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20th Anniversary of NBA Live: NBA Live 97 Retrospective

NBA Live 97 Retrospective

To mark the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re posting content for every game in the series, including retrospectives, patches, countdowns, and more. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with the NBA Live series and would like to take a drip down memory lane, or you’ve only recently started playing basketball games and would like to learn a little about what they used to be like, we hope that you enjoy the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content here on the NLSC!

NBA Live 97 was another step up from NBA Live 96…depending on which platform you were playing on. If you were playing the game on Super Nintendo, you’d notice a couple of new features, and some new animations. On PC and PlayStation, however, the jump was a little bigger. Not quite NBA Showdown to NBA Live 95 big, but still fairly noticeable, especially in terms of the visuals. Let’s take a look back at the game that described itself as the “soul of hoops”, and proudly announced that it featured Shaq.

Actually, let’s back up a moment and talk about that last point. One of the key features mentioned on the back of the NBA Live 97 box was that it included Shaquille O’Neal. That may seem like an odd thing to advertise – especially since Mitch Richmond was the cover player that year – but as one of the league’s brightest rising stars, Shaq was rocketing towards the peak of his popularity. He’d also just signed a $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, so he was one of the biggest stories of the 1996 offseason.

Shaquille O'Neal in NBA Live 97

More significantly, however, he wasn’t in a lot of the NBA video games that were coming out at the time. NBA Jam? No Shaq. Midway’s successor to NBA Jam, NBA Hangtime? No Shaq. Microsoft’s NBA Full Court Press? You get the idea. But Shaq had been in NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96, and he was most definitely in NBA Live 97. Therefore, he was worth a mention, and a couple of screenshots, on the back of the box.

Unfortunately, a couple of other popular stars were still missing: Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. This time around, all versions of the game included stand-in Roster Players for both of them, with suspiciously similar ratings and bio data. I’m guessing a little too similar, as Roster Players in future games bore much less resemblance to the player they were standing in for, ratings aside. In any event, neither MJ nor Sir Charles were officially in NBA Live 97, but we did have some ready-made players to overwrite when we made rosters for the PC version.

Speaking of which, roster management received a couple of pleasing upgrades in NBA Live 97. First of all, the Free Agent pool wasn’t empty out of the box; there were a bunch of players in there to round out the rosters. Team rosters were expanded to fifteen players with three inactive roster slots, and there was a total of 100 slots for created players. We still had to edit a lot of player data externally, and original players still couldn’t be edited in-game, but it was a definite improvement as far as customisation options, as well as representing the real NBA rosters.

Scottie Pippen in NBA Live 97

A couple of other notes about roster management in NBA Live 97: for the first time, we could trade multiple players at once. That’s more or less a given these days, but in NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96, it was all one-for-one deals. The custom Slammers, Jammers, Blockers, and Stealers teams were back once again, and were utilised in the same manner as before. Finally, because NBA Live 97’s menus were all in lower case – more on that momentarily – any created players stood out from original ones, if you entered their name with any capital letters.

Perhaps the biggest improvement we saw in NBA Live 97 was the jump in graphics. It might be hard to appreciate now, in a era where most players get their faces scanned into the game (and the difference is noticeable when a player hasn’t sat for a scan), but for the time, NBA Live 97’s graphics were very good. It’s early on in the 3D age, and games from that era generally haven’t aged particularly well, but compare it to NBA Live 96 and you can certainly see the difference.

The players were really starting to look like real people. Granted, they wouldn’t have individual face textures for another year, but they had more distinct facial features. Sure, the body models were a bit bulky, but at least they appeared to have some bulk, and muscularity. The jersey textures are very low resolution compared to what we’re accustomed to now, but they were no longer simply the correct colours with the same style of numbers and a few token details. Instead, they had the proper trims, lettering, numbers, and so forth. With NBA Live 97, the game began to look more like it does today.

Anfernee Hardaway in NBA Live 97

That’s on PC and PlayStation, of course. NBA Live 97 on Super Nintendo looked very much like the SNES versions of NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96. That wasn’t too surprising of course, as the Super Nintendo was reaching the end of its lifespan at that point. Nevertheless, the SNES version of NBA Live 97 did get a few new player animations, though not to the same extent as the PC and PlayStation releases.

Before I move on from the visuals, I want to touch on something else about the aesthetics of NBA Live 97. Of all the NBA Live games that were released in the 1990s, NBA Live 97 is the one that best captures the style of the decade. Just take a look at this screenshot of the menus:

NBA Live 97 Main Menu

Look at the graffiti-style heading, and the fonts used on the labels of the menu options. Look at that cursor. Look at the exclusive use of lowercase; not a capital to be found in any of the text. Look at that background. That’s all pure 90s, and it’s very nostalgic for me, an old man of 30, to look back upon. There was definitely a time when that kind of style was hip, cool, and any other positive adjective that you care to throw out there.

In terms of the gameplay, NBA Live 97 didn’t play a whole lot differently to NBA Live 96. Once again, this did come as something of a disappointment to some gamers at the time, especially those who had been waiting for another huge leap like the one between NBA Showdown and NBA Live 95. Those gamers had now been waiting a couple of years to see those improvements, and the game wasn’t quite there yet. Having said that, NBA Live 97 was far from being a bad game.

Player physics, collisions, and AI were still pretty much the same as the year before, but were more than acceptable for the era. NBA Live 97 is probably about as “sim” as a game could be at that time, and like its predecessors, it doesn’t respond too badly to being played in a realistic manner. However, this early on in the series, the gameplay is still at a level that would feel very primitive by today’s standards, and wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of a sim gamer. Back then, though? It got the job done, and it was fun.

Scottie Pippen in NBA Live 97

I mostly played NBA Live 97 on PC, which like NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96 PC, did not have a steal button. Once again, you had to position a defender close to the ballhandler and let them start automatically swiping at the ball, hoping that they wouldn’t commit a foul. At this point, the lack of a steal button was definitely getting frustrating, though as usual, it wasn’t an issue in the console versions of the game. I also remember it being more difficult to block shots. In theory, this wasn’t a bad thing, as blocks were too numerous in NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96. Unfortunately, it was definitely an over-correction, and blocks were too scarce…at least on PC.

As I mentioned before, we did get some new player animations, and new moves in the form of dunks and layups. They wouldn’t impress younger gamers these days, but they looked a little more lifelike than what we’d seen previously. NBA Live 97 retained the multiple camera angles introduced in NBA Live 96, and also added automatic instant replays, the frequency of which could be toggled. Additionally, NBA Live 97 was the first game in the series to include the Illegal Defense rule, which of course has since been replaced by the Defensive Three Second violation.

Game modes remained more or less the same in NBA Live 97. In the PC and PlayStation versions, there was exhibition play, Season mode, and a standalone Playoffs mode. The Super Nintendo version actually gains a victory here: it included two-on-two and three-on-three halfcourt modes, which could be fun to play in between Season mode games, and made up for the lack of improvements in other areas.

Mitch Richmond in NBA Live 97

I should probably mention that NBA Live 97 PC was the first game in the series to demand a Pentium in its system requirements. It would run on a 486, but you had to be patient when it came to loading times, and you definitely weren’t playing the game on higher settings. However, on a decent Pentium machine with at least 16 MB of RAM – yes, a whole 16 MB! – it ran just fine. The disc also included both a DOS and Windows version of the game, which utilised their own specific save files. Fortunately, Tim created a tool that allowed the transfer of roster saves between the two versions.

So, how would I sum up NBA Live 97?

Well, like NBA Live 96, I think it’s actually a little underrated. It doesn’t crack my top five favourite games in the NBA Live series, and it wouldn’t be in the top ten, either. However, it was a fine game at the time, the premiere NBA simulation for the 1997 season. Some of the flaws of its predecessors remained, but it also shared their strengths, while adding a few new wrinkles.

Gaming technology still wasn’t at a point where too many revolutionary leaps could be made from year to year, but little touches were added here and there, taking a few steps closer to replicating the real NBA. The addition of automatic replays from randomly selected camera angles also gave a welcome boost to the presentation.

Tim Hardaway in NBA Live 97

In my opinion, NBA Live 97 was not a bad game by any means, but it was a game that couldn’t quite deliver everything that the fanbase wanted. Basketball gamers had some great ideas about what they wanted to see, many of which would eventually come to fruition. However, they weren’t all feasible at the time, and the fanbase was getting a little restless. Nevertheless, I do think it’s fair to say that a lot of gamers did enjoy NBA Live 97, and I’d definitely count myself among them.

While I don’t have quite the same sentimental attachment to NBA Live 97 as I do NBA Live 96, or even NBA Live 95 for that matter, I still hold it in high regard. The upgrade in graphics, the presentation that captured the style (and dare I say, spirit) of the 90s, the fact that it came along at a time when my interest in basketball and basketball gaming was really starting to take off…there’s still a lot of nostalgic value in it for me. Beyond that, I do believe that it truly was the best sim-oriented NBA game at the time. As such, NBA Live 97 certainly was worthy of promoting itself as the “soul of hoops”.

Stay tuned for more 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content!

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