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 “cheat” that was possible using instant replay in old basketball video games.
I’ve said it so often in these Wayback Wednesday features that I’m sure it’s starting to sound trite, but basketball video games have come a long way since I first got into them. There are older titles that still hold up quite well and are fun to revisit, but even then, technology has allowed their successors to implement graphics and features that definitely weren’t possible all those years ago. To that end, old hoops titles have a few quirks that tend not to be found in modern games. Some of those quirks can be quite amusing to look back on.
That’s not to say that we didn’t recognise them as being quirky at the time, of course. They were the things that we noted in both amusement and frustration, and talked about when we compiled our Wishlists. Over the years they’ve become somewhat nostalgic, although we’re not exactly clamouring to see them return. One of those quirks was an instant replay glitch that was often listed in the Cheats sections of gaming magazines and websites alike. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Modern consoles and gaming PCs are able to load a lot of data into memory, and have large storage devices for cached files. This facilitates lengthy reels of actual gameplay highlights to be stored and then shown during the quarter breaks, as well as be made available to view in the post-game. That simply wasn’t possible when developers had less power and storage space to work with. This improved technology has enhanced presentation in several ways, including how substitutions are represented on the court. A player that subs in no longer magically replaces the player who subbed out. We can actually see players checking into the game, and leaving the court accordingly.
Not so in more primitive basketball games. A player who was subbing out would simply be replaced by one subbing in, making it look as though the first player had morphed into the second. Whenever substitutions were queued up, either manually or with automatic subs, you’ll see it happen in a blink during a dead ball. In fact, if there were subs ready to be made and you called timeout, you’d often see the switch happen as the players were walking over to the bench, as if the substitutes were already in the game. Again, this is the result of hardware that didn’t have the necessary processing power and memory to facilitate more realistic presentation.
This is where the instant replay trick comes in. Instant replay is a feature that’s been in basketball games for a long time, but limited technology meant limited functionality. Although games saved enough data for us to be able to briefly rewind gameplay, it usually only saved where each player was on the court and what they were doing, but not who the specific players were. This meant that instant replay would play back the action using the current lineups. Most of the time, this wasn’t an issue. If something cool happened, you immediately went into instant replay to watch it, and therefore the players featured in the replay were the ones who’d actually been involved in the play.
However, if you made a substitution and then went into instant replay, the player that you just subbed in would appear on the court instead. This meant that you’d see them doing something they hadn’t actually done, simply because they’re the player that was now loaded into memory. Needless to say, this could be used to set up some funny scenarios, such as a little guard dunking like a big man, poor ballhandlers crossing up someone with ease, or poor outside shooters knocking down threes, if you substituted players accordingly. It’s a trick that could be done in the early iterations of NBA Live, and a number of other mid-to-late 90s titles including Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside.
Note that there are no other effects or any advantages to doing this. It doesn’t change the box scores at all, or unlock any abilities that a player shouldn’t have. It’s just a visual glitch that you can either encounter by accident, or intentionally manipulate for your own amusement. Because it’s something we could do fairly easily on cue though, it was often listed among the cheats for NBA Live and other sim titles in magazines and websites. Admittedly it was usually accompanied by a blurb describing it as being more of a trick than an actual cheat, and no other benefits or effects were promised, but it was nevertheless something that regularly popped up alongside codes and tips.
It’s admittedly a funny glitch to perform, but looking back, I’d suggest that it was done to pad out the cheats listings for those titles. Sim basketball games usually haven’t featured a lot of cheats compared to arcade hoops titles and other genres of video games. Their cheats have mostly been limited to unlocking hidden teams and players, and other such Easter eggs. The NBA is very particular about the Easter eggs and extras that go into their licensed video games, so there aren’t many secrets and tricks that aren’t related to plain old basketball strategies. The instant replay trick was a means of manipulating the game in an amusing way, so it was worth mentioning.
By the early 2000s, we were less likely to be able to perform the trick. For example, NBA Live 2002 has a variation of the glitch where a quick timeout and substitution will allow you to magically switch players, but the original player will still be shown in the replay, only morphing into their replacement at the point you made the swap. In the screenshots below, you can see Shaquille O’Neal change into Lindsey Hunter after throwing down a dunk, as I performed the trick as he was landing. In an older game, Hunter would’ve performed the dunk after I subbed him in and rewound the footage. That was no longer the case, as the saved replay data now included specific players.
Developers were obviously aware of the glitch, and sought to remove it in order to enhance the presentation. Beginning in NBA Live 2003, it was impossible to rewind past a timeout, which prevented substituted players from being inserted into footage they shouldn’t appear in. While it was unfortunate in some respects to lose an amusing trick, it was also for the best. It was another step towards cleaning up the presentation and on-court product to be more realistic, and a suitable workaround until technology allowed for a more sophisticated solution. Besides, the trick does lose its charm and gets a bit boring after going to the effort of setting up a few ridiculous scenarios.
While it might be a fun throwback, it’s not something we need to see return in new games. Even if it’s good for a few laughs, we don’t need to be able to set up a scenario where we can glitch Rajon Rondo into dunking like LeBron James in instant replay. Nevertheless, it is one of those quirks from the basketball games I grew up playing that has stuck in my mind. I didn’t trigger the glitch on purpose all that often, but no doubt seeing it discussed in the “Tips, Tricks, and Cheats” sections of magazines and websites, as well as the various hints and cheats compilation booklets that magazines would often release, have contributed to it becoming ingrained in my memory.
Yes, basketball games have come a long way, but we gamers have changed as well. Today, we search out tricks to earn VC, create the best build, or perform unstoppable moves that yield win after win online. It seems like there’s less interest in performing tricks for the fun of it. Indeed, discovering something like this is more likely to induce a snotty, sneering remark at the developers’ expense. Again, I’m not saying that this is something we should have in modern games, but things like this do add to the charm of revisiting older titles. They were good for a laugh back in the day, and now stand as an example of how the genre has improved since those early basketball games.