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 Freestyle Challenge in NBA Live.
EA Play 2017 introduced us to The One, the new single player career mode that is set to debut in NBA Live 18. The depth of game modes has been a problem for the NBA Live series since its reboot in 2013, but as I’ve discussed in various 20th Anniversary of NBA Live retrospectives and Wayback Wednesday articles, there was a time when EA were consistently doing some very innovative things with their basketball games. I’ve already talked about the much-missed All-Star Weekend mode that was introduced in NBA Live 2005, but the addition of the Slam Dunk Contest and Three-Point Shootout also led to the inclusion of another mode: Freestyle Challenge.
A spinoff of the All-Star Weekend, Freestyle Challenge provided basketball gamers with something else to play in between the deeper game modes. It’s a mode that doesn’t get mentioned very often, but it was definitely an interesting concept, so let’s take a look back…way back…
NBA Live 2004 through NBA Live 06 was a strong three year run for the series, at least in terms of the PC and PS2 version. The gameplay experience was enjoyable, especially following some slider adjustments, and each new title added or revamped modes and features. As a result, those games felt very solid, deep, and well-rounded, at least compared to their predecessors. The addition of All-Star Weekend in NBA Live 2005 added depth to an experience that already included a fairly robust Dynasty Mode, but there was room for a little extra content. With the mechanics for a Dunk Contest and Three-Point Shootout in the game, EA gave us Freestyle Challenge.
Freestyle Challenge was a split-screen, head-to-head challenge mode featuring the Slam Dunk Showdown and 3 Point Showdown. In each Showdown mode, the first player to reach the target score was the winner. In the 3 Point Showdown, that simply meant achieving the best score out of 30, with the same rules as the regular event. In the Slam Dunk Showdown, the contestants had free reign to attempt as many dunks as possible, with each dunk earning points based on the degree of difficulty and quality of execution. Points would be subtracted for rim stuffs, missed lobs, or repeated dunks. Money balls would double the points on a successful attempt.
The 3 Point Showdown was unquestionably the easier of the two challenges. Like the regular Three-Point Shootout in the All-Star Weekend, it had very straightforward mechanics: grab the ball off the rack with one button, shoot it with another, time the release of the shot correctly to score as many points as possible. The only real challenge came from the difficulty level’s effect on the successful release window, your susceptibility to being distracted by your opponent shooting on the other side of the split screen, or perhaps any interference and taunting from a second player sitting next to you in a User vs. User matchup.
Conversely, the Slam Dunk Showdown could be quite challenging. Some of the best dunk combinations could be tricky to pull off, especially on higher difficulty settings. The limit of 24 seconds per attempt and a maximum of two replacements made the regular Dunk Contest tough as well, but you could win it by mastering a handful of spectacular slams. With target scores in the Showdown ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 points, you needed to be able to break out as many unique combinations of lobs and tricks as possible, while also minimising the number of failed attempts and avoiding repetition. All the while, your opponent was racking up points, too.
As such, the Slam Dunk Showdown is the more fun and satisfying challenge. The 3 Point Showdown is good for a quick challenge if you’ve got a couple of minutes to kill, but it’s basically a quick way of setting up a single round of the Three-Point Shootout. The Slam Dunk Showdown at least provided something a little different to the usual Slam Dunk Contest, and it’s actually a good test of your skills on the sticks. It forces you to think very quickly on your feet, keep track of the dunks you’ve already performed, and be a master of the more advanced combinations. In fact, it’s arguably a good way to keep your skills sharp for the proper Slam Dunk Contest.
Apart from that aspect, of course, there isn’t really a lot of replay value in Freestyle Challenge. The Showdowns are essentially single level mini-games, so most NBA Live gamers probably didn’t spend a great deal of time with them, especially when the proper All-Star Weekend events offered more depth. They were a fun distraction though, and perhaps more importantly, they represented an effort by EA Sports to pack as much content into NBA Live as possible. Getting the All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest and Shootout was already a big deal, but it was a cool idea to make use of those assets to create a little something extra to mess around with.
That being said, Freestyle Challenge certainly wasn’t as popular as All-Star Weekend, thus it isn’t as widely or fondly remembered, nor is it a staple of Wishlists alongside the Slam Dunk Contest and Three-Point Shootout. It did remain in the PC version right through to NBA Live 08 though, and was also included in the PlayStation 2 version of NBA Live 09. However, no additions or changes were made to Freestyle Challenge in subsequent releases, except for the default players on the selection screen. It was also never featured in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases, even after the All-Star Weekend made its debut on that generation in NBA Live 07.
While Freestyle Challenge itself shouldn’t necessarily return in future NBA Live games – especially as there are more pressing issues to address, and more appealing ideas in terms of modes and features – the basic notion of expanding the game with extra content obviously has merit. It wouldn’t have detracted from the development of any other aspect of the game, and it stands as an example of how to effectively use existing assets to offer up some bonus mini-games. It’s not something we really see anymore, so if nothing else, Freestyle Challenge is interesting to look back on, as well as try your hand at whenever you pop in one of those old games.