NBA Video Games, a Brief History Part 1
My wife and I had our first baby back in March. A week before she was born, we had another couple over for dinner and my friend gave me a low down on what the first year of fatherhood was going to be like.
“The first year sucks. Don’t get me wrong. You don’t realize it at the time. The kid just sort of lies there and doesn’t do anything. The first year sucks, but you won’t understand that until year two. Then you won’t realize how terrible year two is until you get to year three.”
I had two immediate reactions to this statement. The first was, I have to be misunderstanding my friend, he sounds insane. But immediately I correlated his feelings and how they apply to video games. When I was in first grade, my parents bought me a Nintendo. It was the greatest thing I had ever played. The graphics were stunning. The games were complex and futuristic. Then the baby turned one, so to speak.
This all changed when I upgraded to a Sega Genesis in 1992. Now the Nintendo didn’t seem so amazing anymore. Going from a Nintendo to a Sega was what my friend was telling me about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Nintendo just lied there without doing anything.
Now, over the years as the technology got better and each subsequent generation of video game systems were released, it made previous models seem less exciting and interesting. Granted there is a bit of nostalgia with older models of games—for example, there’s something comforting about playing the original Nintendo or even N64. It works because enough time has passed to make the style retro. I digress.
In the last week we’ve learned that NBA2k16 is going to feature some college basketball programs which was something I’ve hoped would be included in games for a long time. The news got me thinking about how far games have come since I first started playing video games.
As the oldest writer for Off the Glass, I felt that I was the best man to write about the history of NBA video games. The fact is, I’ve been playing them since before a lot of our writers were even born. So I’m going to attempt to put my brain through the Wayback Machine and try and remember how impactful these games were at the time. I’m also going to rank each game based on how fun it is to play in 2015. Does that make sense?
Today, we’ll take a look at the NBA game through the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era and hold off on anything released from the Nintendo 64 and on for part two.
The best way to start a brief history of NBA video games is to mention a game that isn’t technically a NBA video game. Double Dribble wasn’t officially licensed by the NBA, but featured a handful of teams that were awfully NBA-like. You had a choice between Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York for teams and although the nicknames didn’t match up (Chicago Ox?), the colors did. It was 1987 and you could go 12-minute quarters with a green clad Boston team taking on a purple Los Angeles Team.
I should also mention the cut-screens. When a player would try and dunk the basketball, the game would cut to an animation of the player dunking. It’s certainly cheesy now—but you have to understand, this was only a few years removed from the original Tron in movie theaters. It didn’t take much to wow people.
2015 score: 5/10
THE NBA PLAYOFFS
For the sake of keeping this post under 5,000 words, I am going to lump 1991’s Lakers vs Celtics and the NBA Playoffs together with the 1992 sequel Bulls vs Lakers and the NBA Playoffs, and 1993’s Bulls vs Blazers and the NBA Playoffs since all three are nearly identical games.
This was the first video game series to be officially licensed by the NBA and featured the 16 teams that played in the playoffs the year before the game’s release. Lakers vs Celtics didn’t just offer real NBA players, but the game included signature moves by a handful of the stars. You could recreate Michael Jordan’s reverse layup, Charles Barkley’s gorilla dunk, or the devastating Tom Chambers dunk.
Each version of the game added something groundbreaking that would become a staple in future games. Aside from the NBA license, Lakers vs Celtics was the first game to feature logos of any kind on the court. Bulls vs Lakers incorporated instant replay and Bulls vs Blazers offered players a chance to customize an All-Star roster.
The gameplay was revolutionary at the time, but doesn’t hold up nearly as well as some of these games do many years later. This is due to the pace of the game. While the series has all of the bells and whistles a gamer could ask for in 1993, the players were slow and the game lacked pace.
2015 Score: 4/10
NBA ALL-STAR CHALLENGE
Part of what made this post so much fun was it gave me an excuse to go back and play a bunch of video games that I haven’t thought about in years. NBA All-Star Challenge was the exception. I had forgotten this game existed. Rather, I had repressed the memory that this game ever existed. It’s bad.
The concept of this game wasn’t entirely bad. Why not incorporate all of the fun of All-Star Weekend without the fun of the actual All-Star Game or the slam dunk contest? On paper, it’s hard to figure out why the game bombed.
But there were parts to the game that were important. For instance, every NBA team is represented but only one player is represented per team. While it can be fun to play one on one as Michael Jordan or Isiah Thomas, the same couldn’t be said for Tony Campbell or JR Reid.
2015 Score: 2/10
JORDAN VS BIRD: ONE ON ONE
This was easily a better representation of All-Star Weekend than NBA All-Star Challenge. There were three separate modes playable during Jordan vs Bird: One on One. You could participate as Larry Bird in the 3-Point Contest, take control of Jordan in the Slam Dunk Contest, or as the title of the game suggests, go one on one against the other player. It’s actually a sequel to the 1983 Atari game “Dr. J vs Larry Bird: One on One”.
Even though the game is far superior to NBA All-Star Challenge, it is far from perfect. There simply isn’t enough substance to the game and it felt this way at the time. Of course, this was during the 16-bit era of video games where only so much could fit onto a cartridge game so it’s understandable that this game couldn’t have been added as a mini-game in one of the NBA Playoffs games.
It should be noted, however, that the concept of Jordan vs Bird works much better in commercials than it does in video games.
2015 Score: 5/10
NBA Jam wasn’t just a video game. NBA Jam was a cultural phenomenon. Before being released to the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, NBA Jam was the most successful sports arcade game in history (grossing $1 billion in quarters since it’s release).
Jam was designed as an evolutionary version of Arch Rivals a two-on-two basketball game where you were free to rough up your opponents. Enter Midway Games who took the basics of Arch Rivals and cranked the insanity to 11. NBA Jam became the first cartoonish sports game on the market to feature real NBA players.
The games were fast paced, exciting, all while at the maintaining a feel of a real televised game. Everything about the game seems perfect in retrospect from the announcer (BOOMSHAKALAKA!) to the hidden characters, to the perfect blend of 90s NBA nostalgia.
As far as the actual gameplay went, Jam is one of the few games to perfect the controls from the get go. When NBA Jam Tournament Edition was released the following year, all Midway Games needed to do was add more players to the game (expanding most rosters from just two players to three or four depending on the team).
2015 Rating: 9/10
NBA Showdown ‘94
Here’s a game that has been widely forgotten over the course of history. This is unfortunate because as a realistic basketball simulation NBA Showdown ’94 is quite fun. The game incorporated a very similar aesthetic and feel that the early EA Sports games in the NBA Playoffs series had along with a more up-tempo gameplay.
It was also the first game to offer a fully playable 82 game regular season along with full 12 player rosters for every NBA team.
2015 Rating: 6.5/10
NBA Live 95, NBA Live 96
NBA Live on the 16-bit Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were visual breakthroughs for NBA video games. It was the first game to successfully move away from the side to side television style view to a corner view of the court. With the new look came a new advertising blitz that signaled the official beginning of the modern EA Sports world. Here’s an example of the new in-your-face commercials for Live 96.
Live 95 was the first game to offer an on-court starting lineup introduction as well as the first game that would allow you to trade players although only starters were allowed to be traded.
Live 96 was the first game to offer a create a player feature which offered players not just an opportunity to put themselves in the game, but it also provided a loophole to using Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley. By going into the create-a-player mode and typing the last name Jordan, Barkley, or a load of other NBA legends.
2015 Rating: 7/10
NBA Action ’95 Starring David Robinson
I’m including this game mostly because I am aware that most of the games I’ve written about so far are EA Sports games. I feel bad. This is my way of throwing Sega Sports a bone.
I knew a kid in middle school that swore up and down this game was better than NBA Live. I’m assuming the kid grew up to be a serial killer or something.
There was an NBA Action ’94 as well, but it didn’t star David Robinson. I like to imagine that Sega Sports wanted to have an NBA star be the face of the game and chose The Admiral over Hakeem Olajuwon and that was the real reason Hakeem decided to rip Robinson’s heart out during the 1994 playoffs (yes, the timelines don’t match up and no, I don’t really care).
The overhead camera view was wonky and the rusty tin can sounding Marv Albert commentary was proof that sometimes no announcer is better than something. The game was notorious for having strange glitches (like certain spots on the floor where you’ll never miss a shot, no matter how ridiculous). The game might’ve been passable if not for NBA Live existing. But hey, at least it isn’t NBA All-Star Challenge, right?
2015 Rating: 3/10
So this is where we are going to leave off for now. The world began to shift away from 16-bit systems around 1996-97 as a new era was ushered into the video game world. With the arrival of Playstation and Nintendo 64, games began to take shape and become more three-dimensional. I’ll be back with part two soon!