NBA Jams, NFL Street, Ice Hockey (NES), and many other sport titles bridged the gap from the games we love to the arcade. They dominated local arcades and home consoles through the 90’s and allowed players to experience the games in an over-the-top fashion they could only dream about. In today’s market, sports have turned to creating a simulation style game and leaving behind those crazy moves and power-ups. Sabre Interactive hopes to breathe some life into the old school arcade sports games with their title NBA Playgrounds.
NBA Playgrounds immediately shows how it was inspired from the classic arcade sports games, especially NBA Jams, from the very first time you load up the game. Elements like the players disproportionate heads, the overly exuberant announcer, and how the laws of gravity don’t apply at all add up to some extreme gameplay action and stratospheric fun. The 2 vs 2 matches allow you to choose who you want to put on the court, but only if you’ve unlocked them through opening packs of cards to add to your collection. While this formula is very familiar with titles like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2k and require the player to grind out ways to earn packs or purchase them with real world money, NBA Playgrounds shuns this model entirely. You start out with a few “freebie” packs so you can play the initial game types and get a grip on the controls. Other packs can be earned through leveling up and playing through a variety of tournaments set in 8 different locations around the world.
Unlocking new players to add to your roster may be one of the best features of the game as it allows you to create custom teams you could previously only dream about. Magic Johnson and Shaq, LeBron James and Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlin and Russell Westbrook, and many more to give you hundreds of players from the past and present to choose from. Whether you choose from your favorite current players or players from your favorite team from different eras, you will no doubt have a blast with your very own dream team. Legend players have signature moves that add a dash of realism and pizazz to your hardwood skills. LeBron’s tomahawk dunk, Magic’s special pass, Curry’s crossover, and Dirk’s fade away 3 pointer deliver some dazzling moves to keep things fresh. Non-legend players can be leveled up to boost stats and unlock new moves. The leveling system is generic and does not reward XP based on in-game performance, but on completion of the game only. This is a major disappointment, especially when chalking up triple doubles and other epic single game accomplishments only to be rewarded with a measilly 100 XP.
Gameplay is easy to master and requires a little more skill than button mashing. There is a shot meter that requires you to hit the button while in the zone and based on your players stats of making 2pt/3pt the meter will vary. Stats are the key to building a balanced team and vary player to player; you must decide whether dunking, 2pt or 3pt shooting, steals, blocks, stamina or speed are the key to your team’s success. My personal experience is that stamina is key, especially with the game breaking shove that can happen in multiplayer. The stamina meter depletes quickly when you sprint down the court, attempt to steal, block shots, dunk or call for an ally-oop. Power-ups help supplement some stats giving you unlimited stamina, extra points for certain shots on the court, or an electric shot (think NBA Jams “on fire” shot) that allows you to sink a bucket no matter where you shoot it from.
NBA Playgrounds offers you plenty to come back for time and time again with the player choices, trying to unlock all the players, or dabbling in the multiplayer. The latter might not be the best thing the game has to offer as they quickly turn into playground shoving matches and making shots away from the basket is the only way to score. Eliminating dunks and defense in the paint make this a one ring circus that gets old fast. Achievement hunters will have to grind out some of the hefty rewards like 100 three pointers or 150 dunks over the course of your games.
Overall NBA Playgrounds brings something refreshing to the hardwood court and revitalizes the arcade basketball feeling that was abandoned back in the 90’s. Gameplay, visuals and even the sounds keep the nostalgia flowing throughout all the action. The NBA license gives players a plethora of old school and modern players to choose from, but due to some licensing issues there are a few notable faces missing. Online matches are better left alone and can be more frustrating than the cheating computer AI you’ll face in the more difficult tournaments. But all in all this is an extremely enjoyable experience for anyone familiar with the way old school arcade sports titles played or if this is their first time in the “anything goes” world of arcade gaming.
Review code supplied by Microsoft Xbox.