In the end, the round goes to NCAA due to near broken nature of Stanley Cup’s shooting mechanics. Maybe I was just bad at it, but I felt more in control of my offense in NCAA Basketball.
WINNER: NCAA Basketball
In NCAA, getting into shooting lanes is relatively easy, even on the toughest difficulty. All you need to break the game is a point guard who can drain threes and a big man on the inside. Slam dunks are plentiful and AI players routinely let you blow past them in the back court, making for easy layups and fast breaks. As a result, after two hours of play, I would routinely be up by 30 points at the half on the standard difficulty.
But it also feels incredibly slow and tedious. With no run button or ability to vary the pace, the game feels like a deliberate tug of war. Stanley Cup sits on the other end of the spectrum. Matches, while still sluggish compared to competing hockey games, move at a brisker pace. Astonishingly, this is not a good thing. Due to the lack of visual clarity, games often devolve into a whirling mess of pixelated soup. Other issues include wacky puck physics, a remarkable amount of NHL Hitz-style cross checks (leading to a ridiculous amount of penalties), and a complete lack of board play.
On the frills and extras side of gameplay, NCAA provides the ability to swap out players during inbounding, on the fly defensive and offensive scheme changes, and strategy options. Stanley Cup offers line changes but only during faceoffs, which is a bummer for hardcore hockey fans. Considering line changes and goalie substitutions/pulling are mapped to the shoulder buttons, there’s no reason why you can’t do so during play.
Neither game is perfect, but the faster pace and lack of extras make Stanley Cup a less than wonderful experience.
WINNER: NCAA Basketball
Use of Mode 7
Sadly, the first Retro Thunderdome for The Well-Red Mage is a one-sided affair. But let’s not gloss over the reason these games exist – show off the capabilities of Mode 7. At first glance, because it’s clearly a better game, NCAA should take this round. By creating a flawed yet playable game using entirely Mode 7 tech, it succeeds as an ambassador to the technology.
That said, Stanley Cup showcases everything Mode 7 is capable of. From the spinning intro screen to the fast-paced gameplay, Stanley Cup serves as a great tech demo, just a poor game when it’s actually in your hands. As a sports fan in ‘92, flying around the ice as Wayne Gretzky was way more exciting than clomping up the court as unknown basketball players. At the end of the day, Mode 7 was a hidden graphics subroutine turned sales pitch. As a pure demo of what could be, Stanley Cup barely wins the round.
WINNER: NHL Stanley Cup
And that does it! The battle for Mode 7 sports supremacy has come to a grisly end. While it was a brutal outing for NHL Stanley Cup, let’s reflect on what we learned. Fancy tech is only as good as the game it’s supporting. Both NCAA Basketball and it’s badly bruised nemesis made admirable attempts to use Mode 7 as the core of their graphics and gameplay. If only they had thought of the gameplay first, it could have been a match made in SNES heaven. Congrats NCAA!
Writer, gamer, and beer geek, The Thunder Mage conjures words from the ether for a number of sites and publications. He currently serves as Lead Blogger and Music Writer for http://www.theaustinot.com (Austin culture) and has written for Texas Highways magazine, the Entertainment Weekly blogging community, and various film review sites. When he’s not mixing literary alchemy, he enjoys chasing his three year old around and advocating for video game accessibility on Twitter to the git gud sect.
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Categories: Retro Thunderdome