Arcade sports games used to be big business. Every sport got in on the action, but only a couple actually left memories. NBA Jam was one of those; any gamer around during the height of its popularity will immediately offer up a quote from that game on command. It has been a while since gamers have had anything like it. This is what makes Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds kind of a big deal. Bringing back the outlandish dunks and power-ups into a 2-on-2 basketball game that holds more than a fair share of similarities to the legendary game.
NBA Playgrounds wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The disproportionate characters and over excited announcer really made me feel like I was playing a spiritual successor to NBA Jam. The courts are all small and dunks are as epic and impactful as I hoped.
Platforms: XB1 (reviewed), PS4, Switch, PC
Price I’d Pay: $19.99
All of the NBA favorites are here, both old and new. Of course, licensing keeps some players out of the mix. Current favorites such as Lebron James and Steph Curry join the ranks of legends like Shaq and Magic Johnson. Players are earned in a very current fashion though. As I played more of the game I earned XP that in turn gave me packs of cards to open. These packs contained new players, each with their own unique stats and skills.
Players themselves can also be leveled up just by playing as them. This opens up new abilities and skills to showcase on the court. It is a nice drip feed system, and thankfully not plagued with microtransactions. There is no way to buy more card packs, for better or worse.
Of course, where the game will live and die is in its on-court action; this where the game takes a few steps back in its homage. The action is not quite as snappy or fast as NBA Jam. The shoot and release timing takes a little while to get used to. Advanced actions also build up a meter that awards a random power-up. This feels unbalanced, as sometimes I would get an amazing thing like a guaranteed shot make, while other times a useless boost. It is completely random. It also sucks to lose at the last second due to the AI getting 12 points for one basket.
The game also doesn’t explain the stamina meter very well. Often times I would find myself out of meter without sprinting, and had no idea why. Until I learned that other actions also drain it. The AI is also the master of shot timing. They rarely miss a shot, and dunks are blocked far too often. The inconsistency in game play adds to the random nature of the game, but unfortunately not in a good way.
Another odd omission is the lack of online for up to four players. The developers have said it is coming in a future update, but for now it is simply one-on-one. They have also promised more players are coming. Overall it feels like the game could have used another month or two before launching.
NBA Playgrounds scratches an itch I didn’t know I had. Growing up in arcades I spent many a quarter on games like NBA Jam. Outside of the failed attempt by EA a few years back to resurrect the franchise, we really haven’t had a good alternative. Playgrounds fills that void nicely, even with its shortcomings. Anyone wondering if it had to be the shoes would do well to check it out.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.