I was hoping, I was wishing, but I was disappointed because it’s not my Jam – NBA Playgrounds Review
If you’re old enough to remember going to an arcade as the cool thing to do, chances are you remember NBA Jam. NBA Jam was a 2-on-2 arcade basketball game that was fast-paced and a bit violent. By violent, you were able to push down your opponent to steal the ball. It was a lot of senseless fun. It evolved into NBA Street, which was in my opinion needlessly complicated, and seems to have been reincarnated into the now NBA Playgrounds.
NBA Playgrounds is an arcade style basketball game featuring many former and present NBA Players. Like NBA Jam it is a 2-on-2 fast-paced game “street” ball experience that allows players to play the game of basketball a bit more loosely. The physics aren’t exactly realistic, and the characters are not drawn to their actual proportions. But it’s a fun and light-heartedly comedic experience.
The gameplay is almost identical, to NBA Jam, but with some extra buttons. I’m not quite sure what it is, but it seems a hair too much for the experience. I think what made Jam the iconic game that it was, was the very natural 3-button layout that allows players to do everything they needed. I believe in NBA Playgrounds doesn’t have quite the same intuitiveness, and makes the game feel a bit clunky. The dribbling never feels 100% natural, it almost feels separate from the movement. Trying to perform jukes feel like trying to pull off a special move in a fighting game. Then there’s the shove, that is extremely limited. You have to build up your meter to pull off a shove, and then it is never accurate. You could be right up against the opposing player and your shove will miss. Now your meter is depleted and you shoved yourself out of the opponents way. On the flipside, the CPU players seem to have unlimited shoves that never miss. It’s especially frustrating because they always seem to be able to land their shove while you’re “on fire.” The “on fire” system also does not feel earned. It seems like it just builds up as you score and steal the ball; which is how it should be, but it feels obligatory instead of earned. In NBA Jam it seems to have been built on how you scored, how you stole, and also the felt like it followed the ebb and flow of the game. In NBA Playgrounds it feels scripted. The game never feels as engaging or rewarding. This is especially obvious when you consider the random power ups, that sometimes gives you an unstoppable shot or a random twelve points. Then there are extra points for perfect timing of shots that is not intuitive and also does not seem skilled based. It is in my personal opinion, very poorly executed, to have the show based on random timing instead of the character animation or height of the shot. It’s forcing you to desync from the gameplay and makes you realize everything that is wrong. These factors really detract from what is otherwise solid gameplay.
The single player mode is a tournament mode, which is pretty standard. However, it again does not feel rewarding. It feels like work. You play in a tournament, where each round gets progressively more annoying CPU players. The best part of the game is playing against other people, whether online or in-person. It kind of resembles play NBA Jam there. However, the level up system of the cards and the process of unlocking all the players greatly reduces the possibilities of a level playing field. One of the better features of the game, is having the ability to pair any two players together regardless of team or era. But unlocking the players is like trying to get a good item from a mobile game. It feels like a pay-to-win game and is highly frustrating. Playing the game takes hours just to unlock a pack, and then the different gradients of the players you unlock are random; and kind of insulting to the players. The game, though at its very core has a solid base gameplay, suffers from a very confused mash up of RPG, pay-to-win, gotcha, and collecting elements that distract and annoy players from going deeper into the game. Which is a damn shame, because the game’s art style and attention to detail in character design is amazing.
NBA Playgrounds mainly suffers from not being NBA Jam. Considering NBA Jam was perfectly realized on the Sega Genisis and Super Nintendo, it is painfully disappointing that it is so warped and confused in NBA Playgrounds on consoles 20 years later. I understand times have changed, that it is not the same company, and they wanted to create their own original game. But, if you’re going to be so close to something established and iconic, you might as well lean into it, and work on improving the experience rather than trying to turn it into something unique. Not having the majority of the players available from the start, making it noticeably time-consuming, and random, to unlock them all was a huge mistake. The RPG system that emphasizes amount played over skill is another. And having a random/gotcha system so integral to the main gameplay just screams you’re trying to take more money from the players, even if you don’t charge anything. Hopefully, patch updates help the balance of the gameplay, and there are updates that allow you to just play as the players instead of some RPG leveled up character. There is the free Shaq Fu game coming up for owners of the game on Nintendo Switch to look forward too, and at its core, there is still a lot of potential. But overall, NBA Playgrounds is a disappointing experience. My NBA Playgrounds review gets a 5/10