Wayback Wednesday: Hoops for NES

Wayback Wednesday: Hoops for NES

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 taking a look back at Hoops for NES.

Early basketball video games can be difficult to revisit, or truly appreciate if you didn’t grow up with them. It wasn’t until the mid to late 90s that we started to see titles that resembled modern releases, and it wouldn’t be until the 2000s that some of the contemporary mechanics and features were implemented, and their approach codified. Beyond their primitive graphics, early titles can be oddly designed, and cumbersome to play. Depending on your history with the virtual hardwood, the further back you go, the more challenging it may be to have a satisfying retro gaming experience.

However, in evaluating these old basketball games – or indeed, any retro title – we need to keep in mind the technology and design standards of the era. What was once cutting edge has now been surpassed, and certain mechanics and control concepts weren’t yet standardised. Nevertheless, there are some games that stand out as true classics, even though they do show their age. Titles such as Double Dribble, Jordan vs. Bird, and Lakers vs. Celtics, are definitely in that category. Today, I’m profiling one of their contemporaries from the late 1980s: Hoops for NES. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Developed by Aicom and published by Jaleco, Hoops was released in Japan in 1988, and then in North America and PAL regions in 1989. It’s a halfcourt basketball game in the style of Jordan vs. Bird, though it doesn’t include any real NBA players. Hoops consists of both 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 gameplay, with users and the CPU selecting from a pool of fictional competitors. Although there are no numerical ratings visible for the players, you can view their profiles which describe their strengths, weaknesses, and overall style of play. The profiles include detailed portraits – detailed for the 8-bit era, anyway – as well as a short “clip” of them in action, which is actually a cool touch.

Shooting For Possession in Hoops

Games are played to a target score of 10, 15, 20, or 25. You can also choose between winner’s or loser’s outs, and whether you play on an Eastern or Western court (thus changing up the background environment). Offensive and defensive fouls are in effect, as is the out of bounds rule, and the ball must be cleared by taking it past the top of the key on a change of possession. First possession is determined by a free throw shootout, which involves stopping the arrow when it’s directly above the rim. There’s also an option to play Around the World, which is more or less a means of practicing your timing for the aforementioned shooting for possession mini-game.

During regular gameplay, shots are performed with the B button. One press of the B button jumps, while a second press releases the shot. In 2-on-2 play, the A button passes the ball on offense and attempts a block on defense, while the B button can be used to try for a steal when close to the ballhandler. Like Double Dribble, attempting a shot near the rim will trigger a dunking cutscene. Taller players will always attempt a big two-handed slam, while shorter players go for a one-handed dunk. If a defender goes up for a block in time, the dunk will be blocked during the cutscene; otherwise, they’ll get dunked on. It’s also possible to miss a wide open dunk from time to time.

Beyond that, there are no further special moves or controls. In short, Hoops is a straightforward game of virtual pickup basketball, starring a colourful array of fictional characters. With that being said, how does it play? While its simplicity can come across as a shallow experience, there’s an undeniable fun factor. It’s easy to pick up and play, and it’s satisfying to make jumpers, swat away dunks, and slam it home. The CPU is quite adept at stealing the ball and intercepting passes though, so there are moments of frustration. Clearing the ball can be surprisingly challenging due to the rapid changes in possession, but that’s also something you can use to your advantage.

Mr. Doc Goes Up For A Dunk

As is the case with Double Dribble, the dunking cutscenes are more exciting than they have any right to be, particularly as there are only two dunks. Still, between splitting the one-handed and two-handed dunk cutscenes between short and tall players, the four different outcomes, and rising up on either side of the hoop, it feels like there’s more variety than there really is. Rejecting a dunk is immensely satisfying, despite being an automated sequence once the cutscene kicks in. When timed correctly, there’s even a sense of performing a chasedown swat! There’s a sense of anticipation as a cutscene begins that succeeds in bringing excitement to paint play in Hoops.

Unsurprisingly for a game of its vintage, the difficulty can feel somewhat contrived, exemplifying the term “Nintendo Hard“. In addition to the CPU’s ability to intercept passes and pick your pocket, there’s little consistency to pushing and charging fouls. On the bright side, these calls do tend to go both ways. When Dee and I discussed Hoops on the NLSC Podcast, we noted that we preferred our 1-on-1 game to facing the CPU in co-op 2-on-2. When playing solo, I found 2-on-2 to be more enjoyable than 1-on-1 against the AI. Age, quirks, and artificial challenge aside, once you get the hang of Hoops, it can be solid as both a single player and multiplayer experience.

There’s something really enjoyable about the setting and aesthetics of Hoops, too. I didn’t actually play Hoops until quite recently, but I grew up playing other genres of games from around the same time. The bright, colourful visuals remind me of late 80s/early 90s titles such as California Games and Street Rod. The overall vibe is particularly reminiscent of California Games, with a group of fictional characters out playing sport on a sunny day. Everything about the characters’ styles, and the aesthetic of the two courts, perfectly captures a snapshot of what was cool and trendy back then. Even keeping score with chalk markings on the wall adds to that atmosphere.

Mr. Doc Profile in Hoops

On top of that, there’s a sense of innocence and playfulness to the concept. It isn’t trying to be a deep, authentic representation of professional basketball. It’s a bunch of wacky stock 80s characters – including a star athlete, a glamorous girl who’s just as good as any of the guys, a bespectacled nerd, the preppy guy, the beefy guy, and so on – meeting up to hoop. It’s not taking itself too seriously, but there’s enough effort and differentiation to warrant playing with all of the characters. Even though I didn’t play Hoops when it was new, the similarities to games I enjoyed, and familiar tropes and aesthetics, make it feel incredibly nostalgic all the same. It really is a time capsule!

Interestingly, 2-on-2 play actually provides a de facto campaign mode with an ending. Winning a 2-on-2 game allows you to use the Continue option to face new opponents with the same duo, and provides a password so that you can pick things up again after switching the game off. After you defeat all of the opponents, you’ll get the ending cutscene: basically your standard “Where are they now?” montage, in which you find out what happens to all of the characters “a few years later”. Once again, the game isn’t taking itself too seriously here. It may seem like a clunky way to implement a story or campaign mode, but it works, and it’s admirable that they even bothered.

There isn’t much else to Hoops, apart from a “Watch” mode. As the name implies, you can watch the CPU play against itself, 1-on-1 or 2-on-2. I can’t imagine that anyone would’ve chosen to do that too often, as it’s just watching a randomised attract mode demo. To that point though, it does demonstrate the capabilities of the AI, the skills of all the different characters, and some of the strategies you might use. It was also a fairly uncommon option for the time; something that’s admittedly tough to appreciate when CPU vs. CPU gameplay has been ubiquitous in basketball games for so long now. Curiosity might move you to check it out, but you’ll probably just want to play.

2-on-2 Gameplay in Hoops for NES

Going back to what I said in the introduction to this retrospective, while early hoops titles absolutely put the “retro” in “retro gaming”, they’re not always fun for those who like to go way back. If you didn’t grow up with Hoops or other games from that era, it may not feel very accessible. Even for someone like me that did play games back in the 8-bit era and enjoys messing around with old titles, it’s not likely to become a fixture in my rotation. As much as I can appreciate Hoops, the gameplay does show its age, and it doesn’t have the overall depth to keep me hooked outside of occasional revisits. I might someday play through to the end, but probably not in one sitting.

Putting it in an historical perspective though, it more than holds its own against many of its contemporaries. That may seem like I’m damning it with faint praise, but there are some genuine classics from that era. Furthermore, that its fun aspects are apparent to me today – even without nostalgia established decades ago – suggests that it was also enjoyed by gamers when it was new. Indeed, it was reviewed positively in its day. Retrospective reviews are more critical, and I’ve seen a few YouTube comments describe it as being the worst basketball game ever. Other comments recalled it fondly however, and while the mixed reception is understandable, overall it’s a solid game.

Since adding it to the collection and finally giving it a look all these years later, my appreciation for Hoops goes beyond the on-court action. It’s impossible to play a game like it and not be taken back to an era where cutscenes were special because they were such a rarity. They were simple, yet added detail that we now take for granted. The colourful aesthetic evokes memories of discovering video games, and playing outside on a sunny afternoon alike. There’s creativity in the characters, even if they are stock tropes and archetypes. Is it sim? Of course not, but Hoops is “video game basketball” in the best sense of the term, brimming with late 80s nostalgia.

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