Wayback Wednesday: Jordan Challenge vs NBA’s Greatest

Wayback Wednesday: Jordan Challenge vs NBA's Greatest

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 comparing The Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11 to NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12.

I like to mix things up here in Wayback Wednesday. From retrospective reviews and profiles of modes and features, to interesting trivia and media from yesteryear, it’s my goal to cover a broad range of throwback content. Something that I haven’t done yet is to directly compare a couple of retro games, modes, or features, and conclude which one is superior. That changes today with what will hopefully be the first of many “Versus” articles for Wayback Wednesday, as I’m comparing The Jordan Challenge to NBA’s Greatest.

I’ve covered both The Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest in several articles for Wayback Wednesday, but the question remains: which is the superior mode? Both modes took NBA 2K’s retro content to a new level, providing some fun challenges and establishing a precedent for all future releases as far as including a variety of historical teams. Let’s compare these two great modes across some key criteria as we take a look back…way back…

Basic Concept

Michael Jordan celebrates title number six in NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge

The basic concept for both The Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest are fantastic, celebrating the career of Michael Jordan and spotlighting a total of fifteen Legends respectively. They pay homage to a golden era in the NBA, featuring players with real faces, era-specific jerseys and team branding, and squads that can be used in other modes. The question is which mode is better from the standpoint of creativity and appeal. Being a huge Michael Jordan fan, my first instinct is to side with The Jordan Challenge. Getting him into the game and on the cover of NBA 2K11 was a big deal, especially given his spotty history of appearing in video games during his career.

At the same time, NBA’s Greatest built upon what The Jordan Challenge established. Popular as he may be, not everyone is a huge fan of MJ and his Bulls teams. There are also plenty of other all-time greats who deserve to be celebrated, and NBA’s Greatest allows us to do just that on the virtual hardwood. Even if you are an ardent fan of His Airness, there’s no denying that there’s more variety to NBA’s Greatest; not just in the players being spotlighted, but their featured opponents. It allowed for the inclusion of a greater number of significant and interesting teams from the 60s through to the 90s, expanding the game’s historical content beyond the scope of MJ’s legendary career.

It’s a really close call, but in my view the deciding factor is the gameplay experience the mode provides. In The Jordan Challenge, the goal is to replicate some of MJ’s most famous performances, effectively recreating eight specific games, the entirety of the 1991 NBA Finals, and an unspecified regular season game against the Hawks. There are statistical goals to meet on top of simply defeating your opponent, and clearing all the games unlocks MJ: Creating a Legend. In contrast, NBA’s Greatest simply involves defeating your opponent in order to unlock both teams for use in other modes. That’s fine, but it’s not quite as deep or creative of a concept.

Winner: The Jordan Challenge

Depth & Accuracy of Content

Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in NBA's Greatest in NBA 2K12

Not only did The Jordan Challenge mark MJ’s official return to the virtual hardwood after many years, but it also ensured the inclusion of some of his greatest opponents and teammates: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Dominique Wilkins, to name but a few Legends. It’s great to see all those players and have a variety of retro Bulls teams in the game, but three of the challenges are set in the 1990 season and several key players are missing. MJ’s teams all have at least a few bench players, but most opponents only have five real players along with fake placeholders.

This is where NBA’s Greatest really shines. 2K made sure to include at least seven real players on every team, with most teams featuring eight or nine players and a few featuring ten, eleven, or twelve. A few of the teams from The Jordan Challenge were also retained, with a handful of missing players added accordingly. The 2002 Kings and 1991 Warriors were limited pre-order exclusives for NBA 2K12, though they could be unlocked by modifying the roster and/or settings file. Some of the teams from NBA 2K11 were dropped due to redundancy, but overall, NBA’s Greatest had the best of both worlds with MJ’s teams and plenty of other historical squads.

Introducing all of those retro teams with expanded rosters pushed NBA 2K’s historical content in the right direction. Even if the challenge aspect of NBA’s Greatest wasn’t as deep as The Jordan Challenge had been, the larger amount of historical players – both the big names and key role players from yesteryear – meant that there was throwback content for everyone. The fact that every team had at least a couple of bench players made every retro squad enjoyable to play with and against. There is admirable depth and accuracy in The Jordan Challenge, but its rosters feel very thin when compared to NBA’s Greatest. Therefore, NBA 2K12’s mode takes the win in this category.

Winner: NBA’s Greatest


1960s Presentation in NBA's Greatest (NBA 2K12)

You can probably guess the winner of this category, even if there wasn’t a huge hint in the image I’ve used. What 2K did with the presentation in NBA’s Greatest was simply phenomenal. Automatically applied filters made each game feel like it was actually a broadcast from the era it was set in, from black and white with tinny sound effects in the 1960s to the brighter colours and clearer audio in the 1990s games. Even all the scoreboards and overlays were different, to reflect the changing presentation through the years. NBA 2K12 isn’t the only basketball game to feature retro effects, but no other game has used it as anywhere near as effectively as it did for NBA’s Greatest.

Before we hand the victory to NBA 2K12, however, let’s give NBA 2K11 its due credit. The Jordan Challenge featured special commentary, with distinct lines that didn’t show up in regular games. NBA’s Greatest would go on to have that as well, but because The Jordan Challenge was recreating specific games, 2K went to the trouble of having Kevin Harlan record his version of lines originally uttered by Marv Albert and Bob Costas during the original broadcast. There were also the special animations you could trigger by reaching certain goals, including the infamous shrug, spectacular move, and Scottie Pippen helping Michael Jordan off of the court in The Flu Game.

Those touches are undoubtedly fantastic, but the sheer amount of effort that went into replicating the old broadcasts in NBA’s Greatest, to say nothing of the accuracy that they achieved despite lacking any authentic television branding, is truly impressive. NBA 2K11’s mode-specific animations and cutscenes for The Jordan Challenge do deserve to be recognised, but overall, they don’t beat out what was accomplished in NBA’s Greatest. It’s just a shame that we were never able to harness those effects in mods, and that 2K hasn’t found a way to include them in future games as presentation settings. Then again, being a once-off arguably makes them even more special.

Winner: NBA’s Greatest

Replay Value

The Jordan Challenge was the first Retro Mode (NBA 2K11)

Truth be told, neither mode has a ton of replay value compared to other experiences. You can’t get as much out of them as you can the franchise, career, and team building modes in subsequent games, or even Association and My Player in NBA 2K11 and NBA 2K12 for that matter. You can feasibly fire them up and enjoy them all over again of course, perhaps even setting some custom goals; you just won’t be able to get the satisfaction of seeing everything unlock unless you delete your settings and saved files, though given the effort required by some of the goals, you likely won’t want to do that. You’ll simply replay the games because you liked them the first time around.

All things considered, I’d have to give the nod to The Jordan Challenge here. It helps that it actually has objectives beyond “win the game”, which means you can challenge yourself to accomplish those tasks all over again, perhaps with even more impressive stats than before. Once you’ve unlocked the retro teams by completing all the games in NBA’s Greatest, there’s no reason to enter the mode unless you want to play with them using the throwback presentation. Granted, that is something you may well want to do, but other than that, nothing about the games is different from Play Now, which of course allows you to pit those teams against any other opponent of your choosing.

If you want to include MJ: Creating a Legend as part of The Jordan Challenge – which you certainly can, given that it’s the reward for completing it – then it easily has far more replay value than NBA’s Greatest. MJ: CAL extended the experience with a special career mode in which you can place a rookie version of Michael Jordan on any current team; in other words, more than a few steps beyond unlocking retro teams for use in other modes. Look, both of these modes are fun to replay if it’s been some time since you last checked them out, but if I had to pick just one to revisit, it’d have to be The Jordan Challenge. All bias aside, there’s simply more to its gameplay experience.

Winner: The Jordan Challenge

Importance & Memorability

The Shrug Game in The Jordan Challenge (NBA 2K11)

We’re even at two wins apiece, so this category will be for all the marbles. When it comes down to it, which mode had the greater significance to basketball gaming, and stands out as the most memorable? The Jordan Challenge feels like a biased pick, not only because he’s my all-time favourite player, but because it came first. Because it was the originator of the concept in NBA 2K and NBA’s Greatest built upon what it started, it’s all too easy to give all the credit to The Jordan Challenge. At the same time, it’s easy to prop up NBA’s Greatest for expanding NBA 2K’s historical content, overlooking that it was building upon a foundation established by its predecessor.

Of course, it’s not about who did it first, but who did it the best. That doesn’t make things much easier though, as both modes did a great job of executing their basic concept and providing basketball gamers with experiences that we didn’t think we’d ever see on the virtual hardwood. As far as being a challenge, The Jordan Challenge is superior, and lives up to its name. NBA’s Greatest truly does celebrate the careers of fifteen NBA greats though, and with era-specific presentation that added to the mode’s nostalgia. Both are great, both are memorable, and both were important in getting historical content into NBA 2K; one as the originator, one as the big next step.

After going back and forth, considering all the factors and trying to put aside all bias, I’m going with The Jordan Challenge. I think the singular focus on Michael Jordan makes it more memorable, due to his history in video games, popularity, and overall strength of his brand. It’s the deeper gameplay experience and still holds its own in the categories that NBA’s Greatest wins. It’s also difficult to go past the standard that it established as far as making historical content important recurring content rather than a once-off bonus feature that never receives any attention again. It paved the way, and while NBA’s Greatest took the ball and ran with it, The Jordan Challenge set the tone.

Winner: The Jordan Challenge

Overall Winner: The Jordan Challenge

Michael Jordan celebrates title number six in the Jordan Challenge (NBA 2K11)

Although I’ve chosen The Jordan Challenge as the superior mode in this showdown, it really is a tight race. For many gamers who love the retro content in NBA 2K and remember both of these modes fondly, the question as to which is superior will come down to personal preference, and the importance you place on either being the first, or being the next step. If you wanted to argue that NBA’s Greatest is better, for any of the reasons I mentioned or indeed one that I didn’t bring up, I wouldn’t think that you were grasping at straws. As I said, I was going back and forth myself, but I ended up deciding on The Jordan Challenge as it’s the originator and deeper mode.

There’s no question that NBA’s Greatest had a larger variety of content though, with more teams and players, and its stunning retro presentation. The Jordan Challenge provided a tough act to follow, but NBA’s Greatest was a worthy successor with a new angle. NBA Live falling on hard times benefitted both games in terms of sales, but The Jordan Challenge no doubt helped make NBA 2K11 the best-selling NBA 2K game at the time, while NBA’s Greatest offered an appealing hook for a game that had to ship with outdated rosters due to the lockout of 2011. There can only be one winner and I’ve gone with The Jordan Challenge, but both modes are appropriately legendary.

Now it’s over to you. Which mode do you believe is better: The Jordan Challenge, or NBA’s Greatest? Have your say in the comments section below! Also let me know whether you like this idea for a recurring series, along with any games, modes, or features that you’d like me to contrast, compare, and make my pick as to which one I believe is superior, as well as the criteria that you feel they should be judged upon. I’ve already got some more ideas of my own, but suggestions will definitely be welcome moving forward. As always, it’ll be interesting to see what holds up, and what comes out on top when pitted against a worthy challenger.

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