25th Anniversary of NBA Live: NBA Live 97 Retrospective

25th Anniversary of NBA Live: NBA Live 97 Retrospective

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 97.

Depending on which platform you were playing it on, NBA Live 97 was either a step up from NBA Live 96, or more of the same. If you were playing the game on the 16-bit consoles, you’d notice a couple of new features and some new animations, but it was still quite similar to its predecessor. On PC and PlayStation, however, we saw a far more significant improvement. It wasn’t as big of a jump as NBA Showdown to NBA Live 95 was, but it was still noticeable, especially when it came to graphics. Let’s take a look back at the game that described itself as the “soul of hoops”, and proudly announced that it featured Shaq.

Indeed, let’s start with that last point. One of the key features mentioned on the back of the NBA Live 97 box was that it included Shaquille O’Neal. That may seem like an odd thing to advertise – especially since Mitch Richmond was the cover player that year – but as one of the league’s brightest rising stars, Shaq was rocketing towards the peak of his popularity. He’d also just signed a $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, so he was one of the biggest stories of the 1996 offseason. More to the point however, Shaq was exclusive to NBA Live. You wouldn’t find him in NBA Hangtime, NBA Full Court Press, or any other licensed title; only NBA Live 97.

Shaq dunks in NBA Live 97

Unfortunately, a couple of other popular stars were still missing, namely Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. This time around, all versions of the game included stand-in Roster Players for both of them, with suspiciously similar ratings and bio data that was just slightly off their real information. It was likely a step too far in standing in for those missing players, as Roster Players in future games bore less resemblance to the player they were replacing, ratings aside. In any event, neither MJ nor Sir Charles was officially in NBA Live 97, but their Rosters Players meant that we had ready-made players to overwrite when we updated the rosters on PC.

Speaking of updating the game, roster management received a couple of pleasing upgrades in NBA Live 97 PC. First of all, the Free Agent pool wasn’t empty out of the box; there were a bunch of players in there to round out the rosters and reduce the number of missing journeymen. Second, team rosters were expanded to have fifteen players with three inactive roster slots, and there were a total of 100 slots for created players. We still had to edit a lot of player data externally, and original players still couldn’t be edited in-game, but it was a definite improvement as far as customisation options and accurately representing the real NBA rosters were concerned.

We could also trade multiple players at once for the first time in the series. That’s more or less a given these days, but in NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96, it was all one-for-one deals. The custom Slammers, Jammers, Blockers, and Stealers teams were back once again, and were utilised in the same manner as before. Unfortunately, due to NBA Live 97’s menus being styled in lower case – more on that momentarily – any created players stood out from the original players if you entered their name with any capital letters. Once our founders had developed their editor for NBA Live 97 PC, we were able to correct this issue by editing created player data directly in the roster file.

Scottie Pippen dunks in NBA Live 97

The biggest improvement in NBA Live 97 is easily the jump in graphics. It might be hard to appreciate now in an era where most players get their faces scanned into the game (and the difference is noticeable when a player hasn’t sat for a scan), but for the time, NBA Live 97’s graphics were very good; at least on PC and PlayStation. It’s early on in the 3D age and games from that era generally haven’t aged particularly well, but compare it to NBA Live 96 and you can certainly see the difference. The improvements to Virtual Stadium Technology made the environments more vibrant and the proportions of both the players and the court more realistic.

Not only that, but the players were starting to look like real people; at least by the standards of the mid to late 90s. Their facial features were still generic, but there was more detail than in NBA Live 96. Skin textures were also more muscular and defined, though player models were a bit bulky with boulder shoulders for all players. Jerseys are noticeably better, featuring proper trims, lettering, numbers, and so forth, rather than simply being the correct colours with very basic details and the same numbers for every team. It’s low resolution, but it more closely resembles the detail in today’s games. Of course, the 16-bit versions of NBA Live 97 retained their basic graphics.

If there’s one thing that stands out about the visuals in NBA Live 97, it’s the frontend artwork. Its menus greet you with an aesthetic that’s unmistakably mid 90s. The graffiti and chalk effects in the scrapbook style, the funky cursor, and the complete lack of capital letters anywhere in the text, create a look that screams “EXTREME!” and “KEWL!” from the moment you fire up the game. That’s not a bad thing, though. At the time, it was cool, and these days it only adds to the nostalgia. Along with the music – and NBA Live 97 does have some great original tracks – these aesthetics go a long way in creating a game’s vibe and atmosphere, and NBA Live 97’s is enjoyable.

Main Menu in NBA Live 97

Alright, so NBA Live 97 demonstrates that technology was improving – it was the first PC release in the series to demand a Pentium processor, after all – but how did it play? In terms of gameplay, it’s not very different from NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96, which did come as a disappointment for gamers who were hoping for a bigger leap in that area. It doesn’t respond too badly to being played in a realistic manner, but the mechanics are still primitive and “video game strategies” work a lot better when you need to get the win. We were still a long way from having more sophisticated AI, so players often pass the ball around aimlessly before taking a shot late in the clock.

Two issues that I always notice when I revisit NBA Live 97 PC are the lack of a steal button – the same as in NBA Live 95 and 96 – and the difficulty in getting blocks. The latter was likely an attempt to address the inflated amount of blocks in the previous games, but if so it was definitely an overcorrection. Interestingly, while many games in the NBA Live series have had problems with point guards being overpowered and taking too many shots, NBA Live 97 instead favoured centres and small forwards. Other than that, the amount of realism is what you’d expect for the era: about the same as the two games that came before it, and overall better than other titles on the market.

In short, advances in technology were allowing NBA Live to look better, but weren’t having a significant impact on the gameplay just yet. Player physics, collisions, and AI were still pretty much the same as the year before, but again, they were more than acceptable for the time. NBA Live 97 was far from a bad game and it’s one that we could enjoy, but as with NBA Live 96, its weaknesses were as familiar as it strengths. I’d still call it the best NBA sim of the 1997 season and solid all around given the tech EA Sports were working with back then, but it’s not remembered as a standout title in the series. It did the job, but it’s fair to say that gamers were expecting a bit more of it.

Heat vs 76ers in NBA Live 97

On a more positive note, there were new animations; new dunks and layups that did look more realistic, especially in the PC and PlayStation versions. It was still the days of 360 dunks in traffic and other unlikely and implausible moves, but with the new player models they did look more lifelike. Automatic replays were also introduced, and their frequency could be toggled. The old illegal defense rule was implemented, preventing the unrealistic strategy of camping a great rebounder and/or shot blocker in the lane when it was enabled. These were all steps towards the game becoming the realistic sim we dreamed of having back then, and were welcome improvements.

It wasn’t given a lot of attention or promotion on the back of the box, but NBA Live 97 also featured NBA on TNT branding. This arrangement brought Ernie Johnson into the fold, with EJ providing voiceovers for the pre-game, quarter break, and post-game screens. NBA on TNT logos can also be spotted on the courtside dornas. The PA Announcer audio has also been expanded beyond simply calling out “Three!” when a shot is made from beyond the arc. Player names are announced when a basket is scored, along with the name of the player who picked up the assist if applicable. There wasn’t any play-by-play commentary yet, but that wouldn’t be far away.

Game modes remained more or less the same in NBA Live 97, with the PC and PlayStation versions featuring exhibition play, Season mode, and a standalone Playoffs mode. The 16-bit version actually gains a surprise victory here as it also included two-on-two and three-on-three halfcourt modes, which could be fun to play in between Season mode games, and made up for the lack of improvements in other areas. It’s interesting that these modes weren’t included in the superior PC and PS1 versions, but they’re not really missed that much. I can appreciate the effort that went into them though, especially as the 16-bit consoles were being phased out.

Kings vs Magic in NBA Live 97

I’ve mentioned a few of the features that made their debut in NBA Live 97, but the game had a couple of other firsts worth noting. The PC version introduced roster saves, meaning we could save and load multiple custom rosters. This facilitated multiple roster mods, though since the data for all original players was still stored in the game’s executable, we still needed to edit and patch the exe file in addition to distributing the saved roster file. NBA Live 97 also introduced halftime shows, which featured highlight clips from the previous season, and shots of cheerleaders dancing. At the time, including real video clips in a game was still an enjoyable novelty.

It’s also the only PC release to come with separate DOS and Windows versions on the same disc. This made the game more accessible if you had an older system, but one drawback is that the aforementioned roster saves were specific to either the DOS or Windows version of the game. Fortunately, Tim created a tool that allowed data to be transferred between the DOS and Windows versions. The tool made it much easier to create roster mods that could be enjoyed by all users, as there was no need to double your workload with two releases. A few graphics mods were also made for NBA Live 97, and a handful of those old releases can still be found in our Downloads section.

I don’t have as much nostalgia for NBA Live 97 as I do for NBA Live 95 and NBA Live 96; not because it’s an inferior game, but because it doesn’t have the same sentimental attachments for me personally. It wasn’t the first game in the series that I played, as NBA Live 95 was, nor was it the first game that I owned on PC, as was the case with NBA Live 96. Until my family upgraded our rapidly aging 486 PC, I also had to play it on lower settings and endure longer loading times, so while I could appreciate all the good things it did, I wasn’t able to enjoy them as much at the time. I also owned the Super Nintendo version, but it did feel quite dated at that point.

Shawn Kemp at the free throw line (NBA Live 97)

With all that being said, NBA Live 97 may be slightly underrated from an historical perspective. It was the best NBA sim of its day, and although it has its faults, gamers still sunk a lot of hours into modding and playing it. It’s the bridge between the 16-bit era and the next generation, as NBA Live 98 would introduce 3D acceleration and real player faces to the series. It has a great atmosphere with a memorable aesthetic, and continued to add small touches that would become staples of the genre. NBA Live 97 wasn’t able to live up to everyone’s expectations, but the series was still building towards bigger and better things. In 1997, it was indeed the soul of hoops.

Stay tuned throughout the rest of 2019 for more 25th Anniversary of NBA Live content! Share your thoughts in the comments below, and join in the discussion here in the NLSC Forum!

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