It’s been 6 long years since the last NBA Jam, or pretty much any arcade basketball game, got released. Since then, we did get a lot of games from the pretty good NBA 2K titles, but not a single arcade-ish one, not a single title meant for quicker and less simulation-heavy gameplay. Luckily for us mortals, developer Saber Interactive has answered our prayers with NBA Playgrounds.
NBA Playgrounds plays like a mixture between NBA Jam and NBA Street. From Jam, it borrows the 2-on-2 playstyle and the one-liners (in this game, they are good, but they are no match for “Boomshakalaka”). From Street, it borrows the special bar you can fill by performing tricks and scoring points, which in turn can be used to activate special perks. Those perks act more or less like a Mario Kart power-up, and, to be quite honest, are incredibly balanced, ranging from magnificent bonuses like a guaranteed 3-pointer or doubling the score of all of your slam dunks for a brief time time, to pretty useless ones like temporarily infinite stamina (which, for a court so small, isn’t very helpful at all).
The game itself, unlike Jam or Street, does not allow you to freely pick any team from the start. You can’t simply pick the Warriors and play tournaments with them right from the get-go. Instead, the game borrows a booster pack mechanic from games like Fifa: you get a few booster packs in the beginning, each pack with five random players you can then play as. Level up and you get another pack. Win a tournament and you get a special pack with better players. It sounds bad when you think of it, but given how actually easy it is to get good players (I got Westbrook and John Stockton after beating my first tournament), it actually becomes quite thrilling and addictive.
The gameplay itself is quite simple to pick up, with one major exception: there is a timing mechanic implemented on your scoring/shooting button. Release the button too early and you’ll miss, release the button too late and you’ll also miss, and that’s where the problem lies: as there is no actual meter being shown onscreen, you never know the right time to release the shooting button, making this mechanic seem way too arbitrary at many points. You’ll most likely going to curse at the game quite often because of this mechanic. Thankfully, the meter is more tolerant towards slam dunks, the easiest and funniest way of scoring.
Despite this gameplay issue, you will get used to it, and to your AI partner’s stubbornness at some points. What really isn’t forgivable in NBA Playgrounds is how unbelievably ugly it looks on the Nintendo Switch, with poor texturing and anti-aliasing, and its insanely long loading times, sometimes taking nearly a minute in order to load a game that lasts for three. Saber Interactive, patch it up, would ya?
NBA Playgrounds is quite an entertaining game, but without a doubt a flawed one which lacks a bit of content. There are just two modes available for the Switch at the time of this review: exhibition (local multiplayer or versus the AI) and the very short career mode. There is still no online mode available, which is a bummer, but I’m giving the developers a vote of confidence as, according to them, the online mode will come out in a few days, and new players will be added over time.
Despite its aforementioned issues, I am having a blast with NBA Playgrounds, especially given the fact I now basically own a portable version of the closest I’ll get to a new NBA Jam or Street. I would definitely not recommend getting the game in other platforms, though. It at least shows potential for improved future installments.
Now if you excuse me, I’m about to open another booster pack. Please give me Dirk, please give me Dirk!
Also available on: PS4, Xbox One, PC