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 basketball video games that had the wrong vibe about them.
I wouldn’t blame you if you’re looking at this week’s topic and thinking that I’ve lost my mind, talking about a basketball game having the wrong kind of “vibe”. What kind of a metric is that? Allow me to explain myself, as I think many of you will actually be able to relate. I’m sure that at some point, we’ve all eagerly picked up a new hoops title, only to feel disappointed in it. However, that disappointment goes beyond our complaints about gameplay, modes, graphics, animations, and so on. Something about the game just feels…off. Some problems may be more conceptual than technical.
As such, this can be a very personal reaction, and thus highly subjective. Furthermore, although it’s more common for games with a lot of issues to have the wrong vibe, it can also happen with titles that are generally considered to be good, if something about them just doesn’t gel with you. To that end, while I expect I’m not alone on a couple of the examples I’m sharing here, I suspect that not everyone will agree with all of them. That’s fine; as I said, it’s highly subjective, and I’d be interested to hear other examples from my fellow basketball gamers. With that being said, for one reason or another, these five games just didn’t have the right vibe for me.
1. NBA 2K21 (Mostly Current Gen)
I’ll start out with the newest game on this list, mainly because it’s the release that inspired the article in the first place. I’ll also note that I’m mostly talking about the Current Gen version, which came out much earlier. With those clarifications out of the way, I have to say that NBA 2K21’s vibe hasn’t felt right. There are a couple of obvious reasons as to why. The first is that the game launched while the 2020 season was still underway, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Without a sense of conclusion or new rosters, NBA 2K21 Current Gen hardly felt like a sequel to NBA 2K20. Due to the season shutdown, we weren’t truly ready for a new NBA 2K game just yet.
The other issue is that the Current Gen version is clearly an afterthought, with most of the focus being placed on Next Gen. Current Gen feels like more of a copy and paste job than usual, and while there are some good new features and redesigned menus, it’s felt lifeless and sloppily thrown together. It didn’t help that the new shot meter and shooting mechanics needed some tweaking and tuning post-launch. Overall, it’s tough to shake the feeling that NBA 2K21 Current Gen was just a test run for concepts on Next Gen, which has its issues, but a more positive vibe. Current Gen should’ve been pushed back with the season though, as its vibe was definitely affected by the timing.
2. NBA 2K18
Several issues in NBA 2K18 affected its vibe for me. As I’ve discussed in Wayback Wednesday and on the NLSC Podcast, it felt like a turning point for the series. The new motion system introduced that year has been similarly problematic in the games that have followed, and the recurrent revenue mechanics were noticeably pushier. From charging for haircuts to the prices of cosmetic items and upgrades relative to VC earnings, the game is full of greed, and lacking in goodwill. A rather unpleasant vibe therefore permeated almost all aspects of NBA 2K18, making it feel like more of a cynical cash grab than usual. To me, it lacked the charm and appeal of NBA 2K17.
Going back to what I said when I discussed the legacy of NBA 2K18, it feels as if the wrong decision was made at every turn. The MyCAREER story has a weird vibe with annoying and unlikeable characters (insert the usual swipe at B-Fresh here). The NBA player cameos during MyCAREER cutscenes feel mean-spirited, or just strange. Even the graffiti-style font used in various menus evokes the wrong vibe. Technical issues and pushy recurrent revenue mechanics obviously detract from the game, but it’s more than that. All of the pieces that make up NBA 2K18 just don’t feel like a good fit, and the vibe is more off-putting than welcoming. As such, I’ve never warmed up to it.
3. NBA Live 19
If I had to sum up the problem with NBA Live 19, from the concepts and execution to the overall vibe, it’s that it didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was infamously aiming for a “new, younger demographic”, but the way it went about doing so was to be an odd hybrid of traditional NBA Live gameplay, and a makeshift NBA Street sequel. The focus on The Streets within The One detracted from the NBA experience, while the NBA-oriented mechanics held the streetball gameplay back from being as fun and loose as it needed to be. It failed to satisfy hardcore sim heads, yet wasn’t enough like a real NBA Street game to draw in fans that enjoyed its brand of arcade gameplay.
Furthermore, NBA Live 19 felt like a game that wasn’t made for long-time NBA Live fans, and for me, that gave it a bad vibe from Day 1. For all the talk of finding a new demographic, NBA Live 19 was a game that didn’t seem to understand its audience, and that the fans it sought were already playing NBA 2K. On top of its gameplay shortcomings, it lacked the depth to appeal to basketball gamers across the board. It seemed like the game was mostly about unlocking designer clothes, which was the wrong focus. Clothes are a big part of NBA 2K too, but aren’t important outside of The Playground. NBA Live 19 was too wrapped up in acquiring cosmetic items.
4. NBA Playgrounds & NBA 2K Playgrounds 2
From the moment it was announced, it was clear that NBA Playgrounds was going to be a mixture of NBA Jam and NBA Street. Its gameplay was closer to NBA Jam as far as the camera angle, high flying dunks, and 2v2 action. The setting was inspired more by NBA Street however, as was the concept of choosing your duo rather than playing with a specific NBA team. In theory, combining concepts from two of the most successful arcade basketball games was a good idea. In practice, it was missing some of the aspects that made both of its inspirations so special. However, while that did affect the vibe, there’s a bigger problem with NBA Playgrounds and its sequel.
Simply put, there are times when NBA Playgrounds and NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 seemingly forget that they’re arcade games, with mechanics that are better suited to sim titles. Dunks are missed too easily, which is intended for balance, but limits the appeal of soaring through the air for ridiculous slams. The ratings scale feels binary, with any rating below a certain threshold being very underpowered to the point of uselessness. Beyond that, the commentary feels too serious, except when it’s mocking the gamer. That’s about the extent of the game’s humour and personality, leading to an overly snarky vibe. They’re solid arcade titles, but they lack Jam’s polish and charm.
5. NBA Jam 99 & NBA Jam 2000
Not even NBA Jam titles are immune to falling short of the standard set by the original games, though I’m not talking about the releases from Midway or EA Sports when I say that. I’m talking about the NBA Jam games developed by Acclaim, after they acquired the name from Midway. NBA Hangtime felt like the proper sequel to NBA Jam and NBA Jam Tournament Edition, whereas NBA Jam Extreme felt like the knock-off game, only it kept the iconic branding. NBA Jam 99 and NBA Jam 2000 are even worse, featuring 5v5 action and providing an option for sim-style gameplay on top of an arcade experience. The revamp was absolutely the wrong vibe.
An NBA Jam title that is in any way 5v5 or sim-oriented just feels wrong, as it’s not the series’ brand or style. Both NBA Jam 99 and 2000 pale in comparison to NBA Live 99 and 2000, and pretty much any other sim game from those years. Not only that, but they don’t do the arcade style of gameplay well either. 5v5 is a poor fit for arcade gameplay, and without the exaggerated dunks, it’s not NBA Jam. They play more like the arcade modes in NBA Live, in that it’s the same sim-style animations with players jumping a little higher, the Fire mechanic in effect, and most rules being disabled. Even if their gameplay was better, they’d still lack that true NBA Jam spirit.
What’s your take on the overall vibe of these games? Did any of them not sit well with you, for one reason or another? Are there any other games that just didn’t have the right feel or vibe for you? Have your say in the comments 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.