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.
Since I offered up my picks for the five best sim basketball games of their generation in last week’s Friday Five, this week I thought I’d focus on the arcade games. While there are sim heads who won’t touch arcade basketball games, and conversely more casual sports gamers who greatly prefer them to the sim titles, there are a lot of people who have a healthy appreciation for both styles. I definitely count myself as someone who has enjoyed both types of basketball games over the years, and as such, I have my own picks for the best arcade hoops title in five distinct generations/eras.
As with last week’s list, I’ll emphasise that these picks are only my opinion, and it’s not my intention to present them as infallible, definitive, or indisputable. I’d like to think that I have an informed and reasonable take on the subject, of course, but lists like this are intended to start the discussion, not end it. I’m certainly interested to see if some of you have a different take, and if so, what your picks are. With that being said, let’s once again tip things off with the basketball video games of the 16-Bit era and earlier, and take it right through until the current generation.
16-Bit & Earlier Era: NBA Jam Tournament Edition
When it comes to arcade-style basketball video games, the older titles tend to hold up better than their simulation counterparts. Their simplicity and lack of realism isn’t a problem the way it is with games that tried to replicate basketball more accurately, and as a result, many of them are still fun to play today. The original NBA Jam would probably be most people’s choice as the best arcade basketball game of this era, but I would personally give the nod to its sequel, NBA Jam Tournament Edition. Don’t get me wrong; the original is a classic and an outstanding game that you can still enjoy today, but NBA Jam TE did, to quote its tag line, pump up the Jam.
What makes NBA Jam TE the superior arcade basketball game? Well, it featured the same fun gameplay as the original, but improved on several aspects. Ratings were expanded and given numerical values, better differentiating between abilities and making the ratings easier to understand and compare. Getting knocked to the floor raised a player’s injury level, which hampered their performance. This allowed you to take advantage of the new expanded rosters, which facilitated substitutions. Hot Spots, a tournament mode setting, and player switching made NBA Jam TE a worthy sequel to the original NBA Jam, as well as the best arcade basketball game of its era.
64-bit/Early 3D Era: NBA Hangtime
While it doesn’t bear the NBA Jam moniker, NBA Hangtime is basically a continuation of the series. After all, it was developed by Midway, creators of the original games, and only bears the Hangtime name because Acclaim – who were responsible for several of the home ports of Midway’s games back in the day – managed to secure exclusive rights to the Jam name. Acclaim’s NBA Jam games are mostly underwhelming, whereas Hangtime captured the spirit of its predecessors. In that respect, I’d consider Hangtime the true sequel to NBA Jam TE.
I’ve seen some negative reviews of NBA Hangtime, and while I’d concede that it’s very similar to the Jam games that came before it, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The gameplay still delivered an enjoyable experience, there were some new moves such as spins, crossovers, leaners, and fadeaway jumpers, and of course, the rosters were updated. Team Fire was also a novel expansion upon the existing On Fire mechanic. The new Create-a-Player feature was great; while the options for your appearance were somewhat limited, it added a new dimension to the game, especially when playing with and against friends. I still love its soundtrack, too.
PlayStation 2/Xbox Era: NBA Street Vol. 2
While Midway would continue to develop arcade basketball games such as NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC, and NBA Hoopz, they never reached the popularity of the original NBA Jam games. Meanwhile, Acclaim’s NBA Jam games continued to underwhelm gamers for the most part. As such, NBA Street by EA Sports BIG would be the series to pick up the slack in terms of providing basketball gamers with a quality arcade-oriented experience. Bringing back classic arcade gameplay with new mechanics and a streetball aesthetic, the NBA Street series was definitely superior to its contemporaries in the genre. The question is: which Street game was the best?
The original NBA Street is still fun to play, but it is a little light on features. NBA Street Vol. 2 and NBA Street V3 expanded on the experience with creation modes, deeper challenge modes, and mini-games such as V3’s dunk contest. Overall, I have to go with NBA Street Vol. 2. While it may not have a dunk contest, it does have Michael Jordan, who did not appear in V3. The gameplay still holds up very well, and the challenge modes and unlockables added a lot of replay value. They’re all excellent arcade basketball games, but Vol. 2 stands out as the best NBA Street title in the PlayStation 2 trilogy.
PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 Era: NBA Jam: On Fire Edition
Arcade basketball video games have kind of fallen out of vogue in the past decade, so there aren’t as many outstanding contenders in this era. The three heavyweights that spring immediately to mind are all EA Sports productions: NBA Street Homecourt, NBA Jam, and NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. Personally, I feel that all three are great arcade basketball video games, and I would even go so far as to suggest that both of EA’s NBA Jam titles are a bit underrated, thanks in part to the cancellation of NBA Elite 11, and the company’s reputation. As for which of their three arcade hoops games is the best of the generation, for me it’s NBA Jam: On Fire Edition.
While the 2010 reboot of NBA Jam was solid and a lot of fun, in some ways it was too faithful to the original. By that, I mean it replicated some of the issues with repetitive gameplay that had plagued arcade basketball games for generations. Homecourt had the same problem; its campaign mode had some depth and the attention to detail with the venues was amazing, but each game was more of the same. The Real AI in OFE made gameplay more challenging and dynamic. Its campaign mode was also much less repetitive, and its unlockables and roster updates were a nice touch. It revolutionised where other arcade basketball games simply updated.
Current Generation: We Need One!
While most basketball gamers are interested in seeing the sim games get better and better – myself included – I would suggest that there’s still room for an arcade hoops title. When I broached the subject on our Facebook and Twitter recently, it seemed there was some interest in seeing a new NBA Jam or NBA Street title at some point in the future. While I personally prefer the NBA Jam brand and approach, NBA Street would appear to be the more popular choice these days. Of course, there’s no reason that both series couldn’t make a comeback, with releases a few years apart.
Why do we need a new arcade basketball game when the trend has been to make sim games that are more and more realistic? Well, it’s the same reason I’d like NBA Live to make a strong comeback in order for there to be two viable sim games on the market: it’s good to have choices. I’m obviously into my sim basketball games, and want to see them continue to improve, but I also like the idea of being able to take a break and play a game that adopts a more casual approach to the sport, for a change of pace every now and again. It would seem that I’m not alone, so hopefully we haven’t seen the end of arcade basketball games in the vein of NBA Jam and NBA Street.
Once again, those are simply my picks and opinions, intended to tip off the conversation rather than being the last word. With that in mind, what are your picks for the best arcade basketball video game for each of these eras? Have your say 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.