NBA Jam was a cultural phenomenon back in the mid-1990’s. BOOMSHAKALAKA! He’s on fire! Razzle Dazzle! He’s heating up! From downtown! All phrases gamers that grew up playing this spectacular take on basketball are familiar with. It was quite shocking that more installments were never explored after the critical success it received. Sure, it was ported to every console imaginable at the time, including Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, Game Gear, and Sega CD. But there never was an NBA Jam 2, which is crazy. The original creator did return for a follow-up game seventeen years later on the Wii. While it also was quite successful, it didn’t capture the mainstream appeal of the original. Now, a spiritual successor has entered the arena with NBA Playgrounds. Read on for our full review.

Title: NBA Playgrounds

Publisher: Mad Dog Games

Developer: Saber Interactive

Available On: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC

Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro

Release Date: May 9, 2017

Review Copy Supplied by Developer

One of the first things easily recognizable with NBA Playgrounds is how similar in style it looks to NBA Jam. Featuring 2-on-2 basketball, the game attempts to recreate what was so special back in 1993. While there is certainly fun to be had here, the arcade-feel just isn’t as predominant as it should have been. To this end, it fails to capture that magic in a number of different ways.

Perhaps my biggest complaints with the game are the controls and how precision-based everything ends up needing to be. An arcade-style basketball game should be relatively easy to pick up and play, correct? That isn’t the case here at all. The very first time I walked into NBA Playgrounds, to put it simply, I got my ass handed to me by the AI. It was such a poor showing on my part, that I actually felt discouraged to jump into another match. But I did, and kept doing it. It didn’t take me long to realize that everything was way too based on the precision-style shooting that Saber Interactive developed.

The longer you hold down the shoot button, the more it affects your shot. You have to release the button at the exact second the game wants you to (which it doesn’t tell you, by the way) in order to even make a basket. If you aren’t very good at that mechanic, you can forget about ever making a shot behind the three-point line or even in and around the paint. Get used to dunking, because that’s all you’ll be able to do unless you can master this!

Speaking of the slam dunks, they are without a doubt the most satisfying thing about NBA Playgrounds. To initiate one, hold down the boost button as you approach the free-throw line or anywhere near it, and while still boosting, just press the button to shoot. At this point, your player will partake in one of several flashy and appealing slam dunks. This is the easiest way to get points on the board, and if you do it correctly and take advantage of the power-ups, you can even score 3 or 4 points at a time while doing it.

Power-ups? Oh yeah, NBA Playgrounds has a handful of them. As you pull off slam dunks, block your opponent’s shots, steal the ball away from them, or knock them back via a slap, your meter will slowly fill up. After a few actions, one of the power-ups will automatically be granted to you. This can range from electrifying the ball, allowing you to easily make shots behind the three-point line. You can get a stamina boost which turns the players shoes yellow, never draining the meters. Modifiers can appear on your side of the court, and if you shoot or pull off a dunk from that area, the points associated with it will be doubled. Using these abilities to your advantage can make a comeback possible, but only if you aren’t getting blown away by the AI or a fellow gamer.

There seems to be an issue with AI in general though, especially when it relates to your own team. The second player you are not controlling is unreliable for setting up blocks, helping defend against the opponents, or getting set up and in position for things like an alley-oop. At the same time, the computer controlled AI is beyond capable and extremely intelligent, knowing exactly when to block, when to steal, when to defend, and setting up easy shots. And this is on the Rookie difficulty! It would have been nice to see a little bit more balance performed for teammates, and to tone down the difficulty of the opponents.

The mode variety is a bit lacking for 2017 standards. Back in 1993, only having Exhibition 2-on-2 in NBA Jam made perfect sense. In today’s landscape with so many games releasing at all times, there needs to be more substance to keep the engagement levels at their maximum. Besides Exhibition mode, you can participate in tournaments to keep leveling up your players and unlocking new courts to play on and more players to choose from. There is the online mode too, allowing for players across the globe to compete with one another.

Another issue I have with NBA Playgrounds is the way in which you unlock new players to choose from. Upon loading the game for the first time, you’ll be presented with three packs to open, each one containing five cards in them. Ideally, each of these fifteen cards will be someone new, but I have seen and heard of players getting duplicate players that quick into their experience. RPG-like elements come into play for getting more packs and therefore unlocking additional players to choose. After each game, your overall level will slowly increase as you get more experience per match, and your players can also level up, affecting their overall stats. Once you level up, a new pack is bestowed upon you, and the process repeats over again.

The soundtrack and vocals from the commentators don’t help the repetitiveness either, as the same tracks repeat on loop over and over, and the same lines are used by Ian Eagle and E.J. Johnson every single game without fail. This is disappointing, because Ian Eagle was the voice behind NBA Jam, and they just couldn’t nail the lines like they did so many years ago.

NBA Playgrounds will absolutely fill the void left behind by NBA Jam in regards to a strict 2-on-2 basketball experience. However, there isn’t enough here to really keep gamers coming back for more after the initial newness period wears off. It can be fun in extremely short bursts, but the boredom kicks in quick.