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!
In one of my Friday Five columns a couple of years ago, I discussed the five biggest leaps in basketball video games, within the span of one production cycle. While I stand by the choices I made when compiling that countdown, I have to admit that it was a mistake not to at least include NBA Live 98 as an honourable mention. When I went back and played NBA Live 98 for this retrospective, I not only recalled a lot of the improvements that were made over NBA Live 97, but also discovered that it was a better game than I remembered. I actually found myself wondering, how could I have underrated this game for so long?
I should clarify that I’ve never disliked NBA Live 98, nor thought it to be a bad game. I’ve always been aware of its strong points and all of the leaps it made from NBA Live 97, but for some reason, I’ve never ranked it up there as one of my favourite games in the NBA Live series. The fact that I didn’t buy it as soon as it came out back in 1997, and thus haven’t played it as much as some of the other NBA Live games, probably has something to do with that. It also has its problems – as all games do – and I will talk about those issues as well. But right out of the gate, I do have to acknowledge that NBA Live 98 is a game that I’ve underrated and underappreciated.
So, what’s so great about it? Well, as I said in my introduction, it’s a candidate for one of the biggest improvements we’ve seen in the span of a year. The PC and PlayStation versions of NBA Live 98 saw some noticeable visual improvements, particularly in terms of player detail. It was the first game in the series to support 3D acceleration, with real player faces, and more detailed arenas and jerseys. Compared to its predecessors, NBA Live 98 looked sharper, slicker, and more realistic than ever before.
Of course, the 3D era of gaming was still in its infancy, and like a lot of games from that time, the visuals of NBA Live 98 haven’t aged particularly well. Although the detail on the players’ faces is still pretty good for a game of that vintage, their head models are blocky and generic. The animations, though far more life-like than the first three games in the NBA Live series, certainly look primitive today. As such, it can be harder for younger games to truly appreciate that NBA Live 98’s graphics were a huge improvement. Even old gamers may be inclined to wonder “Why did we think it looked good?” Well, the fact of the matter is the graphics were good – really good – by 1997 standards.
While we’re talking about the aesthetics of NBA Live 98, the overall presentation definitely deserves a mention. The menus are sort of late 90s tech chic, adorned by golden lines and photographs of the NBA players who provided mo-cap for the game: Larry Johnson, Christian Laettner, Mitch Richmond, Joe Dumars, and cover player Tim Hardaway. It’s probably not my favourite menu styling, but it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. More importantly, the game features NBA on TNT branding with accurate overlays, except for the addition of the EA Sports logo here and there.
EA Sports definitely tried to capture more of a TV feel with NBA Live 98. Before and after the game, and between quarters, Ernie Johnson provides “studio” voiceover, while Verne Lundquist is the play-by-play announcer during gameplay. The latter is a first for the series, and while it’s not as detailed as the commentary in modern games, at the time it was another step forward. When you pause the game, the camera pans up into the rafters and the menu appears alongside the arena scoreboard, which displays the current score as well as the stats for the home team. I’ve always liked that touch.
NBA Live 98 expanded upon user control, and thankfully, the PC version finally made use of multi-button gamepads, actually including a steal button! NBA Live 98 also added the ability to pivot, as well as perform crossovers, spin moves, and ball fakes. It was the first game in the series to feature direct passing and switching, and a defensive stance button. While nowhere near as deep, it was the first game in the NBA Live series with a control scheme reminiscent of what we have in today’s games, obviously minus the dual analog controls.
You could say the same thing about the gameplay in general. While it’s very outdated and nowhere near their level, NBA Live 98 is the first game in the series to look, feel, and play like a modern basketball title. There are fewer outrageous dunks, as there was definitely a focus on making the action look more realistic, to match the enhanced graphics. On Superstar difficulty – a new difficulty setting that was also introduced in NBA Live 98 – the game offers up a good challenge. While it may be a bit too fast paced for late 90s NBA basketball, and the shooting percentages are skewed a bit high, you can otherwise achieve fairly realistic scores and stats.
Of course, the gameplay isn’t without its quirks. Most of the contact occurs on the perimeter with players shoving the ballhandler, often when you don’t want them to. On the other hand, you’re pretty much free to hand-check players without the ball, and at times the game is pretty lenient about letting you get away with knocking down players who are dribbling, or even shooting. As a result, there aren’t enough free throws, and perimeter players get into foul trouble more often than the bigs playing in the paint. Layups and dunks don’t always trigger on cue, leading to awkward leaners in the paint; a problem that spanned several games. Also, although Direct Pass can be used to walk the ball up court, the walking animations are pretty bad.
Movement while in the defensive stance is a bit stiff. There are far too many steals and turnovers – often on knockdowns that aren’t called fouls – and not enough blocks and altered shots in the lane. When it comes to rebounds, most of them are flat footed; in fact, jumping can often leave you at a disadvantage. It’s also way too easy to step out of bounds, as well as force the CPU into dribbling out of bounds when it has the ball along the baseline. The AI plays a decent but unsophisticated brand of basketball, still often relying on “video game tactics”. That tends to be your best bet for success, too. You can play fairly realistically to a point, more so than in the first three NBA Live games, but at that point in time, there was still a long way to go.
Having said that, the expansion of the controls was a big improvement, and by 1997 basketball video game standards, it’s not a stretch to say the gameplay is very good. Because it is starting to resemble the NBA Live and NBA 2K games of today, it’s a lot easier to go back to and play NBA Live 98 like a modern release…to a point. I’ve found that quite a few older games do hold up quite well, in some cases better than I thought, and NBA Live 98 is definitely in that category.
The big new feature in NBA Live 98 that older gamers probably remember most fondly is the Three-Point Shootout. It functions the same way the Shootout does in later NBA Live games: one button to pick up the ball, another button to shoot. Time your release properly with a good three-point shooter for the best chance of success. The presentation is fine, the gameplay elements are fine, and the only real nitpick I can make is that the player selection screen is a bit cumbersome. Instead of cycling through the teams to pick players, the entire league is presented as one big list, sorted by team. It’s more scrolling and messing around than is ideal, but again, it’s admittedly nitpicking.
NBA Live 98 also introduced the forerunner to Franchise and Dynasty Mode: GM. There’s no multi-season play in GM – that would have to wait until next year – nor are there salaries, or team management tasks beyond trading and signing players. However, it does present the option to customise the league and hold a Fantasy Draft if desired, on top of the usual Season Mode functions. In all fairness, it’s basically a slightly enhanced version of Season Mode, but it was another first step, testing the waters as far as going beyond the traditional Season experience.
Par for the course in late 90s basketball games, Michael Jordan was absent from NBA Live 98, as he still retained full control over his likeness rights. He was once again replaced on the Chicago Bulls by a Roster Player, whose abilities were Jordan-like enough to stand in for His Airness until you hit up Create-a-Player. On the other hand, Charles Barkley made his first official appearance in NBA Live, as a member of the Houston Rockets. His presence in the game even warranted a screenshot on the back of the box of the PC version.
Speaking of roster management, NBA Live 98 took a new approach to custom teams. Rather than being presented with four ready-made custom teams – the Slammers, Jammers, Blockers, and Stealers – users could now brand their own custom teams, before copying players to their rosters. The ability to edit existing players was also added, offering a quick way to change jersey numbers and ratings. Changing other values required external editing, which was now much easier with the roster files being in DBF format. With all the new textures, Tim, Lutz, and Brien continued to develop their tools here at the NLSC, and art patching really began to take off.
The PC version of NBA Live 98 was unquestionably the definitive version of the game. Although the PlayStation version was essentially the same out of the box, its graphics were inferior, and it obviously lacked the capability to be patched. The PC version also received an official update, which addressed a few issues. As for the Super Nintendo release, it was essentially an updated version of NBA Live 97, with an all-time user records screen and some practice modes added. Not surprisingly, it was the last NBA Live game released on Super Nintendo, and the SNES version wasn’t even released in PAL regions.
Something else that placed NBA Live 98 PC above all other versions of the game is the fact that it was the first game in the series to feature in-game saves, a feature that was also included in NBA Live 99 and NBA Live 2000, but has been missing from Live ever since. Such a feature is incredibly handy, especially if you prefer to play twelve minute quarters. With a bit of work, it also facilitated the creation of scenarios, which could be shared with other gamers. Considering its absence in recent NBA Live games, it’s funny to think in-game saving was first included in a game released way back in 1997.
Once again, the thing that has struck me the most when going back and playing NBA Live 98 is that it’s a better game than I remembered. Having played a few games, maxing out the game on a PC that’s more powerful than the game ever needed in its day, and cataloguing all of its new features, I have to admit, it’s climbed up my list of favourites. I’d definitely rank it higher than I did before setting out to write these retrospectives.
With the NBA Live series falling on hard times, and now slowly making its way back on the current generation of consoles, it may be difficult for younger gamers to imagine – and indeed, older gamers to remember – a time when it was definitely the leader among NBA games. However, that was certainly the case back in the day, and I think NBA Live 98 stands out as an example of why the series was on top. At the time, EA Sports was being so innovative with its advances in graphics and gameplay, as well as Live’s modes and features. When you look back on it, a lot of stuff was improved, and a lot of new stuff was added in NBA Live 98.
As a title from the early days of basketball gaming – obviously not as ancient as Lakers vs. Celtics, but still very early on in the 3D era – NBA Live 98 has something of a quiet legacy. It’s often remembered fondly, but not to the same extent as a newer game like NBA Live 2000, a high point for NBA Live, or an older game like NBA Live 95, the beloved first game in the series. Nor does it have the same kind of reputation, or receive the same amount of reverence as great twenty-first century releases like NBA Live 2005 or NBA 2K11. That’s a shame though, as NBA Live 98 was a significant release among basketball video games, one that I’ll certainly hold in higher regard from now on.
Stay tuned for more 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content!