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 99.
When I think of overlooked and forgotten basketball video games, NBA Live 99 is one that often comes to mind. It doesn’t help that it came between NBA Live 98, a game that saw a really big leap from the year before, and NBA Live 2000, one of the best games in the NBA Live series. The lockout that threatened the 1999 season is also a major factor, as it meant that NBA Live 99 shipped without updated rosters (and in somewhat of a transitional year for the NBA). On top of that, its cover player, Antoine Walker, has consistently topped the “worst cover player” polls that we’ve run over the years. It’s unfortunate, as NBA Live 99 is actually a strong entry in the series.
Of course, it’s not without its flaws, and it’s probably fair to say that it’s not as big of an improvement on NBA Live 98 as NBA Live 98 was on NBA Live 97. Needless to say, that definitely doesn’t help as far as leaving the same kind of lasting impression. Not only was the bar set higher, but as I mentioned, NBA Live 99 lacked the benefit of updated rosters due to the lockout. In other words, it lacked the one feature that always makes a new game feel fresh, in a genre where new releases are often accused of being little more than roster updates. The PC version would eventually be updated, but even before that, it was more than just NBA Live 98 with a fresh coat of paint.
The system requirements for NBA Live 99 PC were notably higher, and for good reason. Graphics took another step forward, with player faces and models that are noticeably crisper and more detailed. In fact, the faces had improved to the point where the game offered both 2D and 3D portrait options in the menus; in other words, either real photos, or in-game renders of the players’ faces. With the rate that gaming tech was advancing at the time, it wasn’t uncommon to see noticeable improvements to the graphics with every release, and NBA Live 99 unquestionably delivered in that area. NBA Live 2000 would surpass it, but for a year, it was the best that we’d seen.
Presentation remained impressive, as the game retained its NBA on TNT branding and based its in-game overlays on the network’s broadcasts. The late Don Poier, former radio play-by-play announcer for the Vancouver and later Memphis Grizzlies, replaced Verne Lundquist on commentary. Being a one-man booth, his commentary was a little sparse, but his animated delivery also made it livelier. I also enjoy the aesthetic of NBA Live 99’s menus. The effect of panning across an NBA arena was a very appealing background visual, though it was sluggish on weaker systems. The interface was also more user-friendly, with dropdown boxes and less back and forth.
About the only thing I don’t like about NBA Live 99’s UI is the Substitution screen during gameplay. Unlike other PC releases that allow players to be subbed in and out or change positions in the lineup by dragging and dropping, or clicking on one player then another, NBA Live 99 requires you to select a player in the lineup, a player on the bench, and then click a Substitute button. Not too difficult, but a bit slower, and definitely more cumbersome when you want to move a player already on the floor to a different position, since you first need to move them to the bench and then back into the lineup. It’s a small nuisance that I’m reminded of whenever I go back and play it.
Interestingly, Sunday jerseys – as alternates were called back then – were included for teams that had them, such as the Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, Vancouver Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, Miami Heat, and Sacramento Kings. They couldn’t be manually chosen to wear in games however, as there isn’t a jersey selection screen in the pre-game menus. Instead they were randomly used during exhibition games, and worn during Sunday games in Season mode. On PC of course, it was possible to switch files in and out so that the alternate jerseys were the primary uniforms, and vice versa. It wouldn’t be until NBA Live 2003 that we could choose the jerseys that each team would wear.
In terms of gameplay, NBA Live 99 is very similar to NBA Live 98, for better or worse. It retains a lot of the things that made NBA Live 98 a great game, but key issues do remain, which frustrated gamers at the time. There’s more fluidity when moving in the defensive stance, but it’s still stiffer than it should be. Dunks and layups still don’t always trigger on cue, resulting in those awkward leaners that often miss, get blocked, or result in a travel if you’re not careful. Flat-footed rebounds are still the norm, and even following an official patch, swingmen tend to get too many of the boards. On twelve minute quarters, there are still too many steals and turnovers.
On the other hand, NBA Live 99 can respond reasonably well to more realistic tactics. Jumpshots aren’t nearly as viable as they are in modern games though, so if you need to score, they’re to be avoided. On Superstar difficulty, it’s very tough to stop the CPU once it gets into the lane. It took a while before basketball video games really started to properly represent the defensive side of the sport, and before actual player physics were implemented, you were very limited in the tools you had to defend the paint. Your best bet was to hope for a clean block, a steal, or that you got away with a foul. Altering shots and physicality without fouling didn’t really happen back then.
Once again, the pace is a little high for late 90s basketball, and sometimes it feels like the game speeds up in the second half. The shooting percentages are slightly toned down compared to NBA Live 98, however. There are more fouls and free throws, but unskippable overlays and foul line routines do slow things down. Of course, many of the shortcomings in realism are more noticeable now that we’ve experienced superior games, and they didn’t prevent us from enjoying the game when it was new. Indeed, I’ve still had some very satisfying games of NBA Live 99 when I’ve dusted it off, such as one where I came back to win on Superstar after trailing by as many as thirteen.
For anyone who wanted to take a more casual approach to the game, NBA Live 99 also introduced an enhanced “Arcade” setting. All of the early NBA Live games had a game setting that could be toggled between Arcade and Simulation, but it was really only a convenient method of quickly enabling and disabling rules and fatigue. NBA Live 99 took it a step further, though. With the Arcade setting enabled, the players jumped higher for dunks – somewhat resembling NBA Jam in the process – and there were arcade-style audio and visual effects. It wasn’t completely over the top in the style of NBA Jam with unique dunk animations, but it could be a fun change of pace.
Picking up where NBA Live 98 left off in terms of innovation and new content, NBA Live 99 added a practice mode, which took place on a street court. Something I miss about those old practice modes is the ability to shoot at both baskets, rather than being restricted to one half of the court. It’s a small detail and ultimately inconsequential, but I’ve always liked it. Only two games in the entire NBA Live series have allowed that: NBA Live 99, and NBA Live 2000. It’s one of the things on my list of incredibly small and unimportant details that I’d nevertheless like to see implemented again, especially when NBA 2K’s MyCAREER allows it to be done in your MyCOURT.
The Three-Point Shootout returned, and was more or less unchanged. Thankfully, it benefitted from the improved user interface, and although it defaulted to a complete list of every player in the game, it was possible to scroll through each team and select players from their rosters. That might sound like an odd thing to single out as an improvement, but as I noted in my NBA Live 98 retrospective, it was cumbersome to select players when the only option was to scroll through the entire league of players. In terms of roster management, NBA Live 99 didn’t introduce anything new, but did retain all the same functionality as NBA Live 98, including the custom teams.
Looking back, the most significant addition to game modes in NBA Live 99 was multiseason play, something that had been requested in the first couple of NLSC Wishlists. The game was still a year away from adding a fully-fledged Franchise Mode, but NBA Live 99 did introduce the option to play up to ten years when beginning a new Season game. Building on NBA Live 98’s GM Mode, users could choose to hold a fantasy draft if they wished, and there were options to modify CPU teams, as well as override the CPU on trade offers. There was no Draft or free agency however, and players didn’t retire, so you could keep the same team for all ten years.
There was player progression though, and it could also be disabled if you preferred ratings to remain static. Of course, just as players never retired, they didn’t decline, either. Along with the lack of free agency, salaries, and new rookies entering the league, it was still a very primitive form of franchise mode. The CPU-controlled teams didn’t have the best team-building logic either, and would put together some ill-fitting lineups. It was another step in the right direction however, paving the way for Franchise in NBA Live 2000. Such a mode would never be satisfactory now, but in NBA Live 99 it was something new, and an encouraging sign of things to come.
As I mentioned, the lockout had a significant impact on NBA Live 99. For the first time since the console versions of NBA Live 95, the game shipped with final rosters from the previous season, since EA couldn’t include any offseason transactions or Class of 1998 rookies such as Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, and Antawn Jamison. A bug fix patch was released in February 1999, and it also updated the rosters along with the new rookies; a first for the series. The patch also added a 50-game option for Season mode, as well as the abbreviated 1999 NBA schedule. In multi-season play, the 50-game season option would switch back to the full 82 games from Year 2 onwards.
A second roster update was made available in March, following the trade deadline. Naturally, there wasn’t anything that could be done about the console versions of NBA Live 99, which were stuck with final 1998 season rosters. Furthermore, because of the small storage capacity of the Nintendo 64’s Controller Pak, the N64 version only included ten slots for created players. If you wanted to edit any default players, you’d have to sacrifice a created player slot. As is the case with a lot of N64 games, the graphics for that particular version haven’t aged nearly as well. The PlayStation release fares somewhat better, but the PC release was still the definitive version.
The community here at the NLSC spent a considerable amount of time modding the game, too. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of the mods that were made for NBA Live 99 as they were hosted on services such as Geocities and Angelfire, on sites that are now long gone. However, patches ran the gamut from rosters and faces to courts and jerseys. When NBA Live 2000 was released and introduced Legends to the game, HAWK23 – who you may recognise as the person behind the Ultimate Base Roster for NBA 2K12 and NBA 2K14 – created an update that added 2000’s historical content to NBA Live 99, and the game continued to receive new mods years after its release.
NBA Live 99 is probably always going to be somewhat overlooked due to its place in the series, its connection to the first NBA season where games were lost due to a lockout, and yes, the fact that its cover player doesn’t stand out as one of the more popular choices. Nevertheless, despite being in a tough spot, it was a fine game and even improved post-release thanks to two official patches. It was still the best overall NBA sim on the market that year, and is a fine choice for a retro gaming fix. It may not stand out like some of the games that would follow it, but without the progress it made, those subsequent releases may not have reached the level that they did so soon.