Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.
When we look back to rank and rate basketball video games throughout the years, it’s important that we keep a few things in perspective, such as the technology of the time, and a game’s improvement over its immediate predecessors. With the way that basketball titles and other sports video games have improved, it’s not always a fair comparison once a few years have passed, to say nothing of a generation or two. Even though they’ve been surpassed, certain basketball games definitely deserve to be recognised as the best sim title of their day. As such, today I’m picking the best sim basketball games in five distinct generations, or eras if you prefer.
I must emphasise that these are my personal picks, and that I’m not presenting this list as infallible, definitive, or above question. There are several worthy candidates that you might prefer, and I obviously reserve the right to change my opinion in the future as well. However, as it stands today, these are my selections for the best sim-oriented basketball video games in each generation, starting from the early days of basketball gaming and going right through until today. Without any further ado, let’s tip things off with basketball games from the 16-Bit era and earlier.
16-Bit & Earlier Era: NBA Live 95
This one’s a pretty easy pick. As I’ve noted in many of my Wayback Wednesday features, as well as some of my retrospectives for the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live, sim-oriented basketball video games don’t always age very well. Gaming tech has come a long way, which has made it possible to develop sports games that now bear an uncanny resemblance to the real thing. It’s been a continual improvement, and when it comes to basketball games in particular, titles that once seemed cutting edge and very realistic often don’t hold up as well when we revisit them. There aren’t many early sim basketball games that can still hold their own and impress.
That’s what makes NBA Live 95 so special. Yes, it’s the first game in the NBA Live series, and there’s always some significance in being the original. Yes, there’s a healthy amount of nostalgia here. But NBA Live 95 was a fantastic basketball video game that was so much better than its predecessors. As I’ve noted before, it’s one of the biggest single year leaps in basketball gaming. Expanded controls, the new isometric camera angle, deeper strategy and roster management…no other early basketball title comes close. It’s even still fun to play today, with a surprising amount of realism if you play it with “sim tactics”. No contest here: NBA Live 95 all the way.
64-bit/Early 3D Era: NBA Live 2000
Games from this era are somewhat of a mixed bag, no matter what the genre. Visually speaking, a lot of them haven’t aged well at all, and developers were also still getting a grip on the new 3D environments. Sports games arguably fared a little better, at least on the gameplay front. Their main drawbacks, compared to their more recent successors at any rate, would be a lack of sophistication in their artificial intelligence, and the depth of features in their game modes. That would be a fair assessment of NBA Live 2000 now, but in its day, I don’t think it would’ve been out of bounds to call it the best sim basketball game we’d seen.
While NBA Live wasn’t the only sim basketball game doing great things back in the day, overall it was the best product. The game’s graphics were really starting to look impressive around that point (especially on PC), the gameplay was robust, and NBA Live 2000 boasted two big new features: a proper multi-season Franchise mode with free agency, the rookie Draft, and so on, and its roster of NBA Legends. It’s the culmination of several years of steady improvement for NBA Live, and looking back on it now, I still think it beats out its competitors. It’s considered to be a high point in the NBA Live series for a reason, being the best sim hoops game of its generation.
PlayStation 2/Xbox Era: NBA Live 06 (PC)
This is my controversial pick for this list. A lot of people would probably choose NBA Live 2005, or perhaps one of the early NBA 2K games from this era, and I certainly couldn’t fault those choices. For me, it was a really close call between NBA Live 2005 and NBA Live 06. I favour NBA Live 06 because of a few improvements that were made in Dynasty Mode, and while Freestyle Superstars didn’t work out exactly as planned, it was a good idea to try and separate stars from the rest of the league by giving them extra abilities. Additionally, if you didn’t like Freestyle Superstars, you could disable it completely for every player who had it.
When it comes to being a realistic depiction of basketball given the technology of the era, NBA Live 06 is at least on par with NBA Live 2005, and plays very similarly if you do disable Freestyle Superstars movesets. It retains the full All-Star Weekend, while also adding a couple of new dunks to the Slam Dunk Contest. Like NBA Live 2005, it’s a well-rounded simulation basketball game that I can still play today; I just like NBA Live 06 a little better. The Xbox 360 version was undoubtedly a step backwards, but the PC/PlayStation 2 version is arguably a little underrated these days. It’s a close race with several very worthy choices, but NBA Live 06 is my pick.
PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 Era: NBA 2K13
This is a really, really tough choice, because we saw some excellent basketball games and a lot of improvement during this generation. NBA 2K11 is fantastic, but it still uses the same Isomotion controls that I’ve always found to be a bit clunky. The same can be said of NBA 2K12, with the controls making an otherwise outstanding release a little hard to pick up again today. NBA 2K14 is a fine product despite the fact that Visual Concepts were obviously moving forward with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game, but it has some sloppy elements. Therefore, I’m going to go with one of my all-time favourite games: NBA 2K13.
NBA 2K13 was the first game in the 2K series to adopt right stick dribbling controls, and I think that decision has been greatly beneficial in the games that have followed. In terms of realism, I believe that NBA 2K13 holds it own against any other basketball game of the generation, and it was definitely a lot of fun to play. Getting the original Dream Team into the game was a big deal, and while there was no specific mode for the historical teams, they were still in the game, too. NBA 2K13 unquestionably had its own issues and room for improvement, but as an overall product, it was still outstanding in its day. It’s a close call, but for me, it gets the nod.
Current Generation: NBA 2K17
When it comes to comparing the past and present, there are two traps that we commonly fall into, with attitudes at the opposite end of the spectrum. Either nostalgia wins out and we give too much credit to the old, or we dismiss the old as only seeming good due to nostalgia, subsequently picking the new because it’s current and fresh in our minds. New isn’t always better across the board, especially with technology and annual video game releases, but I will have to go with NBA 2K17 here. The current generation is young, but so far, I’d have to say that this year’s game from Visual Concepts has been the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect, and doesn’t have some annoying issues. There are quirky bugs and lapses in the AI. There are legacy issues that are definitely frustrating, and not all of the tweaks in the official patches have been to our liking. At the same time, the controls are as smooth and responsive as they’ve ever been, and it still plays a great game of basketball most of the time. It has deep, robust modes, and 2K has finally struck a good balance between the story elements and gameplay in MyCAREER. There’s years left in this generation, and we should hopefully see games continue to get even better, but right now? NBA 2K17 is my pick for the current era.
Those are my picks, but once again, I’m not suggesting that this list is definitive or indisputable. For me, there were some really close calls, with some other excellent games on my shortlist. This is really only the beginning of the discussion, so which titles do you feel are the best sim basketball games for each of these generations? Have your say in the comments section below, and feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.