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!
I’ve mentioned this before in a couple of articles, but NBA Live 99 is a somewhat overlooked and forgotten game. It doesn’t help that it came between NBA Live 98, a game that saw a really big leap from the year before, and NBA Live 2000, one of the best games in the NBA Live series. The lockout that threatened the 1999 season is also a factor, as it meant that NBA Live 99 shipped without updated rosters, in a transitional year for the NBA. On top of that, its cover player, Antoine Walker, has consistently topped “worst cover player” polls that we’ve run. It’s a shame though, because NBA Live 99 is actually a really good game.
Of course, it’s not without its flaws, and it’s probably fair to say that it’s not as big an improvement on NBA Live 98 as NBA Live 98 was on NBA Live 97. Needless to say, that definitely doesn’t help as far as leaving the same kind of lasting impression. Throw in some problems out of the box, the lack of updated rosters due to the lockout, and an unpopular choice for a cover player, and you have a game that’s often ignored, and sometimes maligned. To be fair, some of the criticism is certainly warranted, but NBA Live 99 did improve on NBA Live 98 in some key areas.
The game’s presentation is once again fairly top notch, replicating a late 90s NBA on TNT broadcast quite accurately given the technology of the time. I really prefer the menus in NBA Live 99 to the ones in NBA Live 98, too. While it could be a bit rough on slower computers unless you turned down the frontend detail settings, the effect of panning across an NBA arena was a more appealing background visual. The menus themselves also looked nicer and were easier to use, with colourful buttons and dropdown selections.
About the only thing I don’t like about NBA Live 99’s UI is the Substitution screen during gameplay. Unlike other PC releases that allow players to be subbed in and out or change positions in the lineup by dragging and dropping, or clicking on one player then another, NBA Live 99 requires you to select a player in the lineup, a player on the bench, and then click a Substitute button. Not too difficult, but a bit slower, and definitely more cumbersome when you want to move a player already on the floor to a different position, since you first need to move them to the bench and then back into the lineup. It’s a small nuisance that I was reminded of upon playing the game again.
In terms of gameplay, NBA Live 99 is very similar to NBA Live 98, which is both good and bad. Good because it retains a lot of the things that made NBA Live 98 a very good game; bad because some key issues remain, and there could’ve been more improvement. There’s a bit more fluidity when moving in the defensive stance, but it’s still a little stiff. Dunks and layups still don’t always trigger on cue, resulting in awkward leaners that often miss or get blocked. Flat-footed rebounds are still the norm, and even following the official patch, swingmen tend to get too many of the boards. On twelve minute quarters, there are still too many steals and turnovers.
On the other hand, NBA Live 99 does respond reasonably well to more realistic tactics, but jumpshots aren’t nearly as viable as they are in modern games, so if you need to score, get it inside. On Superstar difficulty, it’s very tough to stop the CPU once it gets into the lane. It took a while before basketball video games really started to properly represent the defensive side of the sport, and before realistic physics began to be implemented, you were very limited in the tools you had to defend the paint. Your best bet was to hope for a clean block, a steal or interception, or a foul that doesn’t result in an and-one (or that you get away with completely).
Once again, the pace is a little high for late 90s basketball, and actually seems to pick up in the second half. However, the shooting percentages are a little toned down compared to NBA Live 98, and the gameplay is still enjoyable. A lot of the shortcomings in realism are admittedly more noticeable now that we’ve experienced far superior games, and I did have fun when I went back and played NBA Live 99 for this retrospective. After trailing by as many as thirteen, I managed to claw my way back into the game, take the lead, and withstand a late charge to win by five on Superstar difficulty. It felt rewarding, with a mixture of modern and old school video game tactics getting the job done.
There are more free throws – a noteworthy improvement – but they do tend to bring the game to a grinding halt, as it’s impossible to skip the stats overlays and the pre-free throw routine. In terms of gameplay quirks, the aforementioned flat-footed rebounds and swingmen getting too many boards are probably the biggest issues that stand out, but all in all, NBA Live 99 is at least a little better than NBA Live 98 in terms of gameplay, and certainly not a step backward.
For anyone who wanted to take a more casual approach to the game, NBA Live 99 also introduced an enhanced “Arcade” setting. All of the early NBA Live games had a game setting that could be toggled between Arcade and Simulation, but it was really only a convenient method of quickly enabling and disabling rules and fatigue. NBA Live 99 took it a step further, though: with the Arcade setting enabled, players jumped higher for dunks – somewhat resembling NBA Jam in the process – and there were arcade-style audio and visual effects. It was fun for a change of pace.
The graphics were definitely better than NBA Live 98, with clearer textures and more realistic faces, albeit still using generic (and somewhat blocky) head models. In those early years of the 3D era, it was common to see noticeable improvements to the visuals with each release, and NBA Live 99 continued that trend, also adding new dunks and other animations. The late Don Poier, former radio play-by-play announcer for the Vancouver and later Memphis Grizzlies, replaced Verne Lundquist on commentary. Being a one-man booth, commentary was still a little sparse, but Poier’s animated delivery also made it a bit livelier at the same time. On the whole, NBA Live 99 looked and sounded better than its predecessors.
Picking up where NBA Live 98 left off in terms of innovation and new content, NBA Live 99 added a practice mode, which took place on a street court. Something I miss about those old practice modes is the ability to shoot at both baskets, rather than being restricted to one half of the court. It’s a small detail and ultimately inconsequential, but I’ve always liked it. Only two games in the entire NBA Live series have allowed that: NBA Live 99, and NBA Live 2000. It’s one of the things on my list of incredibly small and unimportant details that I’d nevertheless like to see implemented again.
The three-point contest returned, and was more or less unchanged. Thankfully, it benefitted from the improved user interface, and although it defaulted to a complete list of every player in the game, it was possible to scroll through each team and select players from their rosters. That might sound like an odd thing to single out as an improvement, but as I mentioned in my NBA Live 98 retrospective, it was kind of cumbersome to select players when setting up a three-point shootout in that game. In terms of roster management, NBA Live 99 didn’t introduce anything new, but did keep the same functionality as NBA Live 98, including the custom teams.
The most significant addition to game modes in NBA Live 99 was multi-season play, something that had been featured in the first couple of NLSC Wishlists. The game was still a year away from adding a fully-fledged Franchise Mode, but NBA Live 99 did introduce the option to play up to ten years when beginning a new Season game. Building on NBA Live 98’s GM Mode, users could choose to hold a fantasy draft if they wished, and there were options to modify CPU teams, as well as override the CPU on any trade offers.
There was no Rookie Draft or free agency, and players didn’t retire, but it was possible to toggle career progression on and off. With the setting enabled, players would develop from season to season, according to their hidden potential attribute. It was essentially a more primitive version of the system that is still used today. Once again though, players didn’t retire or decline, and there was no risk of losing them to free agency, so you could keep star players around for the full ten years if you wanted, without seeing a dip in their performance.
Given what we’ve experienced in later iterations of Franchise and Dynasty Mode, and especially Association, MyGM, and MyLEAGUE in NBA 2K, NBA Live 99’s multiseason play may not sound like a particularly fulfilling game mode. Needless to say, it isn’t anywhere near deep enough to be satisfactory by today’s standards. For the time however, it was an exciting development, and another significant step towards the kind of mode we wanted to see in NBA Live. While that wish would ultimately be granted in NBA Live 2000, NBA Live 99 still provided a season mode experience that was far better than anything that came before it.
As I mentioned, the lockout had a significant impact on NBA Live 99. For the first time since the console versions of NBA Live 95, the game shipped with final rosters from the previous season. Therefore, it didn’t include any offseason transactions or the Class of 1998 rookies, such as Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, and Antawn Jamison. EA Sports would release a bug fix patch in February 1999 that updated the rosters and added the new rookies, a first for the series. The patch also added a 50-game option for Season Mode, as well as the abbreviated 1999 NBA schedule. A second roster update was made available in March, following the trade deadline.
Naturally, there wasn’t anything that could be done about the console versions of NBA Live 99, which were stuck with final 1998 season rosters. Furthermore, because of the small storage capacity of the Nintendo 64’s Controller Pak, the N64 version only included ten slots for created players. Additionally, if you wanted to edit any existing players, you’d have to sacrifice a created player slot for each one that you modified. As is the case with a lot of N64 games, the graphics for that particular version haven’t aged nearly as well. The PlayStation version fares somewhat better, but at that time, the PC release was still far and away the definitive version.
The community at the NLSC spent a considerable amount of time updating the game, too. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of the patches that were made for NBA Live 99, as they were hosted on services such as Geocities and Angelfire, on sites that are now long gone. However, patches ran the gamut from rosters to faces, from courts to jerseys. When NBA Live 2000 was released and introduced Legends to the game, HAWK23 – who you may recognise as the person behind the Ultimate Base Roster for NBA 2K12 and NBA 2K14 – created an update that added its historical content to NBA Live 99.
When I went back and played NBA Live 99 ahead of writing this retrospective, it didn’t exactly surprise me in the same way that NBA Live 98 did. It was pretty much as I remembered it, in terms of both its strengths and its weaknesses. On the bright side, it is as good as I remembered it, and I would still say that it’s a game in the NBA Live series that deserves a little more recognition. Like I said, it’s in a tough spot, released in between two very significant games, so it’s understandable that it’s overlooked.
All the same, it’s unfortunate that it’s a bit underappreciated, as NBA Live 99 was more than just a respectable stepping stone between NBA Live 98 and NBA Live 2000. If you’re after a retro basketball gaming fix these days, I would suggest that it’s just as playable as those two titles. During that time, NBA Live tended to be the best overall NBA game on the market, and NBA Live 99 was no exception. Play the patched and updated PC version and you’ll discover that despite the widely disliked cover, the game within is a quality release.
Stay tuned for more 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content!