Anybody who knows me can tell you that I’m not much of a sports gamer. I can handle playing Madden a little here and there and every so often I’ll get the itch to play a golf game, but for the most part I ignore sports titles. Even with my disdain for sports games, I’ve always loved fast-paced, arcade sports titles like NFL Blitz and NBA Jam. In an arcade sports game, can play a simple game without worrying about overly complex controls, analyzing stats and getting busted with penalties I wasn’t even aware I committed. The sixth generation of gaming brought us many of these titles, such as Electronic Arts’ line of EA Big titles like NBA Street, NFL Street, SSX and more. I ate these games up and had a ton of fun with all of them, but then suddenly the seventh generation of game consoles brought a drought of arcade sports titles as sales of the few we had didn’t bring in enough profit to churn out more them. Saber Interactive decided to throw their hat into the genre and created NBA Playgrounds: a classic, arcade-styled basketball game that hearkens back to the good ol’ days of NBA Jam and NBA Street with a budget price. Is NBA Playgrounds a great return to arcade basketball or something that not even nostalgia can save? Let’s find out.
NBA Playgrounds is a 2 on 2 basketball game with a constant camera view of the side lines, just like NBA Jam before it. The goal is to score as many points as possible within the time limit in order to become victorious. There are several other factors at play here too, like power-ups, stamina bars, point multipliers and so forth. A power meter, coined the “Lottery Bar,” resides at the top of the screen for each team that fills as the player scores points, steals the ball, catches a rebound, ect. Pushing an opponent down will actually drain the meter, so it’s best not to utilize such unsportsmanlike measures unless you really have to. Once the lottery bar is full, a randomly generated power-up will activate that gives the player’s team an added bonus. Power-ups consist of doubling the amount of points received from specific types of shots, a jump boost for dunks, speed boosts and an a lighting ball that cannot miss or be blocked by an opponent. Saber Interactive handles the stamina bar a little differently than in other games that NBA Playgrounds pays homage to. Pretty much everything you do uses stamina, such as running faster, pushing, blocking shots and dunking. If the player runs out of stamina, his actions are greatly reduced to basically jogging and shooting while the player must wait for the bar to fill back up again.
Controlling your player in NBA Playgrounds can be a little frustrating at first, especially to those who are used to playing NBA Jam and NBA Street. Everything is based on the timing of your button presses. Obtaining the ball during a tip-off, shooting for a three-pointer, attempting a rebound and even dunking are all effected by how long the player holds down the associated button. This can be frustrating at first since getting the timing down can cause a bit of a learning curve while the CPU wipes the floor with you. I didn’t actually start to get a good feel for things until about five exhibition matches in. In similar games, dunks didn’t require such precision in your button presses, so jumping right up to the basket just to have your ball fly off of the backboard will make players a little angry. Once I had a good grasp on the strict button press requirements the game has, I was able to win more games and start to enjoy myself. NBA Playgrounds utilizes the right stick in order to perform offensive maneuvers, such as crossover dribbles and special moves that are unique to each player, by tilting the stick in different directions. Knowing which direction performs which action can be hard to grasp at first as well, with the animations creating a slight lag, lacking fluidity. I also noticed that rebounds are very difficult to pull off and three pointers are easy to exploit if you get the timing down right.
The cool thing about NBA Playgrounds is that the game focuses on the actual legendary NBA stars rather than the specific teams. Each team is represented here, but only as a means to organize the players themselves. At the start of the game the player will select two individual NBA superstars, no matter which team they belong to, to create a two-man team of their own. As the player progresses through the game and participates in matches, the chosen NBA players will gain experience and level up, netting them new special moves. Each NBA star has a specific set of stats that tell you how good they are at dunking, shooting, blocking and more. The stats are basic enough for anyone to understand how the specific NBA player can handle themselves on the court. I love selecting basketball players that I like that also hold the stats that are important to me in order to create a team that suits my play-style.
Unfortunately, not every NBA star is available from the start. The roster is pretty large, consisting of over 200 players from different eras. Earning new players is handled by obtaining card packs that hold five cards inside. Each card unlocks a new NBA star. Once the player launches the game for the first time, three card packs are given for free, which will unlock 15 random players. Due to the random nature of the draw, just like a real pack of basketball cards, it is entirely possible to obtain a card of a player you already have, which will then be converted into bonus experience that will be assigned to that specific NBA star. Every time a match is played, win or lose, the player will net experience points and level up their profile. Once a new level is reached, a new card pack is given with the chance to unlock five more players. In order to collect all of the available NBA players in the game, you will have to play A LOT of NBA Playgrounds, but I do like the card system and found it exciting to see who I got after every pack of cards I earned.
NBA Playgrounds is light on game modes, but the most important modes to any arcade basketball game are here. Exhibition mode allows you to play a single match in order to earn more experience and build up your equipped players. A tournament mode will have you traveling around the world to six different locations competing against four teams each. If a match is lost in tournament mode, you will simply go right back where you left off and will not have to start the area over again, which is nice considering that the AI can be quite brutal at times. Online modes are included here too but they’re extremely bare bones and lacking a lot of features one would come to expect, such as online tournaments, friend lobbies and the ability to have more than two players playing at once. Saber Interactive have said that they are patching in more online features soon after launch, but the fact that these features are currently missing really sucks. The Nintendo Switch version currently has no online features at all, which will be patched in at a later date.
Graphically, NBA Playgrounds looks very nice running on the PS4 hardware. The large heads and exaggerated bodies make for a fun cartoon art style that still holds true to the players’ likenesses. Each individual player has little details added to them that make them behave similar to their real life counterparts, like the way they shoot and how they react to scoring points, which is impressive to see. Special moves include little graphical flourishes that will make the NBA players go all Super Saiyan but not at the level of games like NBA Street where the camera would pan in and show the player execute some sort of mind blowing maneuver. All of that is in here, but they lack the pizzazz that the over-the-top moves of NBA Street included, making special moves feel unexciting and bland. The music consists of typical hip-hop beats with nothing out of the ordinary, but the issue is that none of them stand out nor are they catchy at all. The biggest problem I have with NBA Playgrounds are the commentators. These guys lack any charisma, enthusiasm or fun dialog. Hearing these boring presenters say “did he spill soda in his controller?” over and over again is grating. In games like NBA Jam, the commentators were the star of the show and infused the game with a ton of personality and energy, which is solely lacking here. If you’re expecting “boomshakalakas” and “razzle-dazzles,” you will be greatly disappointed.
I had some good fun with my time in NBA Playgrounds. While the game failed to achieve the bombastic, high energy excitement that both NBA Jam and NBA Street included, it still plays fairly well for those who are looking for an old-school arcade b-ball game. New players may become frustrated with the controls and AI at first, but with a little practice and determination things will start to click. The real question is: will a lot of gamers have the patience to hang in there before the game’s controls click? I’m not entirely sure, but I personally didn’t struggle with it too much. The lack of online features and some early control hurdles hurts the overall package, yet with a good arcade foundation, a cool unlocking system and a $20 asking price, NBA Playgrounds mostly succeeds at being a fun arcade basketball title that scratches that NBA Jam itch. Hopefully Saber Interactive will continue to enhance the game post-launch, but I would honestly hold off on purchasing until they do unless you happen to be a hardcore NBA Jam fan and have been craving something like this.
NBA Playgrounds was reviewed on a Playstation 4 Pro with a copy provided to The Gaming Outsider by Saber Interactive.