This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m going back to the N64 version of NBA Live 99, and seeing if it can be suitably updated for the 1999 season.
While I do have fond and nostalgic memories of the Nintendo 64, it’s fair to say that the console hasn’t aged as well as other platforms. The 3D era was in its infancy, so on top of graphics that tend to be unappealing nowadays, many games display the teething problems of expanding into a new plane while designing game worlds and gameplay. Some of the best releases do still hold up, though very few of them tend to be sports games. The N64’s controller is a major culprit here, as it wasn’t ideal for several cross-platform genres.
Nevertheless, I was excited to get NBA Live 99 for N64 for Christmas in 1998. Due to the lockout of course, the game had to launch with final 1998 season rosters. This ultimately wouldn’t be a problem on PC, thanks to mods and official patches. As we were a long way from consoles supporting downloadable updates, those platforms were left out in the cold. We had to make do with the default rosters, or try our best to update them ourselves. With that being said, is it possible to make a sufficiently detailed roster update for NBA Live 99 on N64? Let’s take a look back…way back…
The first step was to move around the players that are already in the game, which meant bringing up the 1999 season transaction listings on Basketball Reference. Although I do recall some key moves from the abbreviated offseason after the lockout was lifted, I decided that I’d simply go down the list of transactions and make them in order, just so that I wouldn’t miss anything. Combing through the rosters and seeing those familiar names filled me with nostalgia! I also discovered that I remembered where a number of players had ended up during the 1998 season, which made finding them much easier. However, others I definitely had to look up in order to locate them.
Without a doubt, the most dismal part of the exercise was redoing the breakup of the champion Chicago Bulls. I grumbled as I completed the infamous trade of Scottie Pippen for Roy Rogers (and a second round pick that became Jake Voskuhl). That trade is burned into my memory, though I’d forgotten that Steve Kerr was actually traded to the Spurs for an aging Chuck Person, who ultimately didn’t stick around. Look, you can argue until you’re blue in the face that Jerry Krause was unfairly maligned in The Last Dance, but the lack of shrewdness and foresight in dismantling that team makes some of GarPax’s worst deals look like Pat Riley’s greatest moves!
To appreciate just how quickly teams had to begin making moves once the lockout ended, you only need to look at the transaction listings for January 21st and 22nd, 1999. A bulk of the player movement took place over those two days, including some deals that teams were clearly itching to make. Unable to void Latrell Sprewell’s contract in the wake of the infamous choking incident, the Warriors sent him to the Knicks for John Starks, who became a familiar face back in a familiar place. Atlanta traded Christian Laettner to Detroit, and Antonio McDyess returned to Denver after being dealt a year earlier. Several other prominent players also found new homes.
As I moved players around the rosters in NBA Live 99 N64, researching where some of them were as necessary, I began to recall forgotten stints and benchwarmers that I knew mostly from video games and trading cards. Names like Etdrick Bohannon leaped out at me, despite the fact he only played 26 games in the NBA, and I haven’t thought about him in years! I also noticed that some veterans were missing from the rosters, such as Vernon Maxwell and Don MacLean. The latter was surprising, as he was still under contract, and indeed was part of the trade that sent Jim McIlvaine to the Nets. Joe Kleine, who had last played for the Bulls, was also notably absent.
Once I’d accounted for all of the transactions leading up to the February 5th tip-off, it was time to release all of the players who weren’t on an opening night roster. This was more arduous, as it meant checking individual team and player pages, rather than a single transaction listing. At the same time, it also allowed me to double-check my work, which revealed a couple of transactions that I’d missed. When it was all said and done, I had viable opening night rosters for all 29 teams, with each team fielding a lineup of at least ten players. Thanks to retirees and players who remained unsigned as of opening night, the Free Agents now housed 51 players out of a possible 100.
After fixing the lineups for all 29 teams – this is testing out the capabilities of making a roster update, after all – the absence of the Class of 1998 rookies was becoming painfully apparent! Before I added any of them to the roster however, I decided to follow through with the transactions that took place after the season tipped off. Major moves early on included the Lakers signing Dennis Rodman, and trading Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell to Charlotte for Glen Rice and J.R. Reid. Beyond that, most of the moves involved journeymen and benchwarmers being cut, or latching on for brief stints. And then, the trade deadline of March 11th brought a flurry of movement.
First of all, I had to juggle the three-team trade that sent Stephon Marbury to New Jersey. That was a shocking deal at the time, as many of us expected Starbury and Kevin Garnett to become the next great NBA duo. The other deals were far easier in comparison, comprising of one-for-one or two-for-two trades, including the swap that sent Tyrone Hill to Philadelphia and Tim Thomas to Milwaukee. I ran into a small snag with the Nets, who from memory were able to add Gheorghe Muresan thanks to an injury exception. For the purposes of this roster, I moved Rony Seikaly to the Free Agents to accommodate him, since Seikaly was sidelined by the time Muresan signed.
I also held off releasing Dennis Rodman until I could take a screenshot of him on the Lakers during gameplay, but aside from that, I’d completed all possible updates using the original players in NBA Live 99 N64! Several players did have incorrect jersey numbers and/or primary positions, but fixing them presented a problem. In order to edit original players in NBA Live 99 N64, I’d need to use up a Created Player slot to clone them. Since I needed as many slots as possible to create the rookies, I opted to forego that; at least until I figured out how many of those players I absolutely needed to create. With that, it was time to see what could be done about the Class of 1998.
Fortunately, one rookie was already in the game: Peja Stojakovic, who was drafted in 1996, and actually signed with the Kings prior to the lockout going into effect. It still meant some noteworthy names would have to be left out, but glancing at the list of rookies for the 1999 season, it seemed feasible to at least account for those who were regularly starting. Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Antawn Jamison, Mike Bibby, Michael Olowokandi, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Williams were obviously a must, but so were starters Cuttino Mobley, Michael Dickerson, Felipe Lopez, Tyrone Nesby, and Robert Traylor. Orlando’s Matt Harpring and Michael Doleac were also named All-Rookie.
In addition to those 14 rookies, I added Raef LaFrentz. He was the third overall pick, and likely would’ve been among the top freshman had he not been injured after just 12 games. I filled out the remaining Created Player slots with Larry Hughes, Ricky Davis, Brad Miller, Pat Garrity, and Rashard Lewis. It was challenging to choose players after the essential names were accounted for, and there are a couple there that could arguably be replaced. Some of those slots could also feasibly be used for the missing veterans instead, such as Vernon Maxwell and Don MacLean, or Dominique Wilkins, who returned to the NBA for a low-key farewell stint with the Magic.
Although I originally planned to just use placeholder info for the rookies, I did go to the trouble of creating them properly, just to see how long it would take; as it turned out, about four hours. With those twenty players added, I’d put together a viable end-of-season 1999 roster in NBA Live 99 for N64! Obviously, the created players were missing bio data that we’d add through DBF editing on PC, and limitations to editing original players left a number of them with incorrect jerseys. However, each team had at least ten players including their proper starters and key reserves. All up, it took around seven hours to complete, which is quite acceptable for a minimalist roster.
Needless to say, parts of the process were slower because I was working with the N64 version of NBA Live 99. While it has virtually no loading times, only one-for-one trades are possible, and releasing players into the Free Agents requires trading them to an empty slot. Once the pool begins to fill up, that adds more scrolling! Beyond that, cycling through the teams on the Rosters screen, and all the colleges when creating a player, also takes up extra time. As I mentioned, my memory served me well as far as finding several players, but consulting Basketball Reference to locate others, as well as double-check lineups, did slow me down. Still, it was all done in less than a day!
While I do own a working N64 and NBA Live 99, I elected to attempt this exercise using Project64, in order to capture cleaner screenshots. I was too far along before I realised that I’d neglected to enable a virtual Controller Pak to save my progress; thank emulation for save states! Fortunately I was able to “insert” a Controller Pak and save before I closed the emulator, for added safety. NBA Live 99 for N64 isn’t a title that I fire up too often, but after putting in all that work to update the game for the 1999 season, I didn’t want it to go to waste! I’ve lost work to carelessness before, and while this wasn’t a major public modding project, it’s something that I’d like to keep.
Compared to my attempts to modify rosters in NBA Live 95 for Super Nintendo, this was a far more successful endeavour. That’s not exactly surprising given the deeper roster editing functions in NBA Live 99 for N64, but it did turn out more “complete” than I thought it might. Even though a number of players changed teams during the abbreviated offseason, the turnover with veterans departing the NBA didn’t leave the rosters too thin. Twenty Created Player slots isn’t much to work with, so making a truly comprehensive update is impossible. Adding the top 10-15 rookies plus a few extras to go along with the other updates creates something viable and fun, though.
The N64 release isn’t my favourite version of NBA Live 99. It’s easily the weakest of the three versions, which is no surprise given the limitations of the console. However, it was actually the first version of NBA Live 99 that I played and owned, so it’s still quite nostalgic to me. I have fond memories of updating the rosters as best I could, playing some of the new matchups, staging three-point shootouts, and trying out the arcade setting with its “monster dunks”. NBA Live 99 also had a fantastic soundtrack on all platforms. No matter how many times it looped while working on this roster update, I felt no desire to mute it! That’s the mark of some great video game music.
Messing around with the rosters in NBA Live 99 N64 took me back to a time before official roster updates were commonplace, where do-it-yourself was necessary if you wanted to play with the latest lineups. While the PC version did receive an official roster – two, in fact – such shortcuts were a long way off for console gamers. It may sound like the Dark Ages, but there was fun to it, and I’d suggest it made us appreciate the games even more. The 1999 season was a weird one thanks to the lockout, and it affected every video game set that year. As this exercise demonstrates though, not all hope was lost, as it’s clearly possible to update NBA Live 99 N64 for the 1999 season.