This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at the issue with missing keys in NBA 2K9 PC.
Hopefully, I’m not the only person around these parts with an appreciation for old school adventure games from Sierra and LucasArts. Those two companies took a very different approach to the genre. While LucasArts adopted the stance of avoiding game over situations (and thereby encouraging gamers to freely experiment), Sierra’s games could be brutal in the way they punished you for trying the wrong thing or missing a detail. If you forgot to pick up a key very early on in the game, you might find that it’s unobtainable much later on, resulting in an unwinnable state. Save early, and often!
Yes, I’m going on a very long journey for an analogy; you might say, almost as far as Guybrush Threepwood travelled by rowboat around the titular location in The Secret of Monkey Island! The point is that you never want to get stuck without a required key, and unfortunately, that’s what happened to a lot of gamers who picked up the PC version of NBA 2K9. With that nostalgic and self-indulgent metaphor out of the way, let’s take a look back…way back…
For those who are newer to the NBA 2K series on PC or are otherwise unaware, NBA 2K9 was the first title in the series to be released on the platform. Even before NBA Live’s major decline and eventual departure from PC, our community had interest in seeing a PC port for NBA 2K. Dishearteningly, someone who had asked about the possibility reported that not only was it unlikely, but that the developers had actually laughed at the suggestion. As such, when reports of NBA 2K9 coming to PC first surfaced, many of us were sceptical, myself included. It just seemed too good to be true, considering how the developers at 2K supposedly didn’t think much of the idea.
Though I’ll defend my scepticism, I’ll gladly admit to being completely wrong on that occasion. Hey, if you’re going to be wrong, you want a positive outcome! NBA 2K9 PC was confirmed, and better yet, it was going to be a port of the 360/PS3 version. Considering that NBA Live PC continued to be ported from the PlayStation 2 release right up until the series left the platform, this was exciting news. NBA 2K9 PC was released a couple of weeks later than on console, and it didn’t have the same online support, but that didn’t matter to most gamers. At long last we had an NBA 2K game on PC that was a current gen port. Who needs EA Sports and NBA Live, anyway?
We even had a demo, which not only hyped us up for the release, but also provided an opportunity to test the capabilities of our PCs. As such, more than a couple of people discovered that while the PlayStation 2 ports of NBA Live weren’t desirable from the standpoint of features and visuals, it had actually allowed them to skate by with aging systems. It emphasised the need to upgrade in order to get the best performance, but plenty of other gamers did have rigs that were ready for a 360/PS3 port. Although efforts to keep the PC releases of NBA Live up to date continued, as the release date loomed, the community prepared for a brand new game to play (and hopefully, mod).
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a smooth launch for the series on PC. When gamers went to install NBA 2K9, they discovered that it had shipped without a CD key. Without a key, you were still able to begin the installation – a process which also required Steam to be installed – but if you couldn’t punch in a valid key when required, you couldn’t progress any further and the installation would be rolled back. The issue of the game missing a key wasn’t limited to any particular retailer, so no matter where you bought NBA 2K9 PC, your copy would basically be useless. Needless to say, there was a lot of frustration, and gamers demanded that 2K solve the problem as soon as possible.
Ultimately, a solution came when Valve stepped in to help. Steam allowed gamers who owned the retail version to install the game without a key, provided that the disc was in the drive. This resolved the missing key issue for the life cycle of NBA 2K9, and although it came up every once in a while, Valve’s fix remained a viable solution. Of course, the problem became an issue again once support for NBA 2K9 had ended, as Valve removed the ability to activate the game without a CD key. This wasn’t an issue for users who had already activated the game, but for anyone who was late to the party, it put them in the exact same position as when the game was first released.
In other words, if you were looking to add NBA 2K9 to your collection years later and picked up a brand new copy from eBay, Amazon, or elsewhere, you were out of luck if it was from that first run of copies that were missing a key. If you contacted 2K Support about the issue, you were directed to Valve Support. If you contacted Valve, they directed you to 2K, in a never-ending unhelpful cycle. You just had to keep tracking down copies and hoping that you got one that included the CD key, otherwise you’d never be able to complete the installation. For collectors and retro gamers, it proved to be a very frustrating (and potentially expensive) exercise.
Valve’s removal of the workaround wasn’t the only issue with the way that Steam was used to validate the CD key. Even if you picked up a copy with a CD key, if it was second hand and the original owner had already activated it through Steam, it was useless to you. That’s exactly what happened with the “Like New, played once” copy that I originally picked up on eBay several years back. Fortunately the seller was an honest person and gave me a full refund, but it did mean I had to try my luck with a sealed copy. I had better luck that time, but even when the game was new, forcing activation of the disc version’s key through Steam stifled the second hand market.
NBA 2K9 itself is a solid game, and unquestionably better than getting no PC version at all, or having to buy a console that you don’t want. The fact that it didn’t feature online play was understandable, and frankly not really a disappointment to that many people in our community at least. Launching without a CD key was definitely sloppy however, and demonstrated that 2K wasn’t properly prepared to release on the PC platform. It wouldn’t be the last time CD keys were an issue with NBA 2K PC, either. Although no future games would be missing their key, reinstalling games could be a pain, and required jumping through hoops so that 2K Support could rectify the issue.
Thankfully, the exclusive distribution of the PC version through Steam beginning with NBA 2K15 has avoided issues such as these. The downside of course is that the games are eventually removed from the Steam store due to a combination of online support ending and the inclusion of players that are no longer licensed under the NBAPA’s agreement, so if you don’t get them while they’re available on Steam, there’s no alternative of a disc version. If you can track down some unused Steam keys for those now-removed games however, you can still activate and download them. That’s much easier said than done though, making collecting far more difficult.
Of course, digital distribution hasn’t alleviated all problems with codes and keys. To the dismay of many people who pre-ordered the digital version of the Mamba Forever edition of NBA 2K21, their bonus content was missing at launch. That was resolved – eventually – and fortunately, we haven’t had another situation quite like NBA 2K9 PC and its missing keys. The PC versions of NBA 2K are clearly a lower priority for 2K, missing out on a few official patches over the years and featuring lacklustre anti-cheat measures. Nevertheless, a digital-only release – while not ideal for collectors – has had its benefits. NBA 2K PC has come a long way since its shaky debut on the platform.