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! Today, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 96.
While NBA Live 95 tipped everything off, it could be said that the release of NBA Live 96 is what established NBA Live as a series. The NBA Playoffs series had seen annual releases and the reuse of the NBA Playoffs branding in its early titles, but they also stood apart with distinct names: Lakers vs Celtics, Bulls vs Lakers, and Bulls vs Blazers. NBA Live 96 ensured that NBA Live 95 wouldn’t be a once-off branding in the lineage, as NBA Live 95 itself was originally intended to do for NBA Showdown. The question is, was NBA Live 96 a worthy successor to an undisputed classic? Did it deserve its back of the box tagline of “Back-to-Back Champion”?
Looking back, it was a brash tagline and a bold claim to make, though a clever bit of marketing. The Houston Rockets were fresh off back-to-back championships, NBA Live 95 had been a great starting point for the series after leaving the NBA Playoffs lineage behind, and NBA Live 96 brought some great new features to the table. Not everyone at the time agreed with it, however. Even though NBA Live 96 is one of my all-time favourite basketball games, I can see where they were coming from. It wasn’t the huge jump over NBA Live 95 that NBA Live 95 was over NBA Showdown, so it feels less impressive. The tech wasn’t there yet, though it was around the corner.
As such, in many ways, NBA Live 96 is a very similar game to NBA Live 95. On the bright side, NBA Live 96 is a very similar game to NBA Live 95: a release that’s still considered a classic, and as I mentioned in my retrospective, holds up quite well. The gameplay is more or less the same as the previous year, on both PC and SNES. The PC version still didn’t have a steal button despite a whole keyboard and various multi-button PC gamepads to choose from, though it was visually superior to both the SNES version and NBA Live 95. Although the SNES version lacked a noticeable upgrade to both its aesthetics and gameplay, it benefited from new animations the same as on PC.
One new wrinkle to gameplay that was introduced in NBA Live 96 PC was on-the-fly playcalling, allowing gamers to run four different plays using the function keys. Each team had their own default plays, but it was possible to assign the play of your choice to each of the four keys through the Strategy menu. You could also see how they were supposed to be run thanks to an animated diagram in the menu, something that was ahead of its time. Needless to say, the playcalling logic was primitive and therefore not as effective as modern games, but it was functional. It was unquestionably a step up over only being able to choose one offensive and defensive play in NBA Live 95.
The PC version also introduced Virtual Stadium Technology, enhancing the court and stadium models and allowing for multiple camera angles in both gameplay and instant replay. It’s something we take for granted now, but it was a first for the series and a rarity in basketball video games at the time. Team rosters were expanded to fourteen players with two inactive slots, and the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors were added. A Free Agent pool was also added, Create-a-Player debuted, and the four custom teams were retained. Team art was updated for the 1996 season.
For those who don’t remember, there was a lockout during the 1995 offseason. While it didn’t result in any games being cancelled, it did delay rookie signings, free agency, and player movement in general. As a result of their earlier release, the SNES and SEGA Genesis versions of NBA Live 96 feature final 1995 season rosters, with no Class of 1995 rookies and the 1995 Expansion Draft unaccounted for. To compensate, those versions include an Expansion Draft that can be completed manually for one or both teams, or simulated. Oddly, the simulated results are randomised rather than real, though it’s still a nifty feature that makes the 16-bit console versions unique.
EA Sports also included a way to get the Class of 1995 rookies into the game. There were a handful of Roster Players scattered throughout the rosters, and these made up the Create-a-Player slots. By entering the names of various rookies such as Kevin Garnett, Joe Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Antonio McDyess, Brent Barry, Bryant Reeves, and so on, the game would automatically fill in their bio data and ratings. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley could also be quickly added to the roster in this way, along with a bunch of retired Legends such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. These Easter eggs and roster-fixing methods are also unique to NBA Live 96.
Since the PC version of NBA Live 96 was released later than the console versions, its rosters were updated to include the class of 1995 rookies, and also accounted for the results of the 1995 Expansion Draft. It also utilised empty roster spots for its created players, rather than editing placeholders; as such, as it doesn’t include any prepared data for missing players. The PC’s roster management screens are less cumbersome than on SNES and Genesis, though they don’t include any extra functionality such as editing jersey numbers for original players, or entering extended bio data. Of course, the PC version was easier to externally mod, once the tools were developed.
The PlayStation version could be described as being somewhere in between the PC and 16-bit releases as far as its content and features are concerned. It includes updated rosters and rookies, along with a couple of veterans who are missing in the PC version. It lacks Create/Edit Player functionality however, though there are Roster Players in place of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley As for its visuals and gameplay, it’s basically the PC version, though it does have a steal button like the SNES release. All things considered, the PC release is the best version of the game, though the lack of a steal button remains a puzzling design choice all these years later.
Taking into account all of these new features – expanded playcalling, deeper roster management, multiple camera angles, enhanced presentation, and new animations – NBA Live 96 is an improvement over NBA Live 95. Compared to the year-to-year changes of the NBA Playoffs series, NBA Live 96’s improvements over the previous game are far more significant. The problem is that while it feels like NBA Live 95 in all the good ways, it’s also familiar in the bad ways as well. The little things that are bothersome in NBA Live 95 are still present, and the positive aspects of gameplay don’t seem as impressive because they no longer represent a huge leap forward.
Take the legacy issues with player momentum, for example. It was still possible to take running three-point attempts where a player will end up landing far inside the arc. Similarly, players often flew out of bounds when grabbing rebounds, leading to cheap turnovers. Blocks were still too plentiful, especially on dunk attempts. Strategic and realistic play was possible to an extent, but the AI was pretty much the same as it was in NBA Live 95. Video game strategies still had to be used in order to win on a regular basis. I remember strategy guides advising against taking long twos because they weren’t viable enough, having the same risk as threes without the added reward.
Despite these issues, I had a great time with NBA Live 96 back then, and I know that other gamers can say the same. Top to bottom, its still the most complete and polished NBA sim for 1996. Games like NBA ShootOut (aka Total NBA ’96) and NBA Full Court Press have their charm and a couple of things that they did better, but NBA Live 96 was simply superior across the board. NBA Live 95’s single isometric camera angle carries a lot of nostalgia, but the new broadcast style angles and other camera options in NBA Live 96 changed the atmosphere and feel of the gameplay for the better. If nothing else, the gameplay didn’t take any drastic steps backwards.
That’s something I can appreciate even more over twenty years later, in a time when new releases aren’t always better than their predecessors, and post-release updates can end up ruining a game. NBA Live 96 also started a trend that we’d see throughout the early years of the series, where attention to detail and small additions here and there could be found every year. In the PC version, the All-Star Game was added to the schedule in Season mode, though the rosters were the same as the default. We could jump ahead in the schedule and sim to a chosen date. It was even possible to export a custom roster from a Season game; a feature that’s unique to NBA Live 96 PC.
On a personal note, NBA Live 96 is also the game that got me into roster editing. I’d pore over magazines and scribble down notes after catching up on the news through episodes of NBA Action. When my family got connected to the Internet, I not only found better resources for NBA news and information, but a site called the NBA Live Series Center; you may have heard of it. When I discovered the tools and patches that Tim, Lutz, Brien, and other members of what was then a much smaller community were making, I was blown away. Finally, my created Michael Jordan could have his proper date of birth and Draft information! I was hooked, and the rest is history.
I should also mention that it wasn’t all fun and games getting the PC version to run. Although the game may look very primitive now, it did require decent specs for 1996. My family’s 486 DX2/66 with a whopping 8 MB of RAM could get the job done, but for the best performance, I had to use a boot disk. Ironically, it’s easier to get the game up and running on a modern system through DOSBOX! At one point my disc also got slightly scratched and wouldn’t run or install the game past 48%. A disc repair kit got it working again, but when I found a second copy of NBA Live 96 going cheap, I bought it as a spare. That’s how much I didn’t want to be without my favourite game!
To this day, I’m a big fan of NBA Live 96 PC’s presentation. In addition to the crisper visuals during gameplay, the menus are slick and polished. The layout was essentially the same as NBA Live 95 PC, but the artwork was more vibrant, the animated ticket popping out of the slot on the main menu looked cool, and the shiny gold buttons just made everything look classier. NBA Live 96 also had a great jazzy soundtrack that I’ve always really liked. Whenever I fire up the game and I’m greeted by those menus and I hear that music, I’m always hit by a wave of nostalgia. Original music is one of the things that I really miss from the early days of NBA Live and basketball gaming.
It’s also worth noting that NBA Live 96 is the first title in the series to feature a standalone cover player, at least for certain versions of the game. Both the PC and PlayStation versions feature Shaquille O’Neal on the cover, while the SNES and Genesis versions feature a skybox view of a game from the 1995 NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. Shaq’s cover established the trend of having a marquee player, rather than an action shot taken from the previous season. All NBA Live games since have followed this trend, and of course the choice of cover player has become a point of interest and prominent selling point for basketball video games.
How would I sum up NBA Live 96? Honestly, I feel it’s a little underrated. It wasn’t the first game in the series, so it doesn’t stick out in a lot of gamers’ memories the same way NBA Live 95 does. It didn’t add a new mode of play, nor did it see a huge improvement in gameplay, so it’s not remembered as a milestone game. It was and is all too easy to write it off as an updated NBA Live 95, but that isn’t fair. After all, it introduced several staples that we now take for granted: the All-Star Game during Season play, multiple camera angles, Create-a-Player, and on-the-fly-playcalling to name a few. Details like Dennis Rodman’s changing hair colour are also memorable.
Even the console versions were unique with the Expansion Draft and Easter Eggs in Edit Player. For a title that was released as gaming was transitioning from the 16-bit era to the early 3D age – a generation that hasn’t necessarily aged well – NBA Live 96 still holds up in many ways. Yes, it helped that the positive attributes of its gameplay were established with NBA Live 95, and no, it wasn’t a quantum leap forward, but it was a strong follow-up to a landmark release. In its day, it was the gold standard for NBA sims, and for that, I’d put it right up there with NBA Live 95. It’s a game that I’m still very fond of to this day, and one that arguably deserves some more recognition.