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 ideas that were busts in older basketball video games, but have since been implemented more effectively.
Sometimes, disappointing basketball video games still bring surprisingly good ideas to the table. Likewise, even the best basketball video games can have features that seem kind of weak compared to the rest of the product. And of course, ideas that were good in theory can be executed poorly, regardless of the game’s overall quality. In the best case scenario, great ideas that didn’t pan out the first time around or were overshadowed by their game’s shortcomings can be dusted off, polished up, and put to use in much better releases. If an idea has merit, it’s worth revisiting.
While it may be harsh to call some of the ideas I’m discussing here “failures”, their first incarnation was at the very least problematic, and their basic concepts ended up being shelved for at least a few years. Upon making their way back into more recent basketball video games, they’ve benefitted from advancements in technology and fine-tuning of the original concept, ultimately working out a lot better as a result. Some credit therefore has to be given to those original ideas, which obviously weren’t all bad. Not every one of these ideas is universally liked by basketball gamers, but at the very least, they’ve been salvaged and done better since their debut.
1. Three-Point Shootout
Where it failed: NBA All-Star Challenge
Where it succeeded: NBA Live 98-2000, NBA Live 2005-09
Although it wasn’t the first basketball video game to feature a three-point shootout – that was probably Jordan vs. Bird – the contest was a prominent feature of NBA All-Star Challenge for the Super Nintendo. I’ve talked about the game’s shortcomings in a Wayback Wednesday video retrospective, and the basic issues with the shooting controls and lack of distinctive player abilities were really on display in the three-point shootout. Shooting was awkward, and although three-point percentages for each player were displayed, they didn’t really seem to matter. The AI certainly didn’t seem to mind which player it controlled, usually getting high scores with everyone.
NBA Live 98 was the first game in the Live series to feature a three-point shootout, and while future games would expand on the concept with better presentation and even signature shooting forms, that first incarnation of the mode definitely set the standard: a button to grab the ball off the rack, another to shoot it, and a combination of player ratings and properly-timed releases factoring into the shot’s chances of success. It wasn’t complicated, but it was exactly what the three-point shootout needed to be. While EA has erred in other areas with NBA Live, they’ve never messed up the three-point shootout…aside from taking it out of the game, I suppose.
2. Shot Release Indicator
Where it failed: NBA Live 09
Where it succeeded: NBA Live 16, NBA 2K16 & 2K17
I’d completely forgotten about the shot release indicator in NBA Live 09 until I recently fired it up to write about the game for my Wayback Wednesday article on Be a Pro. While it was perfectly functional, adequately indicating good and bad releases by lighting up red or green, it was obviously pretty limited. There wasn’t any detailed feedback on the precision of the release, or the overall quality of the shot. It was a very simple guide to the shooting mechanics, and basically just a way to get used to the different jumpshot animations of the selected player when shooting around with them in the NBA Live Academy.
Since then, basketball video games have been providing us with much more useful feedback about our shot attempts, and an indication of the optimal release point. NBA Live 16’s Shot Meter is very straightforward: release it at the top, at which point information will be displayed about the percentages of the shot, as per a player’s abilities. Feedback will also be given about the player’s ratings, how closely guarded they were, and the overall timing. The Shot Meters in NBA 2K16 and NBA 2K17 are similarly straightforward, with additional information on shot quality being displayed in the HUD. In short, we now have more feedback and less ambiguity.
3. Combined Right Stick Shooting & Dribbling
Where it failed: NBA Elite 11
Where it succeeded: NBA 2K17
EA’s attempted re-brand and change of direction with NBA Elite 11 was obviously a flop. Its controls had been inspired by the NHL series, and they were clearly not meant for a basketball video game. The lack of a sprint control was a big issue and definitely a step in the wrong direction, but for its faults, the right stick shooting was a concept that had merit. Shooting was too cheesy however, and looked even worse when incorrect animations were triggered, allowing users to knock down hook shots from three-point range. Combining shooting and dribbling controls was also clunky. On the plus side, the shooting mechanics worked quite well for free throws.
NBA 2K had long been making better use of the right stick for advanced shooting controls. Upon adopting right stick dribbling in NBA 2K13, and then the Pro Stick approach in NBA 2K14, the game has managed to combine shooting and dribbling controls in a way that actually works. With the addition of aiming controls for NBA 2K17’s Pro Stick, 2K also succeeded in giving basketball gamers more control over shooting, without the exploits or clunky animations experienced in the NBA Elite 11 demo. There are some problems with the approach, and the debate about green releases rages on, but overall, the idea has been very effectively re-tooled in NBA 2K.
4. Separating Offensive Controls into Three Buttons
Where it failed: NBA Live 07
Where it succeeded: NBA 2K16 & 2K17
When NBA Live split shooting controls into separate Shoot and Dunk/Layup buttons in NBA Live 2004, it was a change that worked out fairly well. It gave basketball gamers more control over the shot they wanted to attempt in the paint, as well as a means of putting up a floater from midrange. When the shooting controls were further split into separate Shoot, Dunk, and Layup buttons in NBA Live 07, it ultimately proved to be overkill. It took away a face button that could’ve been used for another action, and frankly, the combined Dunk/Layup button had been sufficient. It’s telling that the idea was scrapped the very next year in NBA Live 08.
The redundancy and cumbersome nature of having three different Shoot buttons is something that immediately sprang to mind when Visual Concepts revealed that NBA 2K16 would feature three separate Pass buttons. I was therefore initially sceptical, but I’ve come to really appreciate the added control over passing that they provide. It helps that the Pro Stick and modifiers for the Shoot button also provide extensive control over shot attempts and elusive moves like Euro-steps, so it doesn’t feel as though a face button has been wasted when it could have been assigned to another action. Three Pass buttons is working out a lot better than three Shoot buttons.
5. Story-Driven Career Mode
Where it failed: NBA: Featuring The Life
Where it succeeded: MyCAREER since NBA 2K14
Before NBA 2K began incorporating cinematic elements and storylines into MyCAREER, Sony’s NBA series of basketball games experimented with story-driven modes titled The Life. Although The Life featured some creative ideas and storylines, the production values were not on par with 2K’s later efforts. It also featured several fictional players rather than dropping your player onto a real roster, and the mini-games you had to beat to progress through the story were arguably a worse example of railroading than Spike Lee’s “Livin’ Da Dream”. It was an interesting idea, but it ultimately didn’t establish the NBA series as a basketball gaming powerhouse.
I’ve gone on record many times with my opinions on the story-driven approach to MyCAREER, but for all my complaints and suggestions as to how it could be done better, I must give credit where it’s due. The production values have been impressive, and there is a deep and diverse experience on offer. Superior technology obviously helps in that regard, as does 2K’s experience in adding more depth to their career mode since it debuted in NBA 2K10. Despite some of the mixed opinions and gripes basketball gamers have about the approach, MyCAREER remains one of the most popular modes in NBA 2K, so the concept likely isn’t going anywhere.
What are some other ideas from older basketball video games that didn’t work out so well the first time, but have since been done better by more recent releases? Share your examples 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.