Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of five features in modern basketball games that are older than you may realise.
We’ve seen some really cool features in basketball video games over the past couple of generations. Extensive historical content, brilliant presentation, and innovative approaches to modes, have all continued to push the basketball gaming experience further and further. Not every idea pans out, and there are always some of us who prefer an old school approach when it comes to certain features, but the amount of innovation and creativity is still very impressive. Of course, not all of those concepts and features are necessarily brand new ideas.
As I’ve discussed in many Wayback Wednesday features, there was an impressive amount of innovation in several early basketball video games as well. Modern tech has allowed developers to push the envelope even further, but it’s interesting and sometimes surprising when we look back and see that certain features were attempted many years ago, with varying degrees of success. That isn’t a bad thing, as good and creative ideas should be revisited when the technology allows them to be even better, perhaps even the way that they were originally envisioned. Those original attempts do deserve credit though, as they demonstrate that some features are older than we think.
1. Retro Presentation (NBA Jam 2004)
I referred to this 2003 release from Acclaim as The Forgotten NBA Jam when I took a look back at it for Wayback Wednesday, and for good reason. Every remembers the original NBA Jam games by Midway (as well as NBA Hangtime), the more recent reboots by EA Sports, and in some cases, the far less warmly received 5v5 titles by Acclaim. This overlooked attempt at returning to the series’ roots was a decent game with some noteworthy features, including our first older-than-you-think feature: retro presentation. A lot of basketball gamers may think that retro presentation begins and ends with NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12, but NBA Jam 2004 did it first.
The retro presentation in question was featured in the game’s Legends Tournament mode. In the mode, you’re tasked with taking on teams of Legends beginning with the 50s squad, and working your way through each era. To set the mood, the presentation changes up with a black and white filter, with Tim Kitzrow’s commentary sounding far tinnier and distorted; like a really old television broadcast. Visual Concepts put the same idea to outstanding use with era-specific presentation in NBA’s Greatest, but NBA Jam 2004 did a fine job with the concept eight years earlier. Features like that are a lot of fun, and it’s a shame more titles haven’t made use of retro filters.
2. Historical Players (NBA Jam Tournament Edition)
Speaking of historical content, let’s talk about Legends and retro players. Once again, Visual Concepts has gone above and beyond with the historical content in NBA 2K, including a staggering amount of it in recent releases. While they may have done it the best to date, they certainly weren’t the first. Anyone who knows their basketball gaming history can tell you that NBA Live has also featured historical players for a number of years, dating back to the introduction of Legends and Decade All-Stars in NBA Live 2000. You may also recall that the Super Nintendo version of NBA Live 96 included a handful of retired players that could be unlocked via codes.
We can go back a little further to find an even earlier game that included historical players, though. While the NBA Jam series is better known for its tendency to include celebrities, mascots, and even politicians as secret characters, retired players are also in that group. One example is Larry Bird, available to play with via a code in NBA Jam Tournament Edition. While Larry Legend is the only former NBA player in the game, Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski can also be unlocked via a code, and will randomly show up as an opponent after beating all 27 NBA teams. Retro players wouldn’t gain prominence until years later, but they were present in early titles, too.
3. Roster Saves (NBA Live 97)
It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that separate roster saves are one of the most important developments in customising and modding basketball video games. It’s one of those features that we’ve come to take for granted – much like in-game roster editing itself – but originally, we only had one roster file to work with. Therefore, back in the early days of modding NBA Live on PC, we had to edit the executable file so that it looked for differently named saved roster files, in order to avoid conflicts when distributing roster packs that covered multiple seasons. Modifying original players also required special editors, rather than the simplicity of working with DBF files.
That all changed when it became possible to save multiple custom rosters. Whether you were creating a mod that you intended to distribute, or you simply wanted to make a bunch of fantasy rosters for your own use, it was an incredibly useful feature. Interestingly, we saw the feature implemented during the era that we’d consider to be the early days of modding, in NBA Live 97. DBFs wouldn’t be implemented until the following year, which is when roster editing really took off, but getting roster saves in NBA Live 97 was a big step forward. It took a few more years before consoles also supported them, but they’re now one of those features we just expect to see.
4. In-Game Saves (World League Basketball)
Saving games in progress – i.e. actual gameplay, not just a season, franchise, or career game – has been among the features in NBA 2K for many years. It remains a far more controversial issue in NBA Live, which included the feature in the PC version from NBA Live 98 to NBA Live 2000. It was dropped from NBA Live 2001, and remains absent to this day. While the functionality was added to NBA Live as the series was entering its peak era of quality and innovation, earlier releases had beaten EA Sports to the punch. One of those titles is a Super Nintendo game called World League Basketball, aka NCAA Basketball in North America, aka Super Dunk Shot in Japan.
All three versions of the game featured a season mode: the college season in NCAA Basketball, a fictional international tournament in World League Basketball, and the bootleg version of the NBA season in Super Dunk Shot. Super Dunk Shot utilised a password system for its saved games, but World League Basketball and NCAA Basketball both offered battery backup. Not only did this allow gamers to save more than one season at a time, but we could even save a game in progress if we needed to take a break. The game already made great use of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 tech, and it’s funny to think it also featured a function that NBA Live still lacks today.
5. Cutscene-Heavy, Story-Driven Mode (Sony’s NBA Series)
Before NBA 2K and NBA Live began dabbling with story-driven career modes – 2K more so than Live – games like Fight Night and various professional wrestling titles were already innovating in that regard. There are examples of cutscene-heavy modes in basketball games that predate the first MyCAREER story in NBA 2K14 though, and they came in the form of The Life in Sony’s NBA series. A successor to the NBA ShootOut series, NBA by Sony featured career modes that functioned a little like their modern equivalents, but tended to be scenario-based rather than featuring full games of player-locked gameplay as in MyCAREER and The One.
Another key difference is that certain games replaced all of the real NBA players on your chosen team with fictional ones, as was the case with the story in NBA 08. In NBA 08, the story is that a successful coach who guided your team to a title last year has announced his retirement, and wants to go out on top. The story is told through a number of lengthy cutscenes, as well as mini-games consisting of practice drills and short gameplay scenarios. As much as I complain about MyCAREER stories, 2K has definitely come to do the concept a lot better. Sony’s NBA series sowed the seeds however, so we have them to thank. Or perhaps blame, as the case may be.
Can you think of any other innovative features in modern basketball games that were attempted in much older titles? Let me know in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.