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 98.
In a Friday Five some five years ago, I discussed the five biggest leaps in basketball video games, within the span of one production cycle. While I stand by the choices I made when compiling that countdown, I have to admit that it was a mistake not to at least include NBA Live 98 as an honourable mention. Whenever I dust off the game for a trip down memory lane, I not only recall a lot of the improvements that were made over NBA Live 97, but also that it’s a game I personally underrated for a long time. I never disliked it or thought it was a bad game, but because I didn’t buy the PC version as soon as it came out, I didn’t appreciate how good it was back then.
So, what’s so great about it? Well, as I said in my introduction, it’s a candidate for one of the biggest improvements we’ve seen in the span of a year. The PC and PlayStation versions of NBA Live 98 saw some noticeable visual improvements, particularly in terms of player detail. It was the first game in the series to support 3D acceleration, which meant it had the best version of Virtual Stadium Technology yet. Players had real faces rather than generic facial details that somewhat resembled them, and the jerseys, courts, and arenas were also more detailed. Compared to its predecessors, NBA Live 98 looked sharper, slicker, and more realistic than ever before.
Of course, the 3D era of gaming was still in its infancy, and like a lot of games from that time, the visuals of NBA Live 98 haven’t aged particularly well. Although the detail on the players’ faces is great for a game of that vintage, their head models are blocky and generic. The animations, though far more life-like than the first three games in the NBA Live series, do look primitive today. As such, it can be harder for younger games to truly appreciate that NBA Live 98’s graphics were a tremendous leap forward. Even old gamers may be inclined to wonder “Why did we think that looked good?” Well, by 1997 standards, the game did indeed look fantastic!
While we’re talking about the aesthetics of NBA Live 98, the overall presentation definitely deserves a mention. Whereas NBA Live 97’s menus encapsulated the trends of the mid 90s, NBA Live 98’s frontend is late 90s tech chic. The vibe is futuristic and high-tech, with the five NBA players that provided mo-cap – Larry Johnson, Christian Laettner, Mitch Richmond, Joe Dumars, and cover player Tim Hardaway – also being featured at random in the background. It’s not my favourite style, but it is definitely distinct. More importantly, NBA Live 98 retains NBA on TNT branding with accurate TV-style overlays, apart from the addition of the EA Sports logo here and there.
EA Sports definitely tried to capture more of a TV feel with NBA Live 98. Once again Ernie Johnson provides studio voiceover during the pre-game, post-game, and quarter break screens. Play-by-play commentary made its debut in the series, with Verne Lundquist on the call. It’s not anywhere near as detailed as modern games, or even the games that immediately followed it, but it’s a welcome improvement over a complete lack of commentary. When you pause the game, the camera pans up into the rafters and the menu appears alongside the arena scoreboard, which displays the current score as well as the stats for the home team. I’ve always liked that small touch.
NBA Live 98 expanded upon user control, and thankfully, the PC version finally made use of multi-button gamepads (and the entire keyboard) by actually including a steal button! NBA Live 98 also added the ability to pivot, as well as perform moves such as crossovers, spin moves, and ball fakes. It was the first game in the series to feature direct passing and switching – often referred to as icon passing and switching these days – and a defensive stance control. Again, it’s very basic compared to what we have now, but it was the first game in the NBA Live series with a control scheme reminiscent of modern games (aside from the obvious lack of dual analog controls).
Indeed, you could say that about the gameplay in general. While it’s outdated now and nowhere near the level of more advanced games, NBA Live 98 is the first release in the series to look, feel, and play like a modern basketball title. There aren’t as many outrageous dunks, as there was definitely a focus on making the action look more realistic to match the enhanced graphics. On Superstar difficulty – a new difficulty setting that was introduced in NBA Live 98 – the game offers up a good challenge. While it’s too fast paced for late 90s NBA basketball, and the shooting percentages are skewed somewhat high, you can otherwise achieve relatively realistic scores and stats.
Of course, the gameplay isn’t without its quirks. Most of the contact occurs on the perimeter with players shoving the ballhandler, often when you don’t want them to. On the other hand, you’re pretty much free to hand-check players without the ball, and at times the game is pretty lenient about letting you get away with knocking down players who are dribbling, or even shooting. As a result, there aren’t enough free throws, and perimeter players get into foul trouble more often than bigs. Layups and dunks still don’t always trigger on cue, leading to awkward leaners far too often. Also, the animations when using Direct Pass to walk rather than jog or sprint are quite bad.
Movement while in the defensive stance is also stiff. There are far too many steals and turnovers – often on knockdowns that aren’t called fouls – and not enough blocks and altered shots in the lane. When it comes to rebounds, most of them are flat footed; in fact, jumping will usually leave you at a disadvantage! It’s also way too easy to step out of bounds, as well as force the CPU into turnovers that way. The AI does play a decent, yet unsophisticated brand of basketball; it still utilises “video game tactics”, and so that’s still your best bet for success, too. There’s more realism than in the first three games in the series, but there’s also still a lot of room for improvement.
Having said that, the expansion of the controls was a big deal for the PC version, and by 1997 basketball video game standards, it’s not a stretch to say the gameplay is very good. Because it is starting to resemble the NBA Live and NBA 2K games of today, it’s a lot easier to go back to and play NBA Live 98 like a modern release…to a point. I’ve found that quite a few older games do hold up quite well in that regard, in some cases better than I remembered, and NBA Live 98 is one of them. It makes you realise that we weren’t trying to play as realistically as we thought we were, though since we weren’t always rewarded for doing so, it stands to reason we took liberties as well.
The big new feature in NBA Live 98 that long-time gamers will remember fondly is the Three-Point Shootout. It functions the same way the Shootout does in later NBA Live games: one button to pick up the ball, another button to shoot, time your release properly with a good shooter for the best chance of success. The presentation is fine, the gameplay elements are fine, and the only real nitpick I can make is that the player selection screen is somewhat cumbersome. Instead of cycling through the teams to pick players, the entire league is presented as one big list, sorted by team. It’s more scrolling and messing around than is ideal, but again, it’s a minor criticism.
NBA Live 98 also introduced the forerunner to Franchise and Dynasty: GM Mode. There’s no multi-season play in GM Mode – that would have to wait until next year – nor are there salaries, or team management tasks beyond trading and signing players. However, it does present the option to customise the league and hold a Fantasy Draft if desired, on top of the usual Season Mode functions. Truthfully, it’s basically just a slightly enhanced version of Season Mode, but it was another first step, testing the waters as far as going beyond the traditional Season experience. In that regard, it’s fair to say that it laid the foundation for the Franchise modes that would follow it.
Par for the course in late 90s basketball games, Michael Jordan was absent from NBA Live 98, as he still retained full control over his likeness rights and EA weren’t able to come to terms with him. As such, he was once again replaced on the Chicago Bulls by a Roster Player, whose abilities were Jordan-like enough to stand in for His Airness until you hit up Create-a-Player, or overwrote him by externally editing the roster. On the other hand, Charles Barkley made his first official appearance in the NBA Live series. His presence resulted in a screenshot on the back of the box, though it wasn’t promoted as a selling point as it had been with Shaquille O’Neal in NBA Live 97.
Speaking of roster management, NBA Live 98 took a new approach to custom teams. Rather than being presented with four ready-made custom teams – the Slammers, Jammers, Blockers, and Stealers – users could now brand their own custom teams, before copying players to their rosters. The ability to edit existing players was also added, offering a quick way to change jersey numbers and ratings. Changing other values required external editing, which was now much easier with the roster files being in DBF format. With all the new textures, Tim, Lutz, and Brien continued to develop their modding tools, and more art mods were produced than ever before.
The PC version of NBA Live 98 was unquestionably the definitive version of the game. Although the PlayStation version was essentially the same out of the box, its graphics were inferior, and it obviously lacked the capability to be patched. The PC version also received an official update, which addressed a few issues. As for the Super Nintendo release, it was basically just an updated version of NBA Live 97, with an all-time user records screen and some practice modes added. It was also never released in PAL regions, and not surprisingly, it was the final game in the series to be made available on Super Nintendo, ending NBA Live’s run on the 16-bit generation.
Something else that placed NBA Live 98 PC above all other versions is that it was the first game in the series to feature in-game saves; a feature that was also included in NBA Live 99 and NBA Live 2000, but has been missing from Live ever since. Such a feature is incredibly handy, especially if you prefer to play twelve minute quarters. With a bit of work, it also facilitated the creation of scenarios, which could be shared with other gamers. Considering its absence in subsequent NBA Live titles, it’s funny to think that in-game saving was first included in a game that came out way back in 1997. Back then, EA Sports were being extremely innovative with NBA Live
Once again, what strikes me the most when I go back and play NBA Live 98 is just how advanced it was for the time, and how much it improved upon NBA Live 97 in both graphics and gameplay. Because our family’s PC was getting long in the tooth, I couldn’t play NBA Live 98 when it was new. I remember downloading the demo and trying to get it to run, and although it did, it chugged along at less than a frame per second! The more I’ve revisited it in the years since with a system that can run it just fine, the more I appreciate it and the higher I rank it among other games in the series, as well as my own personal favourites. NBA Live 98 really was a great game.
As NBA Live has endured several struggles over the past couple of generations, it may be very difficult for younger gamers to imagine – and indeed, older gamers to remember – a time when it was the brand leader for NBA sim games. However, that was certainly the case back in the day, and I believe NBA Live 98 stands out as an example of why the series was on top. At the time, EA Sports was being innovative with its advances in NBA Live’s graphics and gameplay, as well as its modes and features. They were trying hard to cram in as many improvements and additions as they could within the space of a year, and their efforts paid off with great results.
For a title from the early days of basketball gaming – obviously not as ancient as Lakers vs. Celtics, but still very early on in the 3D era – NBA Live 98 has something of a quiet legacy. It’s often remembered fondly, but not to the same extent as NBA Live 2000 (a high point in the series) or NBA Live 95 (the beloved first game that tipped it off). Despite its innovations, it also doesn’t enjoy the same reputation, or reverence, as milestone twenty-first century releases such as NBA Live 2005 and NBA 2K11. That’s a shame though, as NBA Live 98 was a significant release, and one that should be held in high regard for pushing basketball gaming to new heights.