To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! First up, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 95.
As I’ve mentioned on many occasions, NBA Live 95 is a title that’s often remembered fondly by long-time basketball gamers. Beyond its significance as the first game in the NBA Live series, it’s also generally considered to be a classic for the way it advanced the genre. Even after 25 years, it holds up remarkably well considering how far basketball video games have come. I always feel nostalgic when I dust off NBA Live 95, but I also find that I’m impressed by the quality and how much fun it can still be, given its age. Let’s look back 25 years to where it all began.
Before we get to NBA Live 95, we need to look at Electronic Arts’ earlier basketball titles. The NBA Playoffs series is EA’s forerunner to NBA Live, and was their first attempt at a simulation basketball series. There were five games in total, with the first three taking their name from the previous year’s Finalists: Lakers vs Celtics, Bulls vs Lakers, and Bulls vs Blazers. Each game featured eight teams from the Playoffs, and the All-Star teams. Team USA Basketball was a spinoff featuring the 1992 Olympic Basketball Tournament. The final game, NBA Showdown – also known as NBA Showdown 94 – included all 27 NBA teams and a season mode with Playoffs.
The NBA Playoffs series feels very primitive now, but in its day, it was impressive. It features signature moves for star players, something that many of its successors didn’t adopt until many years later. For the time, it was a commendably realistic depiction of NBA basketball, though all fouls resulted in free throws, and strategy was limited in comparison to later games. Most importantly, in contrast to Double Dribble and other early hoops titles, the games featured real NBA teams and players. Yes, even Michael Jordan! As I’ve noted in my Wayback Wednesday retrospectives, those games are harder to go back to now, but we can appreciate how advanced they were for their era.
One of the problems with the NBA Playoffs series is that it didn’t improve much year to year. Although this continues to be a criticism of sports games, it’s particularly true of those early basketball titles. One issue that always stands out is the lack of a sprint control. This made it harder to elude defenders or catch up to players with the ball. It also made fast breaks very difficult, as did the inability to catch the ball in stride. The court’s dimensions weren’t in realistic proportion to the players, and by the mid 90s, the games no longer felt as realistic or technologically impressive as they once did. In short, both EA’s games and the sim basketball genre needed a major overhaul.
That’s exactly what happened with NBA Live 95, which proved to be a tremendous leap forward. As noted over on The Cutting Room Floor, unused text in the Genesis version reveals that the game was originally titled NBA Showdown 95. While there’s nothing wrong with that branding, a new name feels only appropriate as NBA Live 95 is basically a whole new game. A sprint control was added, and a new isometric angle showed off improved player and court proportions. Player movement was more free and fluid, with better animations. Strategy was deeper, with more coaching options. Simply put, it was one of the biggest single year jumps in basketball gaming.
As such, NBA Live 95’s reputation as a classic is well-earned. When it was released in 1994, it represented a far better attempt at replicating NBA basketball than ever before. It became the benchmark for all sim hoops games, and we all had a lot of fun with it. In fact, even five years later, my cousin and I found ourselves going back to the PC version to play with the teams of 1995. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy any of the games that came afterwards, but when we felt like reliving that season, NBA Live 95 held up superbly. Not enough time had passed for it to truly be nostalgic yet, but the on-court experience was still extremely enjoyable, just as it is today.
It’s interesting to compare the console and PC versions of the game. Overall, the PC version is superior: it has better graphics and audio, and the actual 1995 season rosters instead of the final 1994 lineups featured in the console version. You can trade every player in the game instead of just the starters for each team, and modify the rosters outside of season mode. Once the appropriate tools were created, we could even mod it. On the other hand, the SNES version had superior controls, featuring both steal and handcheck buttons. On PC, you had to move the defender close enough to their man to automatically start swiping at the ball for a steal, or sprint into them for a push.
Needless to say, that was an inconvenient method that resulted in cheap fouls and a lower number of steals than there should have been. It was rather bizarre given that PC gamepads were not uncommon at the time, and even the keyboard provided plenty of options for a steal and a handcheck button. Aside from the controls, however, the gameplay was more or less the same in all versions. Said gameplay felt a lot better and more realistic than any of its predecessors. Indeed, if you go back and play NBA Live 95 today using more realistic strategies, you’ll be impressed at how it tries to play along and be a simulation; especially if you mess with the strategy options.
Well…kind of. Without the physics and AI of newer games, it has its limitations. It can’t match modern titles that benefit from generations of advancements in gaming technology. However, whereas its predecessors were primitive attempts at making simulation basketball games, NBA Live 95 is a primitive version of the best sim games that have come along since. To put it another way, it has far more in common with NBA Live 19 than it does NBA Showdown. While I certainly wouldn’t choose to play NBA Live 95 regularly over anything that’s come along in the past decade or so, it’s still more than playable, and its strengths are unquestionably still apparent today.
NBA Live 95 included several features that we take for granted in today’s sim games: detailed player ratings, a sprint control (again, not always standard in hoops games back then), roster editing, offensive and defensive strategy options, and instant replay. It didn’t feature any signature moves, but there were plenty of animations that looked great at the time, including some dunks that admittedly weren’t at all sim. They were nevertheless exciting, and were punctuated by the player continuing to point at the defender while running back on defense. If there’s one thing that old school basketball gamers remember about NBA Live 95, it’s all the pointing after big dunks!
Sports games were years away from multiyear franchise modes in 1994, but NBA Live 95 included a robust Season mode. The option to play 26, 52, or 82 games was already present along with full stats tracking, and each Season concluded with custom Playoff brackets based on the standings. The All-Star Game wasn’t yet playable in a Season, but both squads were available for Exhibition play. Meanwhile, a Playoffs mode let us jump into a postseason whenever we liked. Four custom teams allowed us to create our own super rosters to mess around with. It may not sound like much now, but back then, it felt like we had a lot to do on top of the enjoyable gameplay.
Of course, when I go back and play NBA Live 95 today, I’m also reminded of some of the more annoying issues it suffers from. Scores are too high due to the pace, and the correct players aren’t always scoring the most points. Again, the PC version’s limited controls can be quite frustrating. The game can be brutal on All-Star difficulty, which at the time was the highest setting. Jumpshots definitely aren’t reliable enough, which is not unusual in older basketball games. If you want to win, especially on All-Star, at some point you’ll need to ditch the basketball strategy and pound it inside to spam easy baskets in the paint. Even then, you can expect to get blocked way too often.
There are other issues with collisions and a tendency to fly out of bounds when going for rebounds, but those were still the early days of basketball sims. We could overlook quirks and inaccuracies like that because at the time, it was the pinnacle of the genre. No one was doing it better than EA Sports back then, and NBA Live 95 set EA up to have what was easily the best sim-oriented NBA series until NBA 2K came along to challenge it (and eventually, surpass it). NBA Live 95 was far from the last great title in the series, but it couldn’t have started the brand off on a better foot. It laid a strong foundation that allowed NBA Live to be the sim basketball game of the 90s.
Something that I strongly believe is an important part of NBA Live 95, and a lot of the early NBA Live titles for that matter, is the vibe. It sounds like a clichéd buzzword spun by some marketing department, but there is something special about the vibe of NBA Live 95. The atmosphere is perfect, with a great 90s sports game soundtrack that sticks in your head for days after playing it. There’s attitude, with the aforementioned pointing after a big dunk. At the time, the depth of the experience kept us hooked for hours upon hours. All of the best hoops games have this vibe that speaks to our inner basketball fanatic, and draws us into the world of the virtual hardwood.
And of course, NBA Live 95 PC was the title that tipped off our modding culture and community here at the NLSC. Tim, Lutz, and Brien all released utilities for NBA Live 95, which you can still find in our Downloads section. It was a tough game to update, though. To add new players, you’d need to make use of existing names in the text strings, and overwrite them as necessary. This required great care, though there was a lot you could do once you mastered text string editing. Modding became much easier in future games, but thanks to the efforts of our founders, we had some great mods for NBA Live 95. Looking back, I actually kind of enjoyed the challenge of editing it!
Roster mods were very popular as unlike EA’s earlier games, Michael Jordan was not featured in NBA Live 95 (or any game in the series until NBA Live 2000). Charles Barkley, who had also appeared in previous titles, likewise declined to appear in NBA Live 95; he would not appear in the official rosters until NBA Live 98. Although David Robinson appeared in the console version of NBA Live 95, he was absent on PC. There, The Admiral was represented by a Roster Player on the West All-Stars, and replaced by Moses Malone in the Spurs’ starting five. Ron Harper started in place of MJ on the Bulls, while A.C. Green stood in for Sir Charles in the Suns’ lineup.
Speaking of roster oddities, since the PC version’s rosters had been updated through the 1995 trade deadline, Clyde Drexler was on the Houston Rockets, but as their sixth man. The Glide did indeed come off the bench in his first game for the Rockets, but immediately moved into the starting lineup thereafter. Brad Daugherty and Gerald Wilkins meanwhile were included on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster, despite both of them being ruled out for the entire 1995 season. However, as there were no inactive rosters in NBA Live 95 and they were noteworthy players, this was arguably for the best. The PC version also ended the approach of featuring the previous year’s rosters.
When I think of NBA Live 95, I think of a great basketball game that set the standard for EA’s basketball franchise, and simulation hoops games in general. I fondly recall having hours of fun playing it: the rush I’d feel after a big dunk, the satisfaction of hearing the PA Announcer yell “Three!” after knocking down a long bomb, and of course, the accomplishment of winning a virtual NBA Championship for the first time. It’s undoubtedly a classic, and even though it has long been surpassed, it remains one of my all-time favourite basketball games. The NBA Live series may have had its ups and downs, but with NBA Live 95, it got off to a tremendous start.