Wouldn’t an all-new NBA Jam be a lovely thing? Let’s briefly put aside the fact we had a perfectly serviceable revival as recently as 2010 and wallow instead in the warm nostalgia that fuels NBA Playgrounds, Saber Interactive’s characterful spin on a much-loved 90s classic.
- Publisher: Mad Dog
- Developer: Saber Interactive
- Platform: Reviewed on PC and Switch
- Availability: Out now on Switch, PC, Xbox One and PS4
And what a gem it was. My memories of NBA Jam are entwined with recollections of life in the 90s – the local Quasar had a cabinet, and I’m fairly sure I’d waltz down there while wearing a Global Technicolour t-shirt, whistling the tune of Deeply Dippy on a Melody Pop – and for a short while I was beholden to Midway’s rowdy take on basketball. As the sport was briefly taking hold in the UK, it was a small window into an exotic world presided over by absolute gods. Scottie Pippen! Patrick Ewing! Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon!
Online is slim, and currently non-existent on Switch where it’s due to be patched in later. Not that the offline mode – which features Exhibitions and a Tournament – is that much more generous.
I’ve not really thought about basketball that much since, but I still think back to NBA Jam’s brilliant distillation of it; of flaming hoops, shattered backboards and sneakers that burn bright red as they squeak across the court. In being faithful to all that NBA Playgrounds is a worthy cover version of the Midway original, though it is prone to a few too many fumbles of its own.
The fundamentals are almost exactly the same; this is a two-on-two take on basketball that’s got a flair for the improbable and spectacular, and one that loves a good dunk as much as any self-respecting person presented with a hot cup of tea and a custard cream. There are outrageous power-ups, and the only rule you need care about is the shot clock ticking down. This is basketball best played with your elbows out, which ensures it’s a game that positively shines in local multiplayer.
It’s all very familiar, then, but also it’s all very different. NBA Playgrounds is a much slower game than its inspiration, foregoing the end-to-end action of the original NBA Jam for something a little fussier. Power-ups are tied to a meter that’s steadily topped up via your actions, and once full it gives you access to a selection of items that range from guaranteeing you sink your next shot to allowing you to double your points haul if you let rip from a designated zone on the court. Crossovers allow the rhythm of attacks to be altered, though it’s too easy for each push forward to come apart thanks to a surprisingly finickity shooting system.
Play for a couple of hours and you’ll get the timing of the perfect release down – and get it spot on and you’ll be awarded with an extra point for each basket, a crinkle in Playgrounds’ eccentric scoring system – but that seems against the spirit of a game whose heart is in the pick-up-and-play ethos of Midway’s 90s arcade classics. As does an unlock system that’s astonishingly laborious – you start with a paltry roster, new players only becoming available via card packs acquired each time you level up. New power-ups, too, are tied to the same system, ensuring there’s a few hours’ worth of grind before you’ve got the means to play a half-decent game with a friend. It’s a mess of faddish systems that seems to kind of miss the point.
On Switch Playgrounds shoots for 60fps and pretty much hits it. It’s not a bad game for Nintendo’s new console given how it shines in local multiplayer.
You’ll have probably noticed sometime before hitting the court that there’s something not quite right here. The art style that’s been used is, in a word, horrid, and there’s something of the melancholy horror found in the toy aisle at Poundland in how it portrays its stars. Its characters are more chilling than charming, the makeovers going for unfortunate grotesques rather than caricatures.
There’s something slightly tacky about NBA Playgrounds, and that’s borne out by a certain sloppiness throughout, whether that’s the looping commentary, the typos in loading screens (which are overly long, on the Switch at least) or dumb oversights such as the stamina bar under each player dipping out of sight when you wander down to the bottom of the court.
Despite several shortcomings It is more than a cheap knock-off, though, and thanks to some smart ideas and novel twists there’s an enjoyable tribute to be found here. Just be warned that NBA Playgrounds is a few steps away from being much more than an overly fuzzy dose of nostalgia.