The Friday Five: 5 Old School Basketball Video Game Oddities

It’s Friday once again, so welcome one and all to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! If you’re not familiar with The Friday Five and you’re wondering what it’s all about, this is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.

Many of us have been playing basketball video games for a long time and we’ve seen them come a long way over the years. Although those old games may appear to be quite primitive now, the best of them were actually quite good for their day. Should you go back and play them today, you’ll be reminded why you spent so much time with them all those years ago. However, you’ll also be reminded of a lot of odd, quirky things that you wouldn’t expect to see in one of today’s basketball games. So, this week I’m getting nostalgic once again and taking a look back at some oddities that I remember from old school basketball titles.

1. Roster Players

Michael Jordan's Roster Player in NBA Live 97

Fictional placeholder players, commonly referred to as “Roster Players” because that’s the name they were usually given, are definitely a relic of old school basketball games. Back then, some of the big name players had exclusive deals with certain video game developers or retained complete control over their likeness rights, thus they couldn’t automatically appear in just any NBA licensed game. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are the two most prominent examples, while David Robinson didn’t appear in NBA Live 95 and Shaquille O’Neal was exclusive to NBA Live 97, a fact that was even proudly touted among the key features on the back of the box.

That’s no longer an issue with today’s stars, so you don’t see sim titles missing the likes of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. The practice has also been discontinued when it comes to legendary players and historical content, due to various lawsuits over the years. Considering how developers must make stand-in players truly generic and not in any way resemble the real individuals that they’re taking the place of, the preferred alternative is to simply leave them out of the game and the historical roster incomplete. To be honest, that’s probably better than pretending that a light-skinned player with a full head of hear wearing #98 is actually His Airness.

2. NBA Live on PC didn’t have a steal button until NBA Live 98

A steal attempt in NBA Live 96

Can you imagine that? In the PC versions of NBA Live 95, NBA Live 96 and NBA Live 97, there was no way to manually steal the ball…unless of course, you turned off fouls and knocked opponents down, positioned yourself just right for an interception or were lucky enough to pick off a pass when jumping to block. Players automatically reached in to swipe at the ball when you were close enough to the ballhandler, while you hoped that they wouldn’t commit a foul.

As I’ve previously mentioned, NBA Live 96 PC is one of my all-time favourite games and I’m pretty fond of NBA Live 95 on PC as well, but it’s funny to think that we spent so much time playing games that were missing manual control over such a basic element of defense. That’s not to say it wasn’t criticised and indeed a steal button was requested in the NLSC’s very first Wishlist, but still, for three PC releases we just had to trust in the automatic steal attempts. It’s funny, because the keyboard obviously offered plenty of viable options for a steal control and gamepads with enough buttons to accommodate one were not uncommon at the time either. Nevertheless, we made do.

3. NBA Live 97’s lack of capital letters

NBA Live 97 Team Rosters Menu

The presentation in NBA Live 97 was unique, to say the least. The menus featured graffiti-style text and backgrounds, a look that I remember fondly but it’s definitely a product of its era. Notably, pretty much all of the text is lower case, to match the general vibe of the presentation. That also went for the text used in the in-game overlays, including player names. However, in the roster files themselves, all of the players’ names had capitals in the correct places, including “Mc” and “Mac” surnames.

This wasn’t accounted for when it came to created players, though. If you entered a name correctly – that is, with capitals in all the right places – that created player would certainly stand out in the menus and overlays, being the only one to have any capitals in their name. The easy workaround of course was to just enter the name without any capitals, though it was one of those things that could catch you off guard the first time you created a player. Fortunately for the patching community, Tim and Brien’s editor for the PC version allowed users to properly enter a created player’s name so that it would appear correctly in both the data files and the game.

4. Small areas for triggering dunks and layups

Short leaner in NBA Live 2000

Whenever I go back and play a quick game in an old NBA Live title, either for a bit of nostalgia or for the purposes of refreshing my memory or grabbing a screenshot for a Friday Five article, I’m reminded of this issue. Other old school players will no doubt remember it as well. Driving hard to the rim, you’d hit the Shoot button just a little too far out or you’d be coming in from the wrong angle, resulting in the player stopping and leaning in, or in the really old games, soaring through the air in a jumpshot animation. In NBA Live 2002’s case, it was a one-handed runner that was very annoying when you weren’t intending to attempt it.

These days, players can gather with a longer stride or at the very least, a contextually appropriate move will be utilised. Back in the day though, when the games weren’t so advanced? Well, as much as we loved them, with many of us no doubt playing our favourites until the early hours of the morning, nothing killed our excitement quicker than being on a breakaway and anticipating a big dunk…only to have the player take a four foot jumpshot instead. The only thing more infuriating was when the jumpshot missed.

5. Super Dunk Shot

Super Dunk Shot Matchup Screen

I’ve already mentioned this game in a previous Friday Five. In North America, it was released as NCAA Basketball, featuring real Division I college teams with fictional players. In PAL regions, it became World League Basketball, keeping the same player names but replacing the college teams with fictional squads from around the world, competing in a global basketball league. In Japan though, it became Super Dunk Shot, apparently making just enough changes to the names of NBA players and teams from the 1992 season to avoid any lawsuits. As such, in Super Dunk Shot you could play with big stars like Jordun of the Chicago Bills. Bet you’ll never guess who that’s meant to be!

Considering the legal problems posed by Roster Players these days, I can’t imagine that this sort of thing would still fly. I’m not entirely sure how HAL and Sculptured Software got away with doing it back in 1992, either. I guess it qualified as a parody for fair use, or perhaps the NBA simply didn’t care, given that it was only released in one region. In any event, it’s actually a pretty good basketball game for its time and as I’ve mentioned before, the PAL region’s World League Basketball is an old favourite of mine. I remember reading about Super Dunk Shot in a magazine back in the day and wishing I could’ve played it for the sheer novelty, though. It sure was a strange case and something we’re highly unlikely to see happen again anytime soon.

That’s going to do it for this week. What are some of the odd and quirky things that you remember about old school basketball games, or some of the stranger old school basketball titles that you recall? Let me know in the comments below and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum. Thanks for joining me this week, please join me again next Friday for another Five.

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September 6, 2013 2:04 am

Jordun of Chicago Bills??? Hmm, no idea who that is, hahaha! But kidding aside, I LOLed at the other names as well, Armste, Perter and Dickwo. XD

September 7, 2013 11:32 am

seeing that screenshot of NBA Live PS1 version makes me think: “what have I done with my life…”
anyway, The Direct Shot Button (L2, i think?) was annoyingly fun too and another odd thing in NBA 2003 is Wang ZhiZhi’s outside shooting stats, their like 92 -95, perfect for cheesing around.