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 CPU Assistance setting found in several old basketball games.
When we look back at old basketball games, it jogs our memories in so many ways. There are the graphical and gameplay improvements that have come with evolving technology. There are the soundtracks which capture the zeitgeist of the time a game was released, whether they’re made up of original music or popular licensed songs. As I’ve discussed on many occasions, there’s the “interactive almanac” aspect of the sim games in particular, capturing a snapshot of what the league was like back then. And of course, there’s the depth, scope, and variety of the modes.
Beyond the depth and quality of modes and features though, what we find in an old basketball title is indicative of what was necessary and/or expected at the time. For example, the original approach to custom teams in the early NBA Live games was fun for the time, but seems downright quaint compared to the concept of Ultimate Team and MyTEAM. An option like Slow Motion Dunks also no longer seems necessary. In that vein, a once-common setting that we no longer see is CPU Assistance (or Computer Assist, as NBA Live originally labelled it). It’s no longer deemed to be a necessity, but it used to be quite important. Let’s take a look back…way back…
As the name would imply, the CPU Assistance setting was all about the game – the CPU – providing assistance. More specifically, it would provide assistance to the team that was currently losing, boosting their abilities while nerfing their opponent, so that they had a chance of getting back into the game. Of course, this phenomenon isn’t uncommon in games of all genres, and is frequently described as Rubberband AI. CPU Assistance used similar methods to Rubberband AI (or “comeback logic”, as it’s sometimes called), but in addition to being an option that we could toggle on and off, it benefitted both the user and the CPU, rather than simply helping out the latter.
The techniques for achieving this will certainly sound familiar, even if you’ve never played an older basketball game that includes CPU Assistance. The losing team will start knocking down shots and making savvy stops left and right, while the team in the lead will seemingly forget how to play basketball. A team in the midst of blowing out an opponent will suddenly start missing dunks and other easy shots around the rim, while the trailing team hits ridiculous three-pointers and can’t be stopped in the paint. Stick skills and player ratings alike seem to go out the window, at least until the gap is closed and CPU Assistance eases off again, leaving it up to who plays a better game.
Depending on your skill level, what you enjoy about basketball gaming, and just how blatantly artificial the comeback mechanics are in any given title, CPU Assistance has its advantages and disadvantages. A highly skilled gamer that is blowing out the CPU game after game may use it to tip the balance in the AI’s favour, thereby increasing the challenge beyond the difficulty setting. An inexperienced gamer may appreciate the help in remaining competitive against the CPU or a more experienced gamer alike. If CPU Assistance makes the challenge feel too artificial, on the other hand, gamers may prefer not to use it. There’s a reason it was an optional setting in those old titles.
It should be noted that CPU Assistance and comeback logic/Rubberband AI were not mutually exclusive. Even when CPU Assistance was disabled, CPU opponents were often able to remain competitive thanks to Rubberband AI, while the user couldn’t. Generally speaking, CPU Assistance kept things balanced, instigating a see-saw back and forth, rather than just giving artificial intelligence an edge against a human brain. Looking back, it was probably also a means of compensating for some of the clunkier and imprecise mechanics found in old games. Jumpshots in particular could be very unforgiving, so an artificial boost helped to knock down a few big shots and catch up.
Additionally, while these comebacks could feel artificial at times, they’re not exactly unrealistic. The nature of basketball, the ebb and flow of games when so much talent is involved, does mean that big leads were and are squandered and erased. There are games that are blowouts from basically the opening tip to final buzzer, of course, as well as bursts and collapses that lead to lopsided victories when it’s all said and done. However, games with big deficits can, do, and will become nail-biters. To that end, in the sim games at least, CPU Assistance adds realism as well as challenge. In the arcade games, it’s more about preserving competitiveness and an even playing field.
CPU Assistance has gone by a couple of names in NBA Live over the years. In addition to CPU Assist and Computer Assist, the setting was renamed to “Keep Scores Close” in NBA Live 2001 PC. Although this label was arguably clearer about its function, it was interestingly called CPU Assistance again in NBA Live 2002. The setting remained in the PlayStation 2 era games, as well as their respective PC ports, but wasn’t implemented in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases. Instead, the gameplay sliders were expanded to include a “Sink or Swim” setting for both the user and CPU, while separate difficulty levels for the Home and Away teams were added.
While CPU Assistance is the nomenclature that NBA Live has traditionally used, as I noted, other sim and arcade games have also used similar settings to provide the user with some added control over gameplay balancing. In NBA Jam Tournament Edition, the setting is the very similarly named Computer Assistance. Older NBA 2K titles had a setting called Clutch Factor, which could be toggled on and off and had a slider to control frequency. It hasn’t appeared in any recent games however, and NBA Live likewise hasn’t seen fit to bring back a similar setting to manually keep scores close and the game competitive. At this point, CPU Assistance and Clutch Factor are relics.
This isn’t altogether surprising, of course. With the rise of competitive online play, improvements to artificial intelligence, and expansion of gameplay sliders and mode-by-mode tuning, basketball games have been striving to emphasise pure stick skills and represent a genuine skill gap; something that’s tough to accomplish when there’s an option to force comebacks. Mind you, in games against the CPU and other users online, there are times when it’s clear that there’s some comeback logic at play, with runs that feel contrived. We don’t have any control over it now, but the mechanics are still there, attempting to balance games and keep them as competitive as possible.
Needless to say, even when those settings were an option in games, they were a point of contention. Over the years there were many discussions between basketball gamers as to whether it was better to enable the CPU Assistance and Clutch Factor settings, with differing schools of thought as to which resulted in the superior experience. Like most things, it came down to personal preference, as well as the harshness of the comeback logic, and how well other gameplay mechanics performed. Naturally there were some elitist takes in regards to the “correct” way to play – assistance on or off – but at the end of the day, whatever worked for the individual was the right way to go.
Comeback logic will likely always be an element of basketball games, though all things considered we probably shouldn’t have manual control over it anymore. The controversy over modded/scripted controllers highlights the unfairness of artificial boosts in competitive play. With that in mind, a setting that helps a team/user that’s behind is unfair to the other side if they haven’t also enabled it. Of course, that also means that any balancing that takes place behind the scenes needs to be fair, and, well, balanced. In any event, I don’t expect we’ll see CPU Assistance, Clutch Factor, or a similar setting in any forthcoming games. Again, it’s become a thing of the past.
Even if CPU Assistance is outmoded and no longer appropriate – though one could argue it might still have a place in single player and local multiplayer – it’s another one of those elements of older games that I for one find nostalgic. Recalling it or seeing it in the menu of an old title I’m revisiting not only reminds me of what the games used to be like, but also countless conversations in the Forum where new gamers would log on to ask about it. Over the years, those questions have evolved into queries about sliders, builds, and cards, but one thing remains the same. Whether or not the CPU offers assistance, we can certainly provide it for each other.