Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! This is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.
Like any enthusiastic gaming community, we sink a considerable amount of time into the basketball video games that we play, to the point where we know them inside and out. We know what we like, we know what we don’t like, and we ultimately know what kind of experience we want to get out of them. As consumers, we understandably want to see constant improvement, as well as get value for our money.
Of course, while it’s important that we maintain a critical eye, at times we can be too cynical to see some of the genuine improvements in basketball video games. Despite the challenge that all annual sports games face in the form of a compressed development cycle, we’ve seen basketball titles that have shown considerable improvement over their immediate predecessors. To that end, I’m counting down what I feel are some of the biggest year-to-year leaps in basketball gaming. Let’s get started with number five.
5. NBA 2K12 to NBA 2K13
I anticipate that this will be the most controversial entry in the countdown, as basketball gamers have some very strong opinions as to which of the last three or four NBA 2K games ranks as the best. We’re also talking about some great games here, not to mention a landmark game in NBA 2K12 with its NBA’s Greatest mode. Just to be clear, I am in no way suggesting that 2K12 was a bad game, or that the quality of NBA 2K hasn’t been pretty consistent over the past few years.
Having said that, I do feel that NBA 2K13 was an improvement on NBA 2K12, significant enough to crack this list. The main reason? Its controls. Up until that point, I always found Isomotion to be a bit clunky and awkward in execution; all other pros and cons for both titles aside, I prefer NBA Live’s approach to dribbling controls. However, NBA 2K13’s adoption of intuitive right stick dribbling controls made the game far more accessible to me. In my view, it was a great decision for the series moving forward.
That alone made NBA 2K13 one of my all-time favourite basketball games, and a huge step up from NBA 2K12 in my eyes, but there were some other pleasing improvements across the board. Enhancements to MyCAREER made it my mode of choice, drawing my interest away from the team-oriented experience of Association. The addition of the Dream Team and Team USA 2012 somewhat offset the loss of the NBA’s Greatest presentation (though the retro teams themselves remained, mostly intact). I still had my issues with the game, of course, but I was very satisfied with the improvement that I saw in just one year.
4. NBA Jam (2010) to NBA Jam: On Fire Edition
I’ve gone on record numerous times with my opinion that the 2010 remake of NBA Jam by EA Sports is underrated. I believe that it’s a pretty good Jam title, largely maligned due to the cancellation of NBA Elite 11, and the fact that it’s fashionable to dislike EA and their products. Ironically, the game’s biggest problem was not that it disgraced the original series by Midway, but rather that it was too faithful a remake. That meant two things: one, a few elements of the game were a bit outdated, and two, it replicated nuances that were issues in the original games as well, long forgotten in the fog of nostalgia.
NBA Jam: On Fire Edition addressed those issues, and then some. Repetitive gameplay, with cheese on the part of the user and the CPU? That changed with the implementation of Real AI, borrowed from the Fight Night series. A somewhat tedious season/campaign mode? Completely revamped and made far more interesting with Road Trip, which also borrowed some of the best ideas from the Remix Tour in Jam 2010. Improved online stability? Check. Roster updates for the first time in a Jam game? You bet. More teams and unlockables? Yes indeed.
On top of everything else, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was a digital release, available for around $15 at launch. That certainly appeased many gamers who believed the previous game was overpriced as a disc release, and in my view, OFE provided tremendous value at that price point. In short, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was an all around better game than NBA Jam 2010 and did just about everything right, in the process becoming my pick for the best arcade basketball game to date.
3. NBA Live 2003 to NBA Live 2004
Part of the reason that NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was such a big improvement and was so well received is that the developers took fan feedback very seriously. Of course, it wasn’t the first time that EA Sports had taken heed of what basketball gamers had to say. The NBA Live development team has been keeping tabs on the online basketball gaming community since it began flourishing in the late 90s, but NBA Live 2004 stands as a fine example of how they’ve put gamer feedback to great use in improving upon the previous release.
NBA Live 2003 is an interesting game to reflect upon. On one hand, it introduced what has become a signature concept of NBA Live and one of its best features: right stick dribbling controls. On the other hand, those dribbling moves were too powerful in their first incarnation, and the game missed the mark in terms of pace, realism, and even the atmosphere, what with its infamous “courtside comedy” cutscenes. Fortunately, that would all be rectified just one year later in NBA Live 2004.
Blocks were toned down and more realistic. The pace was more sim-oriented. Sliders were added, allowing us to further tweak the gameplay to our liking. Player collisions were improved. Marv Albert and Mike Fratello were brought in to provide commentary. Franchise Mode was revamped into Dynasty Mode, adding more management tasks and the ability to trade Draft picks. There was a step backwards in the quality of player faces, but even then, they’re fine by the standards of the era. NBA Live 2003 made some missteps, but NBA Live 2004 subsequently made huge strides in the right direction.
2. NBA Live 2004 to NBA Live 2005
The improvements that NBA Live 2004 made over NBA Live 2003 were impressive, but in my opinion, EA Sports topped themselves the following year with NBA Live 2005. NBA Live 2004 had set them back on the right course, and the series just kept rolling with NBA Live 2005. Its big new attraction was obviously All-Star Weekend mode, which was done superbly and thus was very well received. I certainly miss it in the more recent NBA Live games.
Speaking of Dynasty Mode, it received an assortment of fixes and enhancements, including rookie scouting throughout the season and more balanced player development. The lighting effects weren’t a hit with everyone – we’d later find out how to edit them, of course – but player faces were a lot better. Sound effects were more realistic, and there were several new and improved animations. We got some new sliders, and overall, NBA Live 2005 played a pretty good game of basketball for the era. We even got 2D player portraits back!
One major complaint, though? Their licensing agreement with Michael Jordan expired, and he wasn’t in the game. On the bright side, that wasn’t an issue for long when it came to the PC version. I’ve said it before, but NBA Live 2005 remains a highlight in the NBA Live series, with the game getting significantly better for the second year in a row and in the process topping NBA Live 2004, a great release in its own right.
1. NBA Showdown 94 to NBA Live 95
You may recall me mentioning NBA Showdown 94 in an earlier edition of The Friday Five. Showdown effectively bridged the gap between the NBA Playoffs series and the NBA Live series, though it more closely resembled the former. As I’ve also mentioned, I’ve gone back and played both games while preparing some content to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live. In doing so, I’ve observed that while NBA Live 95 holds up surprisingly well, NBA Showdown 94 does not.
I mean, both games are obviously very primitive compared to what we’re playing these days, or even some of the titles that came out just a few years later, but the difference between the two…just, wow. NBA Live 95 represents a far better effort to simulate the NBA game – given the technology of the time – with better controls, more fluid player movement, far less clunky collisions, a greater variety of team management and coaching options, superior graphics and presentation, and more realistic strategy. Again, primitive as it may be compared to NBA 2K14 or NBA Live 14, NBA Live 95 is surprisingly good when you go back and play it today.
With NBA Live 95, five on five basketball games got a lot better in a hurry. Further improvements would be made in NBA Live 96 and NBA Live 97, but it wouldn’t be until new gaming hardware came along and 3D graphics became commonplace that the next really big leap would take place. With EA Sports’ basketball games showing such a huge improvement with NBA Showdown 94 to NBA Live 95, and NBA Live 2004 to NBA Live 2005, I can only hope that history will repeat itself with NBA Live 14 and NBA Live 15.
Honourable Mention: NBA Live 99 to NBA Live 2000
Before I wrap up, I’ll also give an honourable mention to NBA Live 2000, which I’d place in the sixth spot for its improvement over NBA Live 99. The introduction of a 25 year Franchise Mode with free agency and the Draft, a healthy roster of legendary players including Michael Jordan, and some superb graphics for the era? Definitely worth a mention…indeed, ask me again another day, and I might be inclined to include it in my Top 5.
That’s all for this week. In your opinion, which basketball games have taken the biggest leap forward over their immediate predecessors? Sound off in the comments below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum. Thanks for checking in this week, please join me again next Friday for another Five.