It seems that the days of the arcade sports game are kinda long gone, aren’t they? We’re not really dropping legs on opponents anymore in NFL Blitz, mainly because Roger Goodall can’t stop whining about sportsmanship or something along those lines. And inexplicably, EA Sports still thinks it’s a good idea to give us a serious basketball sim – well, someday, anyway – instead of a new entry in the NBA Street or NBA Jam franchise. Don’t they see that’s what we really want when we hit the hardcourt?
Fortunately, Saber Interactive kind of gets it, and decided to give arcade sports a bit of a resurrection with NBA Playgrounds, its attempt to catch NBA Jam-like energy in a bottle. You’ll play as a number of current and retired NBA superstars in 2 vs. 2 fashion, running down the court and delivering high-energy dunks or alley-oops, while at the same time using steals and power-ups to your advantage to try and get the ball back however you can. It’s very similar in nature to Jam, but can’t quite capture lightning in a bottle like it used to. It’s a hell of a try, though, and enthusiasts may something out of it to enjoy.
First, let’s talk about the game’s visual style. Rather than trying to emulate the look of NBA Jam for its game, Saber Interactive created a luxurious, humorous new art style for Playgrounds. Players look like deformed versions of themselves, but they’re almost instantly recognizable, especially with little traits like outfit décor or headbands that make them stand out (like Carmelo Anthony). Some of the looks are a little too goofy for their own good, but better than trying to go over-serious and making the players look creepy (cough NBA Live cough).
Also, the court design is very good. It’s a side scrolling set-up akin to Jam, but with plenty of details that stand out, like a DJ on the side of the court spinning tunes (nothing by De La Soul, sadly – despite requests) and watching some crowd reactions to shots can be fun. And the alley-oop animations are just as much fun as they were in Homecourt, with players launching off the ground like a rocket and eventually slamming the ball home. No crazy backflips or anything like that, but why overdo it?
Some Problems On The Pavement
Granted, this is with the TV mode on the Switch. I’m sure the PS4/Xbox One versions always look great in regards to seeing all these animations, but when playing in handheld formation on Nintendo’s system, the game loses a slight edge. It can get a bit blurry when it comes to seeing what’s going on, and sometimes you can miss a thing or two. Hopefully Saber will optimize this with a future patch, because, hey, maybe we want to recreate that scene from the Nintendo Switch ad where we’re playing a basketball game while on an actual basketball court. (What? We just want to try it.)
The audio isn’t bad either. The music has its heart in the right place, and the sound effects are pretty right on. Still, I can’t help but miss all the NBA Jam-isms, with its sly references and all that. But hey, you can’t recreate everything from that era without being a copy, right?
As for the gameplay, some parts of it work, but some don’t. The flow of the court feel just about right when it comes to getting the ball and prepping yourself for a power play on the other end of the court. And passing is just about right, as there’s very little chance of getting intercepted, save for throwing the ball to the player when they’re in the midst of traffic. Some of the defensive plays are great, too, like being able to try and steal at any time with very little penalty.
However, Saber Interactive overcomplicated the shooting system. This simply should’ve been a matter of shooting the ball and taking your chances naturally on a shot. Here, there’s a precision system where if you’re not “in the zone”, you’ll end up with a lot of “late” shots. This even accounts for dunks when you’re in the wide open, but even if you’re right there at the rim, preparing to crash down, if you don’t hit the button at the right time, you miss the bucket. I understand Saber wanting to add distinction to certain gameplay elements, but this is one of those times where “keep it simple, stupid” would’ve worked in their favor. It’s something that can be easily adapted to, but it over-complicates where it doesn’t need to.
Hey, AI, Get Balanced Already!
There’s a power-up system in play here, but for the most part, it’s pretty average. Some boosts are kind of nice – like having a faster speed that sends you up and down the court like Speedy Gonzales – but others are barely noticeable. I think I would’ve preferred a system where you could pick a perk and run with it, like not being able to miss with shots or having an electrical shield that bounces opponents off of you. It’s not completely worthless here, but it’s lacking in imagination.
Going back to over-complication, the game’s AI is off at times. On one hand, sometimes it’s easy to rack up points and get a healthy lead, but then you suddenly see it dwindle away at the hands of an inexperienced team (like the Knicks – sorry, it’s true) because they make some incredibly lucky shots, or take part in an alley-oop that they miraculously pull off, despite the fact you’re right there to make a defensive play. Saber Interactive would’ve been better off balancing this out, instead of giving a team a weakened look, only to see them make some sort of steroids-fueled comeback. It can be real frustrating, especially to rookie players who just want to slam the ball home.
Also, the AI is problematic when it comes to your own partner. You could scream, “Hey, go for an alley-oop!” and tap the button like crazy, but they only seem to do it at their own leisure. You’re better off just trying to score the points yourself, or, better yet, involve a friend. Oh, yeah…about that…
I would say “at least there’s online play” to go with, but there isn’t. The game launched today with only small matchmaking options and local multiplayer, and while that’s better than nothing, I still can’t help but feel disappointed. Games like NBA Jam and Homecourt thrived with the idea of multiplayer competition, and, with the local contests I tried out, Playgrounds really has a good time when there’s more humans taking part. Battling against the AI is a chore, especially when all you’re trying to do is make progress, and the fact we can’t play in tournaments online feels like a frustration that wasn’t needed. Saber said they’d fix it soon, but they might’ve held off on the game’s release till it was ready. I could’ve waited another week, if need be.
Wrapping (Or Unwrapping) it Up
At least the game has good long-term form with what you can earn. This includes unlocking card packs that help you increase your roster. This is a sharp idea, as it enables you to pick up additional players for your team without having to pay out of pocket. It’s a neat system that adds longevity to a game that certainly needs it, especially since there’s only so many ways to play right now.
Saber Interactive did a good job setting a new arcade foundation into place, but little things get in the way. The fact it runs so sluggishly in handheld mode on the Switch is a bit painful; the shooting system has too much going into it rather than not enough; the AI is all over the place when it comes to behavior and, sadly, performance; and the lack of online play is a very painful factor. Everything else about the game seems pretty good, and is certainly worth a look to those that are wanting to recreate their old arcade sports memories.
NBA Playgrounds has its heart in the right place, but heart can only get so far when it comes to how well you do on the court. Even arcade players know that.
RATING: Three out of five stars.
Disclaimer: A review code was provided by the publisher.