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 the phenomenon of playing an older basketball game after its direct sequel, or one of its later successors.
Basketball video games have been around for decades now, with NBA Basketball – the very first NBA-licensed title – coming out in 1980. Furthermore, there’s been at least one annual release every year for at least a quarter of a century and counting. Every single game, good or bad, has been somebody’s first title and introduction to basketball gaming. In short, most people who are playing basketball games in 2022 haven’t been doing so since the beginning. That goes for me, too. Many gamers have hit the virtual hardwood long before I ever did in the mid 90s.
When you get into an established series, there’s a curiosity about what came before. This doesn’t just apply to video games, of course. If you catch an episode of a TV show that’s a few seasons in, or perhaps see a movie that’s part of a series or cinematic universe, you may be inclined to go back to the beginning. In basketball itself, there’s a desire to learn the history of the sport, the NBA, and other leagues…or at least, there used to be. The nature of video games makes going back to an older title after playing a newer game rather interesting, and it’s a phenomenon that I’ve experienced as both a younger and older basketball gamer. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Looking back at some of my favourite video game series, I got into them by playing a sequel (direct or otherwise) before the original. I played Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge before The Secret of Monkey Island. Likewise, I played Doom II – a present from my Nanna in Christmas 1994! – before the original Doom. I fell in love with Super Mario Bros. 3 before ever playing the first one. I overlooked Fallout 1 and 2, getting into the series with Fallout 3. Playing Donkey Kong Country 2 before Donkey Kong Country is a major factor in it being my favourite of the trilogy. Duke Nukem 3D, Return to Zork, Day of the Tentacle, Zelda 2, Street Rod 2…the list goes on!
At some point, I’ve gone on to play all of their predecessors. Aside from the ones that had a change of genre – for example, Fallout 3 and Zelda 2 are quite different to the games that came before them – there’s been a common theme to those experiences, especially with direct prequels. Their similarities make them feel familiar yet foreign at the same time; a phenomenon we obviously also experience when we play the older game first. It’s particularly odd when playing the older game second though, with visuals that are similar but less refined. Sometimes the older game has a mechanic that was dropped or reworked in the sequel, and it feels out of place in retrospect.
Again, these similarities and differences are apparent when playing a sequel after its predecessor, but there’s something strange about them when you’re going backwards. Perhaps it’s because the differences seem new – and they are to you – while in fact they came first. As for the familiar aspects, they now seem retroactively unoriginal in the newer game, now that you know that they’re holdovers. This retroactive unoriginality in your entry point to a series doesn’t exactly ruin your fond memories of it, but an interface or visual style that once seemed so unique feels much less so. Of course, you can also develop a greater appreciation for what turned out to be major improvements.
That brings us to basketball games. The first game in the NBA Live series that I played was NBA Live 95 for the Super Nintendo. As I’ve discussed before however, it was a frequent video store rental. The first NBA Live game that I owned was the PC version of NBA Live 96. It’s still one of my all-time favourite games, especially as it’s the title that led me to discover the NLSC back in 1997, and become a member of the online basketball gaming community. I was always intrigued by the tools and mods for NBA Live 95 PC though, and wished that I owned it as well. As luck would have it, one school holidays, I was able to add it to what was then a very small collection.
My cousin and I were at a local shopping centre with my mother, picking up some treats, packs of basketball cards, and basketball magazines. We were browsing the selection of magazines at the newsagents when I saw it on display at the counter: a complete-in-box copy of NBA Live 95 PC, for twenty dollars. There was no way that I was going to let an opportunity like that pass! With the game in my possession, we hurried to install it as soon as we got home. To my delight, I discovered that its menus were very similar to NBA Live 96 PC. The colour scheme was blue rather than gold, the font was different, and it had 1995 season rosters, but it was still very familiar!
The game setup in the main menu, and the layout of the roster management, options, and stats screens, were all identical to NBA Live 96, apart from the colours and background art. Gameplay was familiar, both mechanically and visually, though NBA Live 96 PC had an intermediate quality/resolution setting. Even many of the player portraits were the same! This shouldn’t have been as exciting as it was, yet it was a blast to be experiencing it. It was a combination of seeing what I missed and where the series had begun on PC, a familiar user interface that I’d come to enjoy, and the freshness of having different menu art and rosters from the previous NBA season.
It also helped that for some reason, NBA Live 95 was more compatible with the gamepad I owned at the time, which made it easier for my cousin and I to play co-op; one of us on the gamepad, the other using the keyboard. This is also how we played the PC version of NBA Jam Tournament Edition, which incidentally is another case of me being more familiar with the sequel than the older game. The PC version of NBA Jam TE is actually the first Jam game that I owned and played. When I finally played the original, with its bars instead of numbers for ratings, older rosters, and lack of substitutions, it was the game that felt strange, even though it had been the pioneer!
NBA Live 99 PC is another older game that I experienced after its sequel. I celebrated our family getting a new PC circa 2000 by purchasing NBA Live 2000 PC, a game that I wouldn’t have been able to run on our previous, ancient desktop. I wanted to complete my collection to that point on PC however, so one weekend my father took me to the local computer store, and I found NBA Live 98 and 99 still on sale. I recall being impressed with how NBA Live 99 still compared very favourably to 2000. It wasn’t quite as good visually and it lacked Franchise mode, but it was fun to go back and see that big step towards the improvements that were made the following year.
I also played NBA Live 07 for Xbox 360 before NBA Live 06 on that console, though my first taste of 07 was a work-in-progress build at my very first Community Event. I didn’t own an Xbox 360 until NBA Live 07 came out, so NBA Live 06 Next Gen was a game I’d only seen in previews. Although I didn’t truly warm up to the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 until many years later, it was immediately apparent where the series had gone backwards in its second seventh generation release. Say what you will about that version of NBA Live 06, but it’s a case of the older game holding up much better than its sequel. NBA Live 07 was the true start of the series’ downfall.
Because it took me a while to really get into the NBA 2K series, I’ve played many of the older games long after their much newer successors. Of course, the series wasn’t immediately accessible to me, having at first been a Dreamcast exclusive, and then unavailable in PAL regions until NBA 2K3. My first foray into the 2K series – outside of the demo of NBA Action 98 on PC – came with NBA 2K6. Having come to love Freestyle Control, 2K’s Isomotion controls felt too clunky, and though I’d try out a demo here or a new release there, it would be years before I warmed up to 2K. Going back to those older games with a fresh perspective and open mind has been quite fun.
It’s given me an appreciation for features that I missed out on by sticking with NBA Live, as well as the evolution of the series that I didn’t experience firsthand. At the same time, I’ve noticed those 2K trademarks that were (or indeed still are) present in later releases: ordering the teams alphabetically by nickname, recurring presentation elements, and so forth. Back when the latest NBA Live was my game of choice, stuff like that felt too different and foreign. Now there’s a sense of familiarity, even as an older game in the NBA 2K series stands out with its own style and approach. Even if they don’t become a retro gaming kick, I really enjoy revisiting the games I skipped.
However, nothing quite compares to installing NBA Live 95 PC for the very first time, and seeing how similar yet different it was to NBA Live 96. It’s up there with seeing the original design of Guybrush Threepwood in The Secret of Monkey Island, and filling in back story that was referenced in Monkey Island 2. It’s a fond memory along the lines of playing the original Super Mario Bros. and realising how far the graphics had come, yet picking it up quickly because the controls were still so similar to Mario 3. It was a similar excitement to playing a Donkey Kong Country game that actually starred Donkey Kong! It was a trip to finally experience the original games.
As I said, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to video games. Seeing a later episode of a TV show or a sequel to a movie, and then going back to the pilot episode or first film, results in the same feeling. That mixture of familiarity and freshness as you find out what actually happened first can be strange, but also enjoyable. Needless to say, when there’s an ongoing story, it can fill in a lot of gaps! With basketball games, it shows how certain titles have improved over their predecessors, but also how far back some great features and ideas go. I enjoy going Wayback for this weekly feature, but when I think about it, I’ve been having those experiences from almost the very beginning.