Wayback Wednesday: MJ on the Japanese NBA Live 2002 Cover

Japanese NBA Live 2002 Cover

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 Japanese version of NBA Live 2002, which featured Michael Jordan in a Wizards jersey on the cover.

I like to think I’m fairly knowledgeable when it comes to the history of basketball video games, but from time to time, I learn something new about one of my favourite hobbies. Back in the 90s, I had no idea that one of my favourite hoops games on the Super Nintendo, World League Basketball, was released as an NCAA game in North America. I knew about NBA Action ’98, the precursor to the NBA 2K series, but I didn’t know that the PlayStation version was titled NBA Fastbreak ’98. And I certainly didn’t know that Michael Jordan was on the Japanese cover of NBA Live 2002!

Based on the responses to a Tweet I made, it seems I’m not alone on that last point. It wasn’t until I happened across Japanese copies of NBA Live 2002 on eBay several years later that I became aware of it, as it was never referenced in any other region. It’s an interesting collectable for many reasons, from the rarity of seeing His Airness in early video games or on video game covers, to him being featured in a Wizards jersey. I was delighted to add it to my collection, knowing that it would also make for a fun Wayback Wednesday topic. Let’s take a look back…way back…

To elaborate on how I discovered the Japanese NBA Live 2002 cover featuring MJ, a few years back I was expanding my collection of basketball video games. My goal was to pick up games I already owned on different platforms, and fill in the gaps with some games that I’d never owned or played. I found myself searching high and low for the PlayStation 2 version of NBA 2K2, only to discover that the series didn’t hit PAL regions until NBA 2K3. It was during that search however that I encountered a few copies of NBA Live 2002 with Michael Jordan on the cover, wearing a Wizards jersey. Details of the listing revealed it to be the Japanese version of the game.

Steve Francis & Michael Jordan NBA Live 2002 Covers

At first, I believed it must’ve been a bootleg. Steve Francis was the cover player for NBA Live 2002, and I’d never heard of an alternate cover featuring MJ, in a Wizards jersey or otherwise. After doing a little digging it seemed to be legit, which made it an interesting discovery. Around that time, I’d finished expanding my collection and had given up on NBA 2K2 once I discovered there was no PAL version, so I didn’t give that version of NBA Live 2002 any further thought. About a month ago it popped into my head out of the blue, and I wondered if I might be able to get my hands on a copy. I found a few of them listed on eBay, and snagged one for less than $10 AUD.

It’s a great collectable, but I can’t help wondering about the back story. As I noted, the cover player in all other regions was Steve Francis, then a rising star with the Houston Rockets. He was reaching the peak of his marketability around that time, on the verge of his prime in an all too brief NBA career. However, Michael Jordan is obviously the bigger name, and was undoubtedly relevant again owing to his return to the NBA with the Washington Wizards. When he announced his comeback, EA Sports made a point of promoting the fact that he was in NBA Live 2002 with a bunch of screenshots and a page on the official website. There was no mention of the Japanese cover, though.

Given that MJ likely would’ve been far more familiar to many international fans than Francis and other new NBA stars, it makes sense that he’d be featured on the Japanese cover. Of course, that does raise the question as to why he wasn’t also the main cover player for NBA Live 2002. His comeback was a big story, his brand sells, it was his first official appearance in the game since NBA Showdown, and EA had obviously obtained the necessary rights. Having MJ on the cover, even with the unfamiliar sight of him wearing a Wizards jersey, would’ve been huge. I can only conclude that it was a special arrangement for a foreign market, and therefore possibly cheaper to license.

Steve Francis & Michael Jordan NBA Live 2002 Covers (Back)

Whatever the case may be, it makes for a unique cover! The back cover art is also notably different to the English version of the game, with alternate screenshots and more references to Michael Jordan. Forum and 2K Pro-Am squad member Valor has helped out with some rough translations, and there are a few interesting changes to the text. While the feature descriptions regarding Franchise mode, player accessories, and new moves are quite similar, there’s one that refers to the game being fully licensed, as well as more about MJ’s return and his famous number 23 jersey. The “Out of the Stands, Onto the Court” slogan at the top has also been changed to “EA Time Again”.

Unlike the English release that features artwork with Steve Francis’ in-game model on the disc, the Japanese disc has very minimal artwork. The manuals are very different; not just the language, but also their content. The Japanese manual is more detailed and features art and screenshots in colour, contrary to the black and white of the English manual. As for the game itself, because it’s NTSC-J format, I can’t play it on my PAL PlayStation 2. It is possible to play it on PC via an emulator though, so I was able to fire it up and take a look to see if there are any differences. For the most part it’s the same game – not too much of a surprise there – but there are a few points of interest.

Obviously the game is in Japanese, though there are a few English phrases here and there that remain untranslated along with the players’ names. There’s no difference in the gameplay, the graphics, or any of the core features of the game, and at a glance, the rosters weren’t updated despite a later release. The English commentary from the late Don Poier and Bob Elliott is also present. Steve Francis also appears on all of the loading screens, so he hasn’t been replaced by Michael Jordan as the in-game cover player. Oddly, the menu controls are slightly different with Circle being used to select options while X is used to go back, as opposed to X and Triangle respectively.

Japanese NBA Live 2002 Disc

Of course, I didn’t buy the Japanese version of NBA Live 2002 to play it. I have a PAL copy that works just fine and uses a language I’m fluent in. Being a Michael Jordan fan and collector of basketball video games, I only wanted it for the cover. It was interesting to compare and contrast the two versions though, to find out what had been changed and what hadn’t. Being a native English speaker, I wonder how certain English phrases and terminology translate, so it was cool getting an insight into some of those changes on the back cover. The different manuals, menu controls, and how Steve Francis was utilised in the in-game branding, were also fun to discover.

In recent years, regional and special edition covers have become more common for NBA 2K, and going back to the previous generation, NBA Live had its fair share of alternate covers as well. This is one that has been overlooked, despite being one of the earliest examples of an international market getting a different player. It deserves to be recognised for that historical trivia alone, and indeed, I’ve updated our Wiki to reflect that. Again, it’s strange that EA didn’t take the opportunity to feature MJ as the global cover player, but as I speculated it may have been a cheaper arrangement, or a deal they were able to come to in time for the Japanese version’s later release.

I’ve mentioned that NBA Live 2002 is a game I’m oddly nostalgic for. It was far from the strongest release of its generation, but I played it a lot. It also came out when I was in senior high school, so I associate it with a memorable time when life, and for that matter the NBA, was changing. Michael Jordan’s Wizards stint was a notable part of that, further exemplified by his inclusion as an active player for the first time in NBA Live. That there was a version of NBA Live 2002 with MJ on the cover just makes it even more special. It may have only come out in Japan, but it’s still a great piece of basketball gaming history, and now undoubtedly a nifty collectable as well.

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