Wayback Wednesday: NBA Action 98 Retrospective

Wayback Wednesday: NBA Action 98 Retrospective

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 NBA Action 98, also released under the name NBA Fastbreak ’98.

Back in the days when demo CD-ROMs were still a thing, I happened to get my hands on a collection titled Sportz Crazy 2. Released by Sprint Software circa 1997, it featured over twenty sports game demos, in addition to a bunch of Windows 95 tools (including Internet Explorer 4!). As you might expect, my attention was immediately drawn to the basketball games, one of which was Slam ‘N Jam. The other was NBA Action 98, a game published by Sega Sports that was also available on the Saturn. NBA Fastbreak ’98 was the title given to the PlayStation version.

Both titles may be unfamiliar to younger basketball gamers, but the game stands as a significant release, being the forerunner to the NBA 2K series. It went head to head with NBA Live 98, and while EA Sports’ title was better across the board, NBA Action 98/NBA Fastbreak ’98 displayed many of the traits and the attention to detail that would eventually make NBA 2K the premier brand in sim-oriented basketball games. I’ve since picked up the full versions of both NBA Action 98 and NBA Fastbreak ’98, so let’s take a look back…way back…

One of the first things that impressed me when I played the demo of NBA Action 98 was its presentation and aesthetics. NBA Live’s presentation had been improving through the years, and by NBA Live 98 its graphics were quite respectable. However, NBA Action 98 definitely went the extra mile with full player introductions for both teams. Its player models also stood out. Although the PC and PlayStation versions of NBA Live 98 were now fully 3D game and had the better faces, there was some very fluid player movement in NBA Action 98. There was less stiffness when the players jumped for blocks and rebounds, and more variety thanks to contextual animations.

Player Introductions in NBA Action 98

The gameplay certainly held its own against NBA Live 98 in most respects. There are a variety of camera angles including an isometric view much like the classic camera in NBA Live, and the baseline angles that have come to be known as 2K Cam. Every team has their appropriate plays assigned by default, in addition to generic plays such as calling for a screen, or getting a teammate into position for an alley-oop. The rim interactions were noticeably inferior to NBA Live 98, but they were up to the standard of the era. Blocks weren’t exaggerated as they often were in games of that vintage, and the ball physics felt impressively organic on loose balls and interceptions.

Unsurprisingly, NBA Action 98 does display many of the common shortcomings of its era. Jumpshots weren’t as reliable as they should’ve been, especially on All-Star difficulty. Blocking jumpshots was too easy due to slow shooting animations, while scoring in the paint was cheesy. You couldn’t expect to produce realistic statistics on twelve minute quarters, especially given the pace of the NBA game in the mid to late 90s. Player interactions involved a lot of clipping and no physicality. As such, foul calls were too numerous and random in nature, particularly charges. It was way too easy for entire teams to get into foul trouble on the longer quarter length settings.

Additionally, while the attention to detail on playbooks was commendable, it didn’t really result in a marked difference in style, or a strategic game. The AI wasn’t too clueless, but it definitely wasn’t running plays either. Most of the challenge came from the CPU being able to hit more shots on All-Star difficulty, while shots outside of the paint were heavily nerfed for the user. With that being said, this was the result of the limitations of the era, rather than NBA Action 98’s gameplay failing to live up to the contemporary standards. It feels no less primitive than NBA Live 98 does today, and holds up as similarly impressive for a 1997 release, albeit with a few of its own issues.

Shawn Kemp dunks in NBA Action 98

In addition to the aforementioned spotty charging calls and the ease of committing a reach-in foul, one of the biggest issues in NBA Action 98 was its controls. They had the depth to contend with NBA Live 98, but were more contrived. Interestingly, the game had two shoot buttons, experimenting with the concept long before NBA Live adopted the approach in NBA Live 2004. The Drive button was the only way of performing a driving dunk or layup, in contrast to NBA Live 98’s contextual use of a single shoot button, and the Direct Shoot control. It required some adjustment, but it did allow for some nice-looking runners and other shots that NBA Live 98 lacked.

Although it could be clunky, it stands as another early example of deeper shooting controls. Speaking of shooting controls, NBA Action 98 utilised a T-Meter for free throws that was identical to the meters seen in NBA Live, which is a method that I’ve always been a fan of. Unfortunately, NBA Action 98 lacked a dedicated button for dribbling moves. The Drive button performed spins on the perimeter, but there was no way of performing crossovers or even spins within a certain range of the basket. It was still easy to get to the rim without those elusive manoeuvres, but dribbling moves were conspicuous by their absence, given how deep the controls otherwise were.

NBA Action 98 also set itself apart from NBA Live in the way it handled injuries. At the time, injuries in NBA Live could only occur on flagrant fouls, and didn’t last beyond the current game. Injuries in NBA Action 98 could occur independently of fouls, and last multiple games in Season play. The downside was that play stopped when a foul occurred, which meant if an opponent rolled an ankle or pulled their hamstring while you were off to the races on a fast break, the referees would whistle a stoppage, which wasn’t realistic. Also, too many players lined up along the lane on free throws, so there were some strange inaccuracies despite striving for realism.

Shaq Shoots A Free Throw (NBA Action 98)

There were also some design flaws, or perhaps choices that ran contrary to the usual expectations of a sim game. For example, when automatic substitutions were enabled, it was impossible to make manual ones as well. You can understand the logic and it was just a matter of enabling manual subs, but it could be confusing. Instant replay controls were also very limited compared to NBA Live 98, and only accounted for a few seconds. Unless you paused right as a bucket was scored, you couldn’t rewind far enough to watch the play again. Automatic replays were also too short, and usually from a strange angle that didn’t adequately spotlight the player that scored the basket.

Overall, the gameplay in NBA Action 98 wasn’t quite on NBA Live 98’s level as far as accuracy, realism, and depth of controls, but it held its own as far as being a fun sim-oriented experience. I have seen some people express preference for it over NBA Live, and while I disagree that it was the superior game, even today it’s apparent that it was a very enjoyable one. The fluidity in the player models, variety of animations, control scheme, and flashes of realism, all made it fun to play. Beyond limitations that afflicted all games of its vintage though, it was also lacking in a few key areas and took a strange approach to some of the staple features, such as auto subs and replays.

Indeed, the approach to staple functions and features was a major drawback in NBA Action 98. While one could subjectively enjoy the gameplay of NBA Action 98 or NBA Fastbreak ’98 more than NBA Live 98, EA’s game was undeniably deeper and more polished across the board. Whereas NBA Live 98 featured full 15-man roster functionality, NBA Action 98 only included twelve man rosters, which in a few cases left some key bench players out of the game. Create-a-Player was limited, with only a handful of premade faces to choose from rather than full customisation. The original players couldn’t be edited, and there were some redundant roster management menus.

Season Mode in NBA Action 98

Season mode was also uninspiringly weak. By that point, NBA Live had perfected the single season experience, yet a lot of games tried to be unnecessarily different and had a subpar mode as a result. Season play in NBA Action 98 was incredibly bare bones, with a poorly designed and unappealing interface. It did have a useful option to sim to the end of the season or Playoffs at any point, but that didn’t make up for the lack of depth and polish in general. To that end, there wasn’t even a League Leaders screen! The mode also shared its settings with exhibition play, which resulted in low stats if you selected shorter quarters. Playoffs mode was similarly shallow and disappointing.

There was a Practice mode, but unfortunately there was no way to shoot around with a specific player. A generic player was used, and if you had more than one controller connected – such as a gamepad and the keyboard – additional controllable players would appear in the practice arena. It was an effective way of learning the controls, but wasn’t as fun as being able to practice with the real NBA player of your choice. It was another example of the game doing its own thing when it should’ve been taking cues from NBA Live and other titles. Again, it’s why I consider NBA Live 98 to be the superior and better-rounded product, even though NBA Action 98 is fun to play.

Before I go into some of the differences between NBA Action 98 and NBA Fastbreak ’98, I should note that the PC version of NBA Action 98 is actually moddable! A tool was developed to edit the roster.bin file, and while the modding possibilities weren’t as deep or user-friendly as they were for NBA Live 98, it could be used to overwrite 1 Guard on the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan. It also facilitated some other basic roster editing, such as correcting jersey numbers. Speaking of rosters, as was the case with other 1998 season titles, Charles Barkley was in the game. Shaquille O’Neal also joined the Lakers’ roster, as he was no longer exclusive to the NBA Live series.

Tip-Off in NBA Fastbreak '98

So, let’s compare NBA Action 98 and the PlayStation version, NBA Fastbreak ’98. I recall a discussion with Dee4Three where we both asserted that the game we were most familiar with – NBA Action 98 for me, NBA Fastbreak ’98 for him – was the predecessor to NBA 2K. Of course, on that front, we were in fact both correct! While both versions of the game were developed by Visual Concepts, the PC and Saturn release were published by Sega, while the PS1 version was published by Midway in North America, and GT Interactive in Europe and other PAL regions. Reflecting on it, the different publishers are likely what led to the confusion over NBA 2K’s lineage.

Aesthetically, there were some key differences between NBA Action 98 and NBA Fastbreak ’98. While their menu options were identical (except for the PC-specific options in that version), they used different backgrounds and colour schemes. They also had a different cover. Kobe Bryant was the face of NBA Action 98, while NBA Fastbreak ’98 used a shot from the 1997 NBA Finals. Notably, since Visual Concepts didn’t have the rights to Michael Jordan’s likeness, he couldn’t be in the photo used for NBA Fastbreak ’98’s cover; a difficult task given how often he was on the floor! In fact, you can actually see MJ’s arm poking out from behind Adam Keefe in the shot.

Each version has its own menu music, but the more important audio difference was in the commentary. NBA Action 98 featured legendary Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn on the call, while the credited announcer in NBA Fastbreak ’98 was Ted Bonnitt. Although Chick Hearn’s voice added authenticity, his commentary was oddly dry, with only a few lines that were repeated over and over again. Verne Lindquist wasn’t much better in NBA Live 98, but the commentary in NBA Action 98 and NBA Fastbreak ’98 seemed to have more gaps and repetitive phrases. Ironically, while Chick’s commentary was more authentic, Ted’s performance was slightly better.

Allen Iverson Profile in NBA Fastbreak '98

For the most part, gameplay was identical in both versions. The controls, animations, and AI all had the same benefits and drawbacks. Interestingly however, the instant replay functionality and automatic replays worked properly in NBA Fastbreak ’98, which is to say they weren’t a couple of seconds long, and there was more variety in the angles. As such, it would appear that NBA Fastbreak ’98 was the more polished version of the game, at least compared to the PC port; I can’t comment on the Saturn release. Once again though, the core experience was identical, with neither version missing out on a gameplay mechanic, game mode, function, or any other content.

Much as EA Sports’ NBA Playoffs series paved the way for NBA Live’s success, some of the strengths of the NBA 2K series could be found in NBA Action 98/NBA Fastbreak ’98. The attention to detail on elements such as playbooks, the willingness to experiment with controls, and inclusion of additional presentation features, became a trait of Visual Concepts’ basketball titles. It was a respectable effort that had its own charm, and seeking out opinions of it reveals that many gamers held it in high regard, and are still nostalgic for it. I personally wouldn’t rank it ahead of NBA Live 98, but it’s similarly fun to revisit now, and was a commendably solid effort for that era.

Again, I would still describe NBA Live 98 as the better overall product given its roster management features, Season mode, and its quality and depth across the board. It’s not surprising, as EA had had years to build upon NBA Live and refine various design concepts. The tables have certainly turned since, as it’s VC’s games that have taken basketball gaming to new heights. It all goes back to NBA Action 98/NBA Fastbreak ’98 though, and indeed, the intro of NBA 2K14 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One acknowledged it in the “17 years in the making” tagline. Like cover player Kobe Bryant, there was a ton of promise early on, before it went on to become a juggernaut.

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September 10, 2021 7:14 pm

I wasn’t familiar with this game (for 97/98 season except Live 98 I’ve only played NBA Pro 98) but now I know why 2k has team list sort via team name because his father had it too.