Wayback Wednesday: Basketball Gaming on Nintendo 64

Wayback Wednesday: Basketball Gaming on Nintendo 64

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 basketball gaming on the Nintendo 64.

For basketball gamers who are at the tail end of Generation X, or Millennials/Gen Y folks like me, we’re starting to experience milestones that remind us that we’re getting older. Realising we’re coming up on the 30th Anniversary of the Chicago Bulls’ first championship – an event that was just a few years old when I really got into basketball – is a good example. Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live over the past two years is another. We’re also starting to see a lot of classic consoles that I recall being one of the systems to own back in the day, now reaching significant anniversaries.

To that end, the Nintendo 64 turns twenty five this week, being released in Japan on June 24th 1996 and North America on September 29th. It wouldn’t be released in Europe or Australia until March 1997, and I didn’t actually own the console until I received it for my 13th birthday in October that year. Nevertheless, it’s the 25th Anniversary of the debut of the Nintendo 64, so it only seems appropriate to reflect on the history of basketball gaming on the console. Let’s take a look back…way back…

The Nintendo 64 tends to be a polarising system. A lot of people my age remember it fondly thanks to innovative games that became classics, such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 64, and Goldeneye 007, as well as cult classics such as Conker’s Bad Fur Day. However, as a system from the early 3D age, many games in the N64’s library have aged poorly. Its controller was functional, but usually isn’t considered to be among the best designed peripherals. Even putting aside the games that haven’t aged well, it doesn’t have the most impressive library. At the same time, the N64’s best titles provided us with hours upon hours of entertainment.

Unlocking Michael Jordan in NBA Live 2000 (Nintendo 64)

It’s therefore both underrated and overrated, depending on which voices you listen to. My personal view of the Nintendo 64 is that it was too successful – both commercially and in terms of innovation – to be considered a flop or a “bad” console. Its library also has enough landmark and solid releases to justify the nostalgia. It’s a stepping stone in gaming history, one of the pioneering consoles as games made the leap into 3D. The drawback to being an early innovator is that not everything is refined yet, and as such, the N64 does represent primitive 3D aesthetics and some clunky design principles. Again, I think it’s underrated at times, but nostalgia does downplay valid criticism.

Generally speaking, the Nintendo 64 isn’t known as a great system for sports games, and that’s a fair reputation. With that in mind, compared to contemporary gaming PCs or the original PlayStation, I would say that the Nintendo 64 is one of the weaker systems when it comes to basketball gaming. In fact, only twelve hoops games were released for the N64. Eleven of those games were NBA-licensed, with one lone NCAA title. We can further divide those releases into eight sim-oriented titles, and four arcade games, though two of them (NBA Jam 99 and NBA Jam 2000) could be considered hybrids. In any case, it doesn’t have a lot of virtual hardwood classics.

In fact, when it comes to outstanding releases such as NBA Live 99 and NBA Live 2000, the Nintendo 64 versions were undoubtedly the weakest. Their graphics aren’t too bad, but the N64’s use of cartridges and the memory paks for saved games were very limiting. For example, Michael Jordan is the only Legend in the N64 version of NBA Live 2000, and there’s no Franchise mode (though to be fair, it was also absent from the PlayStation release). There were fewer slots for created and edited players compared to PlayStation, and it simply doesn’t measure up to the PC version. NBA Live 99 is similarly inferior, with the added drawback of no official roster update.

NBA Hangtime on Nintendo 64

While the PlayStation versions of NBA Live also lacked the depth and visual quality of their PC brethren, they had one advantage that the Nintendo 64 did not: their controller. The N64 controller wasn’t designed with sim sports games in mind. While passing and shooting controls were assigned to the A and B buttons, all other basic functions had to be assigned to the C buttons. There wasn’t much consistency in the C button functions across the handful of sim-oriented titles on the console, and the layout of the N64 controller made for far more cumbersome controls compared to the PlayStation’s controller, or a PC gamepad. It was admittedly better than a keyboard.

On the other hand, the Nintendo 64 controller worked just fine for arcade basketball gaming. Although the default control layout in NBA Hangtime oddly utilises the C buttons instead of A and B, customising the controls to use them in conjunction with the Z trigger produces pleasing results. The N64 ports of NBA Hangtime and NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC are both quite faithful to the arcade originals, and are still a blast to play in 2021. This isn’t surprising as Midway’s NBA Jam games (and their sequels under different names) have aged extremely well on basically every platform. The simplicity and cartoonish style is more timeless compared to that of the sim titles.

Though its library only features twelve basketball games in total, the Nintendo 64 had two Nintendo-exclusive titles: Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside, and NBA Courtside 2: Featuring Kobe Bryant, the latter of which was also released on Game Boy Color. The NBA Courtside games were developed by Left Field Productions, who had previously developed Slam ‘N’ Jam. The first NBA Courtside game was released notably late in the 1998 season, so despite its generally favourable reception and solid gameplay, it didn’t go head-to-head with NBA Live 98 and other sim releases that year. Its sequel came out in late 1999, allowing it to directly compete with other 2000 season games.

Kobe Bryant dunks in NBA Courtside

Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside was a rather noteworthy title. It made the late Kobe Bryant the youngest player to have a game named after them. There are long-standing rumours that Kobe had a hand in rating all of the players, explaining why their ratings are all hidden. As far as I’m aware, that’s never been conclusively proven. The late release also resulted in a roster cut-off date around the trade deadline, making it the only game to feature David Vaughn’s short-lived tenure with the Chicago Bulls. Not only is Michael Jordan replaced by a Roster Player, but Latrell Sprewell is absent due to his suspension following the infamous run-in with P.J. Carlesimo earlier that year.

If there’s one thing that most people remember about Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside, it’s that if you continue to hold the shoot button after performing a dunk, you’ll hang on the rim. Keep hanging too long, and you’ll receive a technical. This was a rather unique idea, and little details like that really highlight the benefit of having more than one sim game on the market. They always varied in overall quality and depth, but each had their own hooks and fun little features. As I noted, NBA Courtside was quite a solid game, but I’d rank it behind titles such as NBA Live 98 in terms of gameplay and modes, especially as it only allowed one season save and one custom roster file.

NBA Courtside 2 was notably a North American exclusive, and the series itself ended with one final game – NBA Courtside 2002 – released exclusively on GameCube late in the 2002 season. The final basketball game released on Nintendo 64 was Konami’s NBA in the Zone 2000, which came out in February. The release of the GameCube signalled the end of basketball gaming on the Nintendo 64, and indeed, the end of new games being developed for the console by 2002. As it happened, the GameCube itself only received twelve hoops titles, specifically ten NBA-licensed games and two very rare collectibles: NCAA College Basketball 2K3, and Disney Sports Basketball.

Tim Duncan Dunks in NBA Live 2000 (N64)

Although basketball and sports gaming in general had been a big part of Nintendo’s library during the 16-bit era, by the release of the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, their approach to hardware and demographics drove developers and gamers to platforms such as PC, PlayStation, and later the original Xbox. Likewise, basketball gaming has been less popular on the last couple of generations of Nintendo consoles, with NBA 2K’s always online requirements for MyCAREER and MyTEAM being a poor fit on the Switch. In that respect, the evolution of basketball gaming has diverged from the innovation Nintendo has generally championed, beginning with the Nintendo 64.

Personally, while I have many fond memories playing the Nintendo 64 and still own my original console, it’s the system that I’ve used the least for basketball gaming. Most of my memories are of playing NBA Hangtime, while dabbling with titles such as NBA Courtside, and the N64 ports of NBA Live 99 and NBA Live 2000. I’ve enjoyed collecting games for the console in recent years, but the Nintendo 64 is far from an ideal platform for sim basketball gaming, owing to its distinctive controller. The superior features and graphics, as well as its modding capabilities, made the PC version my platform of choice for basketball gaming during the Nintendo 64 era.

When I think of the Nintendo 64, basketball gaming admittedly isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. There were a few good hoops titles on the console, and the NBA Courtside series is historically significant as a Nintendo exclusive with interesting aspects. It wasn’t the console’s strong suit however, and along with my interest in other third party releases that weren’t available on Nintendo, it led to me gravitating to PlayStation and Xbox alongside PC gaming. Still, the N64 deserves to be remembered for its strong points, and its role in the evolution of the medium. Its forays onto the virtual hardwood weren’t always a slam dunk, but they did produce a few highlights.

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