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Monday Tip-Off: Nostalgia in Basketball Gaming

Vince Carter dunks in NBA 2K11

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with a few thoughts on nostalgia in basketball gaming.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Deconstructing it as a concept is a little beyond a site dedicated to covering basketball video games but suffice to say, experts who know a lot more about psychology and sociology than I do have identified both positive and negative aspects of nostalgia. Nevertheless, I’d say that for most of us, it’s a healthy indulgence of our old favourites, whether it’s video games, television shows, films, music, sporting moments, or whatever. It’s often fun to reminisce, not to mention good fodder for discussion and debate.

Basketball games appeal to our nostalgia with retro content such as historical teams, but old hoops games themselves also hold a certain appeal. It’s fair to say that many of us are nostalgic for the titles we grew up playing; I know I am, which is why I enjoy producing my weekly Wayback Wednesday feature. We also hold up the best releases from yesteryear as a benchmark for new games, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we do want to see basketball games continue to improve, especially when it comes to the annual releases. However, it is possible to get caught up in nostalgia, judging new games unfairly and exaggerating the quality of older titles.

A topic was recently posted in the Forum, opening up the discussion as to which basketball game is the greatest of all-time. As with most debates of that nature, it’s tough to reach a consensus, and people tend to have strong opinions on the matter. Accusations of living in the past and getting caught up in the moment are hurled by both sides, as the contentious Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James discussions continue to demonstrate. The issue of where your bias lies – in nostalgia, or in the now – always permeates Old vs. New debates, emotion and ad hominem filling in where empirical evidence or widely accepted standards are insufficient (or indeed, nonexistent).

NBA 2K11 Celebrates and Appeals to Nostalgia

When it comes to video games of any genre, it’s an interesting situation. Technology has undeniably improved since the early days of video games, but better graphics and other technological advances alone don’t make a game better. In terms of providing a fun and satisfying experience, there are a lot of gamers who would probably rank Super Mario Bros. 3, in all of its 8-bit glory, ahead of certain modern games that seem to be more flash than substance (not to mention in need of a Day One Patch). At the same time, design concepts have improved, and better tech has allowed for features and experiences that are far beyond what was possible many years ago.

One of the tricky things about basketball games is that they’re based on a real sport, and so comparisons to reality are therefore inevitable. The sim games are far more realistic than their early predecessors, with better tech not only resulting in superior graphics over the years, but more sophisticated AI and deeper, more immersive modes. NBA Live 18 is far more advanced than NBA Live 95 in so many ways, just as NBA 2K18 makes the original NBA 2K look very primitive. However, in terms of delivering an enjoyable experience, those primitive predecessors can sometimes still hold their own against their technologically superior successors.

Of course, expectations have changed over time, and the bar has been raised. One of the things I try to do with Wayback Wednesday is to look at games through the lens of the era and put things in a historical perspective, while also evaluating how well a game holds up. That’s not always easy, especially when you hold a certain amount of nostalgia for a particular title. It’s all too easy to make excuses for older games, or continue to hold them up as the pinnacle of basketball gaming even when they’ve been far surpassed in many aspects by the games that have followed. After all, a new game may be technically superior, but the old game holds more personal appeal.

NBA Live 2000 Celebrates and Appeals to Nostalgia

Again, individual tastes and expectations play a big role here. I think it’s safe to say that not everyone necessarily enjoys the fact that basketball games have become more realistic, either because it’s not what they wanted, or they didn’t take into account what more realism would entail. Similarly, setting the bar higher and higher – while understandable given how far basketball games have come – also sets us up for greater disappointment when those expectations aren’t met. When that happens, we tend to default back to the last game that really resonated with us, meeting or exceeding our expectations, and declare it to be the last great game, or the best of all-time.

Needless to say, nostalgia is obviously a major factor here, influencing our criteria as we set our personal benchmarks. There have been some standout titles over the years, some of which are commonly cited as the best basketball game of all-time, or at least the best game within their respective series. NBA Live 2000 and NBA 2K11 are two examples as far as the sim-oriented basketball games are concerned. It’s worth noting that both games are fantastic with elements that still hold up today, and when they were released, they were worthy candidates to be considered the best sim hoops titles to date. As every year has passed, however, they’ve become a little more outdated.

It’s admittedly been a while since NBA Live 2000 has been called the best basketball game ever made, which isn’t surprising given its age and the number of quality games that have come out since, from EA Sports and Visual Concepts. It is quite popular to suggest that NBA 2K11 remains the pinnacle of the NBA 2K series however, and that is certainly debatable. In the aforementioned topic, it’s been pointed out that the game isn’t perfect from top to bottom, and that some of its best features are present in other titles as well. There are aspects of NBA 2K11, such as its controls, that do feel dated now. That doesn’t make it a bad game, but it doesn’t remain unsurpassed in all areas.

Michael Jordan dunks the basketball in NBA Street Vol. 2

The situation becomes even more complicated when you throw the arcade games into the mix. Games in the NBA Jam and NBA Street series tend to hold up better because they don’t rely on being realistic, and both were very well designed, which means the appeal of their gameplay still endures. The older games are dated in their own ways, though as they aren’t annual releases, the best titles stand out a little easier. It’s tricky to compare them with the sim titles because of their different appeal. The GQ article calling NBA Street Vol. 2 the best basketball video game of all-time (with nothing since coming close) is a good example of this, even if it wasn’t the piece’s intention.

NBA Street Vol. 2 is an exceptional game, a lot of fun, and a candidate for the best arcade basketball game to date. If you’re not a fan of the arcade style, prefer the sim style, or are only looking to rank the games that try to realistically depict the NBA, titles like NBA Jam and NBA Street aren’t relevant. If a sim-oriented basketball game is what you’re after, then not only is NBA 2K18 a better choice than NBA Street Vol. 2, but so is NBA Live 2004, a great game released the same year. In terms of arcade games, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition is also one of the best titles to date. I’m not saying that you can’t advocate for older releases, but nostalgia can make us a little myopic.

Within our community in particular, there’s another aspect to consider: modding. There have been games that are quite flawed in terms of their gameplay and features, but extremely moddable. Some people would seem to prefer to mod a broken game than play a much better but less modder-friendly one. To each their own, and it’s worth noting that mods can sometimes greatly enhance the gameplay experience, but there are limits on what we can fix ourselves. Furthermore, the most detailed total conversion mod still can’t mask game-breaking flaws. Nostalgia for modding can make us forget that some games, while customisable, were not very good at all.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Charlotte Hornets in NBA Live 95

At the end of the day, we’re all free to indulge our own nostalgia. If we enjoy an older game more than a newer one, that’s fine. Newer isn’t always better, after all. A lot of old games do hold up extremely well, and there are arguments to be made for them when we’re discussing the best basketball games to date. I love dusting off an old favourite, but it’s easy enough to get caught up in nostalgia, ignoring its flaws and limitations. A game may remain one of the best of its era, and a standout title in its own right, but as the years go by, it’s more and more likely to be surpassed. It may still be fun and nostalgic, but no longer the pinnacle of virtual basketball.

Putting aside nostalgia is tough, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with admiring and respecting the past. I also believe that basketball games should appeal to nostalgia with their extra content, and even features such as retro camera angles. When it comes to evaluating them however, we can get caught up with the idea that the old games we enjoyed so much are still the height of basketball gaming, even though technological advancements have meant deeper and more realistic games. Personal preference and nostalgia is valid, but often stands in the way of accurate critique. The sim vs. arcade debate complicates things further, as they each have their own standards of quality.

Given that I enjoy retro gaming and produce the Wayback Wednesday feature every week, I’m one of the last people who’ll insist that you leave old favourites in the past, or accept new games without comparison or critique. Basketball games have come a long way though, and as far as the goal of replicating the real NBA is concerned, a lot of the older games have been surpassed. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still fun, and that is a factor to consider in the debate. It’s easy to fall victim to our nostalgia, but we should indulge and enjoy it, too. Classics don’t always remain the pinnacle of their genre, but they’re still worth remembering, respecting, and of course, revisiting.

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Travis Jackson
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Travis Jackson

Great article. The first game I ever played was bulls vs blazers on my cousin super Nintendo and I love me some jam. Question. Do you think it would be a good idea for 2k to bring back retro filters for classic teams?