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.
The NLSC was founded as a fansite for NBA Live, a series that we still cover to this day. In recent years, we’ve also expanded our coverage to the NBA 2K series, as well as NBA Jam (primarily the recent releases from EA Sports). However, there have been several other NBA and basketball video games released over the years, some of which I covered in a previous Friday Five.
This week, I’m taking a look at five more basketball video games that you may have forgotten, or indeed never knew about. If nothing else, they haven’t been talked about in a while, so let’s go back through basketball gaming history and reflect on some titles that aren’t quite as well-known or popular as NBA Live, NBA 2K, or NBA Jam, but are interesting to look back on nevertheless.
1. Space Jam
I’m going to assume that most people around these parts have seen or at least heard of the movie Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan alongside Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes favourites. For those who haven’t, it was a fun, silly movie that poked fun at MJ’s foray into baseball, and most people my age seemed to enjoy it, myself included. Needless to say, Space Jam inspired its fair share of promotions and merchandising, including a video game that younger basketball gamers likely haven’t played and older basketball gamers may well have given a miss. I must admit, I didn’t play it myself until many years after it came out.
The game’s reviews were overwhelmingly negative, but honestly, it’s not all that bad. It’s hardly a forgotten gem or an overlooked classic, but it’s an average arcade basketball game that’s about on par with Barkley Shut Up and Jam!, or the very similar Looney Tunes B-Ball. Not surprisingly, Space Jam seems to have taken quite a few cues from Looney Tunes B-Ball, featuring character-specific moves for each of the Tunes and animations that are reminiscent of the original cartoons.
The addition of mini-games before tipoff and during quarter breaks was an admirable attempt to change things up a little, as well as work the movie’s plot into the game. Space Jam is definitely aimed at younger gamers, and it pales in comparison to the likes of NBA Jam, but I think it’s a little better than the reviews would have you believe. I’d call it mediocre at worst, decent at best.
2. Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside
NBA Courtside ultimately became a series (well, trilogy) of NBA video games, but I’m going to focus on the first game that was released on the Nintendo 64, as that’s the one I’ve played the most. Back in the day, a handful of studios acquired the NBA license at one time or another, and were throwing their hat into the ring with sim-oriented games. Left Field Productions, a third party developer for Nintendo, joined in the fun back in 1998. Left Field had previously developed Slam ‘N’ Jam, but Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside was their first NBA licensed basketball game.
As its title no doubt implies, the game was endorsed by Kobe Bryant, in his second NBA season at the time. It wasn’t an awful game, but compared to other titles from the same era, I don’t think it’s aged as well. In all fairness, you can say that of the graphics of many N64 releases, but on top of that, the controls, collisions and gameplay in general feel a bit clunky compared to games like NBA Live 98 on PC. It also had a rather restrictive sprint mechanic that was tied to just about everything except blocks and rebounds. To its credit though, it did have some innovative features such as a rebound and pass recipient indicator, and the playcalling AI was respectable.
It’s also worth mentioning that no player ratings are visible in the game. As to why, I’ve always heard that Kobe himself had significant input in that area, thus the ratings were hidden to avoid causing any offense. There were also persistent rumours that Kobe refused to let any other players use the moves that he’d motion captured. Finally, he’s the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers in the default roster, despite starting only one game that season (Nick Van Exel and Derek Fisher were the regular starters at the point for the 1998 Lakers, while Eddie Jones was the shooting guard). If nothing else, Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside probably stands as a good example of how a sim-oriented game can suffer when it caters too heavily to its cover player.
3. NBA Action ’98
Developed by Visual Concepts and published by Sega, NBA Action ’98 is actually a part of the NBA 2K lineage. Like Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside, overall I’d say that it comes off second best when compared to NBA Live 98, but the game certainly does have its good points. In fact, with its on-court starting lineup introductions and commentary by legendary Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn, NBA Action ’98 arguably edges NBA Live 98 in terms of its presentation. It does lack variety in its camera angles however, particularly in instant replay.
It’s a well-rounded NBA title, with gameplay that’s fairly good for a sim game of its era. However, comparing it to NBA Live 98 once again, I find that NBA Action 98’s animations are a little off. It’s strange, as certain animations are a bit more fluid and smoother looking than the ones in NBA Live, yet at the same time there’s more of an awkwardness to them. I think it’s because they were trying to do some really good things in terms of having lifelike player movement, but the technology just wasn’t there yet.
It may have been a few more years before the NBA 2K series was established and began asserting itself as the premiere NBA simulation game, but it got off to a good start with NBA Action ’98. The attention to detail is obvious, and there was clearly a desire to innovate, an example of which is the decision to have separate buttons for jumpshots and dunks/layups…something that NBA Live wouldn’t adopt until NBA Live 2004.
4. NBA Showdown
Since I’ve covered a forerunner to NBA 2K, it’s only fair that I look back at one of NBA Live’s predecessors as well. It’s likely that you’ve played or at least heard of EA’s NBA Playoffs series; if nothing else, you’ve probably seen the title screen for Lakers vs. Celtics, as long-time basketball gamers referenced the game with that image more than once during the 2008 NBA Finals. That said, are you aware of NBA Showdown (also known as NBA Showdown ’94), the immediate predecessor to NBA Live 95?
Bridging the NBA Playoffs and NBA Live series, NBA Showdown was actually the first basketball game to be released under the EA Sports label, as previous titles had simply been published by Electronic Arts. In terms of its presentation and gameplay, NBA Showdown has a lot more in common with the NBA Playoffs games than it does its NBA Live successors. To be honest, it’s actually quite impressive to see the leap in quality that was made between NBA Showdown and NBA Live 95.
In all fairness, it doesn’t play too badly for an early 90s basketball video game, but it doesn’t really hold up today. This is in stark contrast to NBA Live 95, which is still enjoyable – and in some areas, surprisingly good – despite being outdated and of a similar vintage to Showdown. Nevertheless, with this year being the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live, I expect that I’ll be bringing up NBA Showdown again in articles about the early games of the series.
5. Double Dribble
Yes, I’m going really old school for this last one. Originally released in arcades in 1986 and later ported to home computers and the Nintendo Entertainment System, Double Dribble probably isn’t as widely known or fondly remembered as games like Jordan vs. Bird, or Lakers vs. Celtics. However, it’s another early basketball title that helped pave the way.
To say that Double Dribble is primitive compared to today’s games, or even the games that would come along just a few years later, is obviously a massive understatement. With only two face buttons at its disposal, the NES version utilised the A button for both blocking and stealing (depending on the situation), while the B button was used to switch defenders. On offense, A passed the ball, while B attempted a shot. B was also used for jump balls, though players grabbed the ball rather than tipping it, and jump balls took place at the beginning of every quarter. Additionally, all fouls resulted in free throws, so even for the era, the game had some outdated rules in place.
For those who do recall it, Double Dribble is probably best remembered for its dunking cutscenes, as seen in the screenshot above. If your timing on the shoot button was correct, you’d see the dunk completed. If not, you’d hear the ball clang off the rim and you’d have to scramble for the rebound upon returning to gameplay…assuming of course, the ball didn’t go out of bounds. Again, it’s incredibly primitive, but it definitely has some nostalgic value and the cutscene dunks do have a certain charm. It’s actually kind of fun to play for a few minutes, and it’s the sort of old school basketball game that could perhaps be an enjoyable time-killer if it were remade as a Flash game.
Do you remember any of these games? What are some of the lesser known or often forgotten basketball video games that you’ve played over the years? Let me know 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.