Specials: A roundup of roundball.
It was only natural that when video games became a mainstream form of competitive entertainment, sports games had to follow. Basketball was no exception, though the sport wasn't as popular in the 1970s as it is today. The genre was born back in the day, and over 25 years of evolution followed, from very crude, far-from-HD-era Atari antics all the way to freakishly real NBA Live 06 on the very-HD-ready Xbox 360. In between, there have been more hoops games than you can shake a net at, many of which were baby steps to what you take for granted now. Seasons? Franchises? Real Teams? Real Players? Back in the early days, none of this was feasible or expected on the ancient hardware where gaming was first born. How far we've come. This is the story of basketball video games - from the first generation to the next-generation.
In general, sports games rely on realism to carry themselves; basketball games are no different. However, that didn't stop the creation of a basketball game for the Atari 2600; a game that vaguely represented the sport. Thanks to the limited abilities of the 2600, Basketball
was crude, cumbersome, and could barely be called a basketball game; it was popular simply because there was nothing else like it. However, its biggest moment of fame is thanks to film - anyone who has watched Airplane remembers the gag with the pilots, one of whom was Kareem-Abdul Jabaar, playing the game in the cockpit. As time went on, most of the "early" platforms all saw numerous basketball games, few of which really captured the game due to the technology. None of these hoops 'simulations' featured real players or NBA teams - licensed sports games were a rare breed in those days. It simply cost too much money to pay for real teams or players in an era when most games were coded by a few people and had crude graphics. It wasn't like you could tell the difference between Magic Johnson and James Worthy if they made an NBA game for the 2600.
Electronic Arts was the first company to try a licensed basketball game. Appearing first on the Apple II before being ported to other computers, Dr. J vs. Larry Bird was a strictly one-on-one game where you chose either Bird or Julius Erving and battle it out with various options to mix things up. The game was surprisingly ahead of its time thanks to some slick (for its time) animations and the ability to break the backboard with a thunderous slam. Eventually, EA created the more famous Jordan vs. Bird
, which added a slam dunk contest along with the common one-on-one game. It gained added exposure by being released for the NES along with the more traditional PC format EA made its name on. EA's sports empire can be traced back to this franchise, as opposed to the Madden football series.
Because getting official licenses was often out of the question, developers designed many of their games to be unique and sometimes bizarre. Arch Rivals
was such a game. Not only were the referees blind, allowing you to pull all kinds of dirty tricks, but players could actually fight each other and pull down their shorts, too. While it wasn't exactly a "great" game, its unique angle made it a popular novelty back in its day.
Some developers did try to create a simulation since the NES finally offered the ability to render a true 5-on-5 game. The most popular of these was Double Dribble
, one of Konami's more famous titles from that era. Not only did it feature a real voice sample on the title screen (saying 'Double Dribble,' naturally), but it also had cutscenes when you went in for a dunk. DD also tried hard to make "real" teams even without the license; the Boston team had green uniforms (though a freaky frog replaced the Celtics' leprechaun), the Los Angeles team had blue uniforms but had a "lake" for a mascot, while Chicago had a red ox. The game played very well and even included a halo-like meter letting you know when to release the shot for a maximum chance at scoring. Another Double Dribble was made later for the Genesis, but it didn't come close to matching the revered original.
Double Dribble lived on for a long time because there were so few basketball games for NES. However, the undisputed king of 8-Bit sports, Tecmo, was about to change the game. Hot off the heels of the now-legendary Tecmo Super Bowl, Tecmo NBA Basketball
was ahead of its time. Because the NBA players are one license along with the teams, Tecmo was able to put in every real team, every real player and even the real 1991 NBA schedule, a combination that hadn't been seen before. On top of that, no other basketball game has been quite so entertaining. Its borrowing of the Tecmo Super Bowl stat engine let the game track a host of important statistics as well. By today's standards this is commonplace, but at the time, TNB was a rare commodity. Eventually, the game saw release on SNES and Genesis, but neither could touch the NES version's gameplay and overall fun.
NBA Games Go Large
While "EA basketball" and "NBA Live" are virtually synonymous today, Live wasn't Electronic Arts' first 5-on-5 basketball endeavor once they tired of the one-on-one concept. As the '90s approached, the Lakers and Celtics were two of the elite teams in the NBA, and Electronic Arts capitalized on that with Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs
. Released in 1989 for DOS and one year later for Genesis, EA's first basketball game was remarkable for the time. Jordan was featured on the Bulls' roster, a rare feat considering the plethora of subsequent games that couldn't use Jordan's name due to licensing issues. It featured ten (yes, not even half the league) NBA teams, with corresponding jersey numbers and names for each team's roster. No turbo. No jukes. No real method to elude the defense. All one could really do is pass and shoot, more or less. Let's not forget the commentary either, which came in the form of scrolling text at the bottom of the screen. How's that for dialogue? Ah yes, how the sport has matured since.
EA continued that series for a couple years with different teams featured on the titles. It wasn't until 1994 that the NBA Live series was created. Live 95 was undoubtedly leaps and bounds ahead of Lakers vs. Celtics, featuring a full season mode, all 27 NBA teams, and a full repertoire of jukes, blocks, alley-oops, and more. While EA had little to worry about in terms of competition through the first half of the decade, the second half saw many new development teams step up to the plate. In 1995, Konami released its own 5-on-5 game in NBA Give 'N Go
, which was a rough m?lange of two styles--arcade and simulation. A few years later, the company started a more full-fledged simulation for the Nintendo 64 with its In the Zone brand. The N64 also had its first-party series, NBA Courtside
, which was endorsed by Kobe Bryant. Regardless of those two brands, NBA Live still reigned supreme. EA's Live games were a huge success for both the N64 and PlayStation, outdoing both consoles' first-party series.
Without a doubt, NBA Live was the game across all platforms, whether you had a Nintendo 64, PlayStation or just a computer. It wasn't until SEGA released its beautiful Dreamcast (a system that really was before its time) that NBA Live finally had a formidable competitor. Enter NBA 2K
. Despite the Dreamcast's unfortunately short lifespan, SEGA's first-party hardwood game was an instant hit, matching up with the Live series in virtually every aspect. What's more, it was a fresh addition for gamers who may have grown tired of EA's representation of the sport. For the first couple editions, only Dreamcast owners could experience these 2K games. When NBA 2K2
was released, SEGA's system was on its last leg, so 2K Sports moved to a third-party outlet where GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2 owners all had access to Visual Concepts' darling. Finally, EA and SEGA could go head-to-head, console-to-console, mono a mono.
Even though Live and 2K had become the big boys on the block, Microsoft wouldn't let that thwart its plans. Microsoft had already dipped its toes in the water with a couple of PC releases. Since MS now had its very own platform, the company carried over its Inside Drive series from the PC and made it exclusive to the Xbox. While NBA Inside Drive 2000
for the PC was hardly anything to drool over, Microsoft quickly found its niche with the Xbox versions. Inside Drive 2002 - 2004 all received worthy praise from critics and gamers alike, with many even picking Xbox's Inside Drive 2002
over NBA Live's same-season outing. Inside Drive 2004
was arguably the best basketball game put out in 2003, with great controls and amazing visuals. If anything held the series down, it was its lack of depth and missing management options. As far as representing the true way a game of hardwood 5-on-5 is played though, Microsoft should be commended for its efforts. Oddly, Inside Drive never saw a 2005 season.
Of course, not all companies tried to accurately recreate the sport. Video games give people an outlet where they can experience something they might not necessarily be able to do in real life. In light of that, coupled with the overwhelming success of Acclaim's arcade hit NBA Jam
, a sub-genre was birthed, replete with over-the-top dunks, bullet-like passes, and not a whole lot of officiating. In 1994, Acclaim brought its famed title to the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, SNES, and handhelds.
With the evident success of NBA Jam, other companies took the idea and spawned similar titles. In 1996, Midway joined the sub-genre mix with NBA Hang Time
, which was strikingly similar to NBA Jam save for the added create-a-player feature. Unfortunately, Hang Time was just the first of many reiterations from Midway, a company that milked the extreme basketball premise to death with essentially the same game over and over.
Not all turned out bad, though. Shortly after the start of the century, EA BIG and NuFX released the technically-sound, outlandish NBA Street
. Far from a mere rip off of Acclaim's gem, Street was a breath of fresh air that boasted its own distinct range of features, and it played much differently from NBA Jam. It threw out the "on fire" feature that typified this sub-genre, and players were instead able to turn the table via a "gamebreaker." And rather than pitting gamers in NBA-modeled stadiums, the courts were modeled after various big-city street arenas spanning nationwide. With two sequels already on its resume, however, EA BIG should be careful or it may run its series dry just as Midway did.
In retrospect, many series have come and gone, and many developers have tried their hand recreating the NBA. A number of the industry's heavyweights have at least attempted to create a great basketball series: Konami, Atari, Midway, Acclaim, SEGA, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony. Only a small handful of them have convincingly etched a permanent spot in the genre, while the rest have subsequently been lost in the annals of time. You would be hard-pressed to find gamers thirsting for a sequel to Konami's wretched In the Zone series. Likewise, the thought of Midway's NBA Jam-influenced series being locked away for good surely wouldn't leave many vexed. Of all who have tried, Electronic Arts and 2K Sports, more than any other publishers, weathered the torrential storm of competition best throughout the years. Both publishers' respective series have built a dedicated fan base of enthusiasts, and although both Live and 2K have their glaring differences, each series has been able to fulfill the manifold tastes of gamers everywhere.