The Angst-Ridden Wedlock Child: NBA Playgrounds Review
Editor's Note: At the time of this writing, the Nintendo Switch version of the game still lacks online play, while on other consoles, some online features such as tournaments are still missing. Developer Saber Interactive has promised these features sooner rather than later, though none have been implemented as of yet.
One of the most oft-implemented rules I’ve discovered in my knowledge of retro gaming and its trends, and one that I understand fully as a huge fan of the same type of games, is that yearly sports titles -- your Maddens, your 2Ks, your NBA Lives -- are the most obvious candidates for the analogy of buying a car: once you drive it off the lot, the value starts depreciating exponentially. But those sports games that are all about the gameplay, the ones that toss a bit of imagination in or that turn the energy up to 11 -- they have a magic that springs eternal. They’re often at the forefront of the nostalgic cycle along with your favorite adventures and perfectionist time-stealers like Zelda, Animal Crossing, or Final Fantasy. These games, the ones from Midway like NHL Hitz or MLB Slugfest, or from EA Big like NFL/NBA Street, are as good at luring you in now as they ever have been because they’re so deceiving -- you put them in when you can’t decide what to play for a quick game or two, and just like that you’re taking on the league challenge, hell-bent on dethroning the Yankees or the Bulls, or you’re out travelling the globe, swiping players left and right to build your dream team, telling yourself you’ll stop after just one more game.
These games go back as far as console gaming itself, when Activision’s bare bones, two-on-two Ice Hockey game lit up Atari 2600s, and have been a gaming staple for decades now for one very simple reason: they feel like video games, not just the best approximation of the real thing available at the time. And while we’ve all got our favorites, no game really seems to define the style of outlandish sports games like the all-time classic, NBA Jam. And although NBA Jam has had a somewhat more recent revival than its closest successor, NBA Street, fans have essentially clamored for a revival of either franchise for the last few years, something that would seem as natural as ever given the flashy and style-driven perception of basketball that has only continued to escalate since Jam’s 2010 revival. This is where NBA Playgrounds from Saber Interactive comes in, attempting to strike a balance between NBA Jam’s hyperactive portrayal of the real product and NBA Street’s sometimes gritty, sometimes just plain funky exploration of the “streetball” phenomenon.
Upon starting NBA Playgrounds for the first time after completing its nearly 8 GB download, players may understandably begin to reach for their wallets again, either to whip out the plastic again or to hide it from the prying hands of microtransactions, as the presentation of in-game “booster packs” containing player cards is an all-too-familiar sight in modern sports games that have turned their focus to a “pay to win” structure in modes like EA’s Ultimate Team modes or MLB The Show’s Diamond Dynasty. Luckily, this approach -- opening packs of cards to unlock new players to add to the game’s player pool -- is one of the things that NBA Playgrounds does exactly right. Playing and winning games earns you XP to level up, every new level gets you a standard pack, while the single player tournament mode gives you a gold pack with better players after every tournament victory.
The only way you’ll ever get new packs and unlock players is by playing the game, not by paying extra for premium packs or alternate versions of players or anything like that, and everything is essentially randomized so that you have every chance of getting any player at any time, not getting shorted on good players early on and inundated with new Hall of Famers to try once you’ve already honed your skills. The only negative to the game’s structure and sense of rewards is that as addicting as it is, constantly giving you a sense of reward to keep you trying to get more players (or the particular players that you want if luck isn’t quite on your side), the massive player pool is just overwhelming, especially when you consider that each player can be leveled up from bronze to silver to gold the more you use them, unlocking crazier moves and a sense of progression and loyalty with each one. With the ability to only use two out of the 250 players in the game at one time, deciding on which ones you want to use and which ones actually work well together is the hardest thing about the game, or at least it would be in any other game like it. Because NBA Playgrounds is hard.
One of the most important things about the arcade sports titles, and something that NBA Jam is so often cited as one of the best examples of, is the inarguable importance of being easy to pick up and understand quickly, whether or not the difficulty of the game overall cared enough to spike and pull the rug out from under you after you drained your first three-pointer. Whether or not you’d prefer the control layout to be simplified down to true NBA Jam fashion (the control scheme isn’t actually too far off from what you’d find in the Street games), the actual sense of control -- timing shots and dunks, utilizing different moves on both offense and defense, feeling like you’re in control of your player when you input a command -- is way off of either of Playgrounds’ influences, and mostly feels like the developers typically couldn’t decide between the loosey-goosey, smooth-like-buttah feel of the NBA Street games that its courts, special moves, and commentary style were modeled after, or the fast, tight, and simple presentation of the original NBA Jam games, where the only excess frames of animation accompanied moves like throwing elbows, alley-oops, and rough, hard-hitting defense that Saber Interactive attempts to recreate.
The all-too-common baseline example of how poorly-balanced the controls are is clear from the vast majority of shot attempts. Like any basketball game should, NBA Playgrounds’ shooting mechanic is simply about releasing the shoot button with the right timing. The problem with how the game uses this mechanic however is that while the proper timing window isn’t too small, but that it’s never the same, constantly changing from right before the apex of a jumper to right after, to a completely different sense of timing (based in part on the not-that-helpful “early” or “late” indication that accompanies a missed shot) on layups, fadeaways, dunks, etc., and even more baffling, it’s apparently different for every player. With so many variables present on every shot, the game’s balance is way off and makes it impossible to learn the game in a well-rounded manner and turns the incredibly difficult AI, especially in single player, from a legitimate and constantly increasing challenge to cocky, taunting opponents who know their given players way better than you’ll ever know yours, allowing them to run away with games that would otherwise be competitive if not for your pathetically low shot percentage.
One thing I do quite like about the game’s middle ground between Street and Jam is the way it affects the majority of its presentation. True to its name, NBA Playgrounds takes place on street courts across the globe, all of which are brightly lit and surrounded by spectators as if to resemble the final scene of White Men Can’t Jump. Although there are only six unique courts, they range from Paris to New York to Shanghai with plenty to distinguish each one and live up to its names, such as Paris’ quaint villa setting and New York tournaments taking place at stand-ins for The Cage (as seen in NBA Street). Attempts to replicate NBA Street’s cocky, boisterous announcers, however, are pointless, with insult after insult being launched at teams that miss shots or get the ball swiped in an overeager attempt to recreate the same catch-phrase heavy style of its influences, which mostly a lot of weird retreads of familiar phrases and an unsettling number of different soundbites referring to incarceration (for steals of course).
Some may not like the graphical style that Playgrounds uses for its players, with hyper-accentuated features on bobblehead-style players (Patrick Ewing’s nostrils look like they could fit a salami up there, and Bill Walton looks like a bearded Easter Island head, to name a few), but as far as presentation goes, NBA Playgrounds is at its best when its not trying too hard to look too familiar, although the player models do make for a rather dubious milestone: NBA Playgrounds is the first game I’ve played on the Switch to have noticeably worse graphics in handheld mode, with players that are crisp and detailed in docked mode looking downright blurry in your hands. Although this may help keep the game running at its smooth and commendable 60 FPS, avoiding slowing down the game at all costs, this and its atrocious load times (30-40 seconds for a three-minute game) are definitely worth noting compared to games on a similar level like Fast RMX.
Everything wrong with NBA Playgrounds seems to come from the same place: an unusual anxiety of influence between two similar-yet-different games that haunt it at every turn due simply to the fact that it can’t be both games at once, which means that either NBA Jam or NBA Street on their own are much better games all around. As a result, it does so much right, mostly when doing things that are starkly different from what you might see in another arcade basketball game. But a deeply flawed sense of control clashes with the fresh, addictive structure it brings to the table and it simply tries too hard to bring together two games that aren’t as similar as you might think. It keeps you playing through completionist desires and the assumption that you will learn its peculiarities on your way to your next booster pack, and that that booster pack will have Shaq in it this time.