NBA Video Games, a Brief History Part 2
The response to the first part of the NBA video game retrospective was incredible. I’m sorry for the delay in getting part two for everyone to read. I must admit, I found it easier to write the first part than I did this part. I think it’s because it’s easier to wax nostalgic than it is to tell you why the last five years of NBA2K because if you read this website regularly, you’re probably the kind of person who already knows that NBA2K is great beyond words.
Anyhow, due to time constraints, I had to skip over some games and systems that probably deserved more love. I passed over all Sega CD games since I could spend entire posts writing about how awful those games were (wait, I just got an idea!).
Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside:
When I was 19 years old, I was skipping a lot of class as a college sophomore. I made skipping class an art form. I worked as a host at Chili’s, watched a lot of Kevin Smith movies, and smoked a lot of cigarettes. I was an unimpressive 19 year old. Kobe Bryant on the other hand was not an unimpressive 19 year old. After wrapping up his rookie season in the NBA, he was approached by Nintendo to star in his own NBA game.
Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside was a visual revolution. For the first time, we began to see the early seeds of what video games would look like in 2015. The players, although choppy polygons, were more lifelike than anything seen previously in video games and the arenas began to look more and more three dimensional. I am probably biased against Nintendo 64 games since I never owned the system but I always found the controls wonky and difficult to use so I never gave NBA Courtside a fair shake, I’m afraid. But the game was held in high regard upon it’s release so that has to be worth something, right?
2015 score: 7/10
NBA Live 96-99 (Playstation)
What made Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside great at the time of it’s release was the realism of the game. The same can be said for the early Playstation versions of NBA Live. When EA Sports made the transition over to Playstation, they began to incorporate three dimension graphics into every aspect of their games. NBA Live 96 was the first video game to advertise the Virtual Stadium but the 3D models of the players wouldn’t be introduced until Live 97.
When I think of NBA video games, the Playstation One era tends to be the forgotten era and it’s not entirely fair to the games released between 1996-2000. There were some fun games, and NBA Live was one of them. There just wasn’t one game that really grabbed the ear by the horns the way The NBA Playoffs or Live did in the early to mid 90s. I remember enjoying games like NBA Fastbreak and NBA In The Zone equally to Live. Now, looking back at the reviews of these games, I must be remembering the facts wrong. In any case, this was an era of games where nothing was great but nothing was really that terrible. Video games were starting to mirror the straight from high school draft picks from the late 1990s…the potential was there but they still needed time, and the right system to truly shine.
I should point out that EA Sports dedicated their ’99 video game season to the “Year of the Cyber Athlete” which really meant nothing to the gamers outside of being forced to watch some variation of this video every time you turned on your Playstation*.
*The video was so ingrained in my head that when trying to find it for this post, I tested myself to see if I remembered the script and I nailed it. Word for word. I am officially the Michael Jordan of memorizing this script.
2015 score: 6/10
I have some personal history with the early versions of the NBA2K series and my bias is probably going to ooze for a few moments, but please, indulge me.
NBA2K and 2K1 were two games that I spent roughly 2 years of my life playing in college dorms. It was also the first NBA game where I was faced with the problem of having a terrible Bulls team to play with. For those that don’t remember, from 1999 until 2001, the Chicago Bulls played actual NBA games with such luminaries as Kornel David, Corey Benjamin, Rusty LaRue, and least we forget, John Starks. Using this team simply wasn’t an option.
I wasn’t particularly skilled at 2K during those years and while I spent a year or two playing religiously, I would estimate my record at around two or three wins and just a shade less than 4,600 losses. I would gather that 99% of my NBA2K experience over those two years were against the same two friends. They were both huge Timberwolves fans and for reasons I still don’t understand to this day, they were idiot savants when controlling Dean Garrett. I don’t know if the programmers screwed something up and gave Garrett the abilities of Kevin Garnett (I suppose this scenario involves drinking on the job and being a poor reader) or what but I still have moments of PTSD when playing current versions of 2K. Curse you Dean Garrett, curse you.
I should also note that the first two installments of 2K had a glitch that allowed you to block free throws. You read that correctly. You could block the second free throw provided you were positioned in the low block and had a mildly competent big man to control. When you’re not good at a game, glitches are all you have sometimes.
2015 score: 7.5/10
NBA Street was NBA Jam if it were 3 on 3 and seasoned liberally with the And 1 Mixtape. The point of the game was to beat every NBA team as well as some regional teams that were captained by “streetball legends” that you could add to your roster should you defeat them.
The original NBA Street, the streetball legends were strikingly similar to actual NBA legends (the cover art featured Stretch, a Dr. J clone) presumably because they were unable to attain the rights to the actual players. One character in particular that stood out to me was a 7’8’’ Japanese center named Takashi who was modeled after Yao Ming who wouldn’t debut in the NBA for another year.
NBA Street was a game that was a perfect game for a group of friends. The games were relatively short, the controls were easy enough to master, and most importantly…the game was really fun. It was also the only game on the market that featured soon-to-be-Washington-Wizard Michael Jordan.
In 2003, NBA Street Vol. 2 was released and offered slew of hall of famers for the user to control. Jordan was featured once again, but this time was joined by Darryl Dawkins, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, and Clyde Fraizer among others.
2015 score: 8.5/10
NBA Live 2003-2006
Hello there you familiar face! It took a few years to get it’s footing on the PS2 and Xbox, but Live was back in a big way during this six year stretch. NBA Live 2003 was a jumping point for the series that put it atop in the world of NBA simulations. The big innovation was the freestyle control that was introduced in this version that gave players more fluid movements and a ton of control that wasn’t previously found in basketball games. There was a downside to the innovation that resulted in most players being able to throw down eye-popping dunks and gorgeous spin moves with relative ease.
The entire NBA All-Star Weekend was incorporated into NBA Live 2005. This was a great wrinkle to the game, but the slam dunk contest was really hard and reminiscent of trying to learn fatalities on Mortal Kombat only much more complicated. Then there would be a moment where you nail the perfect elbow-in-the-rim Vince Carter dunk only to have the computer pull off some sort of cartwheel dunk and beat you. The dunk contest was ridiculous and over the top, but that just made it all the more fun. It took EA Sports 15 years to develop the dunk contest after Jordan vs Bird but definitely worth the wait.
But do you know what the best part of NBA Live 2003 was? It wasn’t the gameplay or the graphics, or the cutaway screens. It was THIS COMMERCIAL! Watch the video before you continue. I EMPLORE YOU---PLEASE WATCH THE VIDEO. I’ll wait. Go. Watch.
Seriously, I’ll be standing over here waiting…
Isn’t that the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen??? EA Sports decided that they needed a commercial for NBA Live and they settled on Kirk Hinrich as the star! This was hot off the heels of the 2003 Draft. There was an entire ad campaign with Kirk Hinrich, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. This is really a thing that happened and frankly, it deserves it’s own 30 for 30 documentary.
2015 score: 8/10
NBA Elite 11
One of the biggest trainwrecks in video game history never made it past the downloadable demo. The controls were an absolute mess. The left joystick controlled the lower body and the right joystick controlled the upper body. Disaster. We should probably just move on. #JesusBynum
2015 score: N/A
With EA Sports canceling NBA Elite 11 and subsequently NBA Live 12 and 13, 2K Sports found themselves with an opportunity to own the NBA video game market. They released 2K11 and put out the greatest sports game to date (only to be topped the following year with 2K12, and 2K13, and…well you get the point).
For years historic players have been available in games. A lot of the games we’ve gone over during this retrospective have included them in some capacity. 2K11 didn’t just incorporate Michael Jordan, but offered players a chance to step into historic moments and games during MJ’s career with mind blowing detail.
NBA2K12 took the “NBA’s Greatest” mode to a whole new level the following year by adding historical teams featuring players and teams spread over five decades.
While it could’ve been very easy for the 2K franchise to fall into the same kind of rut that NBA Live did in the late 2000s, the game continues to reinvent itself every year. This year we are being treated to a story mode that is being written by Spike Lee. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it involves R̶a̶y̶ ̶A̶l̶l̶e̶n̶ Jesus Shuttlesworth but I am not holding my breath. Perhaps a story mode that is about a 41 year old Jesus Shuttlesworth trying to decide if he wants to chase one more ring? Unlikely you say? Well, a guy can hope.
2015 score: 10/10