Basketball Video Games - A RETROspective

Posted by: Daryll Marsh | 6 September 2016

For this month’s RETROspective, I thought I’d focus on another passion of mine – basketball. I fell in love with basketball in the early nineties, when Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA Championships. I played and watched basketball throughout my teens and well into my twenties, and as a gamer also played plenty of basketball video games.
The vast majority of the games I played were NBA licenced products, and in preparation for this article I forgot I’d played quite a few unlicenced basketball games as well. Due to ever changing rosters, a lot of the games became yearly releases; much like the football equivalents FIFA and Pro Evo.

The first game I vividly recall playing was Jordan vs. Bird: One on One by EA on the Sega Mega Drive. As the titles suggests, main game was a one-on-one match between Michael “Air” Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, and Larry “Legend” Bird of the Boston Celtics. The match was half-court, with the winner being the first to score 21 points. Both Jordan and Bird had their own abilities – with Jordan pulling off high-flying dunks and Bird draining deep three-point shots. Jordan vs. Bird also had two mini-games, where the player took control Bird in a three-point shoot out; the aim being to make as many shots out of twenty five within a sixty-second period. Jordan’s mini-game was a slam dunk contest, with the goal of completing dunks that were judged out of 150.

Jordan vs. Bird: One on One was good fun as a pick up and play, but didn’t offer any sort of longevity in terms of season modes. Luckily EA also had their main franchise, the name of which changed year on year, based on which two NBA teams were in the previous season’s championship finals – Lakers vs. Celtics, Bulls vs. Lakers and Bulls vs. Blazers. The games gave players the chance to play through the NBA Playoffs or single exhibitions matches, although I do recall the relatively slow pace of the franchise was in contrast to the fast flowing game I watched on TV.

By far the most popular mainstream basketball game was Midway’s arcade game NBA Jam – as it had simplified rules, less players on court and gravity-defying slam dunks. The game is well remembered for its enthusiastic announcer’s catchphrases: “Boomshakala!” after pulling off a monster dunk; “From Downtown…” when attempting a shot from three point range; and “He’s On Fire!” if three consecutive baskets with the same player. The franchise spanned multiple console generations – most recently published by EA Sports on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii, although it was a shadow of its former self; the game had become unplayable and clunky, largely due to not being able to switch control to a CPU controlled player when the ball was passed to them.

Digital Pictures tried their hand at a street basketball game, with their FMV offering Slam City with Scottie Pippen on Sega’s Mega CD. The game casts the player as Ace, an up and coming streetballer, one-on-one against four different opponents. The aim was to win games and build up Ace’s respect, and an ultimate showdown with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls team-mate Scottie Pippen. As with the majority on nineties FMV games, the graphics were grainy and a lot of the footage was reused ad-nauseam. Gaining enough of “respect” (the game’s equivalent of XP) to reach the final game with the NBA superstar meant playing against the same four opponents dozens times each; and there was no replay value once you’d defeated Pippen.

The advent of the first PlayStation brought 3D graphics for the first time. One of the earliest examples that I can remember playing was Total NBA ’96 by 989 Sports. The game was missing three of the of the biggest stars of the era (Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley), due to them having signed deals with other developers for bizarre non-basketball related games; Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, Shaq Fu and Barkley Shut Up and Jam (which was the closest to a basketball game, basically a poor man’s NBA Jam). The three stars were replaced with generic players on their relevant team’s roster. Total NBA ‘96’s polygon graphics looked amazing for their time, although the players were unable to perform any of the flashy moves that the NBA is known for – except for two different dunks by the more vertically gifted players.

Around the same time, Crystal Dynamics released Slam N Jam ’96, which was endorsed by the legendary LA Lakers duo Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; although it wasn’t licenced by the NBA, and therefore couldn’t use team names, logos, uniforms etc. The game featured 2D graphics, with camera angle was fixed to an end-to-end view of the court, rather than the widely accepted side-on angle. All I can remember is that the game was really dull, contrary to Magic and Kareem’s flashy Showtime run-and-gun style of basketball. I also seem to recall the team roster’s being fixed, so were outdated as soon as the game was released, as their wasn’t the option to trade players to other teams so that they were current with their real life counterparts.

Luckily, EA stepped up with their NBA Live series, with the first instalment released in 1995. The game was by far the closest a fan could get to the real thing; with a full season mode, all-star game and the play-offs. The series had trade options, in and post-game stats and player fatigued if they’d been on court too long. One thing that sticks out in my mind was a glitch in the 1997 PS1 version’s disc, where gamers had to physically turn their console upside down for the disc to boot.

Whilst Live was EA’s simulation, their NBA Street franchise was their equivalent to Midway’s NBA Jam; the game was 3-on-3, with the players pulling off insane mid-air dunks and flashy passes and dribbles. The highlight of the series was the franchise’s second incarnation: NBA Street Vol 2. The game featured streetballers created specifically for the game, Michael Jordan, and a host of NBA Hall Of Fame players added to the stars of the day. Pulling off trick passes and dribbles built up a Gamebreaker meter, which increased the amount of points scored for the next basket made. The game was great fun even for non-basketball fans, and I always remember the game fondly.

AND1, a company famous for their connection to streetball “Mix Tape” tours, dipped their toe in the video game market with an UbiSoft-published game. AND1 Streetball tried to mash up a simulation with streetball flare. The game featured the tour’s well-known players (all known by their nicknames) – “The Professor”, “Hot Sauce” and “The Main Event” to name but a few. The game had a season mode of sorts, progressing around the country and matches with the best streetballers each city had to offer. I remember being disappointed for much the same reason as I had been with Slam N Jam years earlier; as the razzle dazzle streetball style felt watered down and stale.

Today, basketball is pretty much dominated by the 2K series, and has been for the last decade or so. The games are the hoops equivalent of FIFA, with the most well-known player on the game’s cover. NBA 2K games are about as close to watching a game on TV; with pre-game player stats, instant replays and post-game analysis. The games have full season modes, from pre-season exhibitions through to the play-offs. Story modes, roster trades and All-Star mini games help to bolster the main game, giving plenty of longevity. The controls are easy to get to grips with, as combination thumbstick movements control different shots, dribbles and passes.

And there we have it – twenty or so years of basketball video games. Some good, some bad (some downright atrocious). In my eyes, the arcade style games were always much more fun – even as a diehard hoop head, I struggled playing an entire season and just wanted something I could enjoy with friends who didn’t share my passion for shooting hoops. People always cry for remasters of this game or that; whereas I prey to the video game gods that EA will re-release NBA Street Vol 2. I know it’s just a hoop dream, but hey – I can wish, right?!

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