‘90s kids will definitely remember NBA Jam, the high-flying, crazy-dunking arcade basketball game that was all the rage among sports fans and nonbelievers alike. Today, NBA Playgrounds tries to recapture that magic.
Let’s be clear. NBA Playgrounds is no NBA Jam.
That, however, isn’t to say NBA Playgrounds is a complete failure. It isn’t. It can actually be pretty fun at times if you play it in specific ways. It just isn’t the pick-up-and-play guaranteed good time that was offered by NBA Jam. If you’re playing solo, you’re going to have far less fun than if you share your game with a friend. In our experience playing single-player we found that our AI partner was seldom in the right place and setting up alley-oops was more trouble than it was worth, as waiting for the AI to line up on the hoop and take to the skies often took far longer than it would to outmaneuver our opponents and take the shot. Conversely, the opposing team always seemed to be in the right place to intercept a passed ball, and seemed to have zero difficulty stealing despite the stats of the player they were assigned.
Speaking of stats, each player receives a score out of ten in several key areas, similar to NBA Jam. What’s different, however, is that you gain experience and your players will level up the more you use them. We also didn't see any change in our ability to make shots, though that's governed more by the timing of the button press as explained in the tutorial. Pressing and releasing at the right time should ensure your success, and if you do it perfectly you'll be rewarded with an extra point - nevertheless there is seemingly no audio or visual cue to let you know when the right time is, nor does the tutorial help you in getting this down.
Leveling up is also supposed to give your baller new moves, though in our experience we were unable to discern what actually changed about the players we used as they moved through the ranks. We assumed it would be new dunks or crossovers, but we didn’t see anything new, though it did seem the CPU had a wider arsenal than we did. These two aspects are the ways in which Playgrounds most resembles NBA Jam. Crossovers are at times over-the-top, with the players doing cartwheels and outrageous spins to move past their opponents. Dunks feel a bit more dialed down, but they still look great. Even if they can’t be done half-court they still look impressive, ranging from sideways flips to insanely high-flying jumps.
There are major ways in which Playgrounds differentiates itself, however. The most noticeable of these is the lottery pick gauge. Each shot you land fills a portion of this gauge, and when you fill it completely you’ll receive a randomly-selected powerup. There’s a lightning ball - which ensures you’ll sink your next shot - and an infinite turbo among others, which can be unlocked by completing tournaments. The lottery pick gauge also controls whether or not you can use certain moves, such as pushing or throwing elbows. Both of these are effective, but we would have greatly preferred to see this tied to a player’s stamina gauge, as losing the ability to use these moves because you haven’t dunked enough feels like it damages the balance of the game.
Another issue we took with Playgrounds is the way in which you unlock players. The roster starts out rather anemic, with some teams not even having a single player available yet. Players are unlocked through card packs which you earn through playing in either exhibition or tournament mode. Completing a tournament gives you a gold pack which guarantees a rare card, but there’s no guarantee you won’t receive a double, and you’ll receive doubles with alarming regularity. In just our third pack with a handful of players unlocked, four out of our five cards were doubles, which grant a player 100 experience points. We saw similar results in many of the packs we opened throughout our time with the game, leading us to the conclusion that unlocking the complete roster may be a task accomplished by relatively few players.
These gripes are minor, but combined they may hamper your enjoyment. The one issue that is certain to diminish your fun, however, is the lengthy load times. A typical match takes about 30 full seconds to load on Switch, which is a tough pill to swallow, especially considering how simple the graphics are. Once you’re in a match the game runs smoothly, but you’ll see stuttering during the lead-up to tipoff, as well as when the playgrounds themselves are being shown off prior. It’s baffling that a game with so little going on could load so long, leading us to believe the Switch version is poorly optimised. The in-game announcer can be a bit of a drag, too, as they repeat lines often. Within two games you’ll be hearing repeated lines, and none of them are particularly entertaining to begin with.
For all its flaws though, Playgrounds can be a good time. When you get rid of the poor AI and replace them with friends in local multiplayer things get better fast. Turbo feels sluggish and the playgrounds themselves feel a bit small, but those issues fade away when you’ve got four people sitting around the couch playing together. You can play in any of the Switch’s available configurations, from single Joy-Con to the Pro Controller (we initially thought the Joy-Con controls required two to function), though the loading screen will only ever show you two Joy-Con in a Grip even if you’re in portable mode. When we played in a group of friends we had a genuinely good time. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t NBA Jam, and the sense of teamwork when setting up a cool dunk or crossing up the other side felt good. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t hold up when your friends aren’t around to enjoy the game with you.
Though it took a few months to get, Sabre Interactive has finally delivered on its promise of online play for the Switch version of Playgrounds, and it works quite well. There are two modes to choose from: Ranked and Challenge. Ranked play is exactly what you would expect in that you’re paired with a random player to face off with the winner gaining points toward increasing their standing on the leaderboards. Both players gain experience which is a nice touch, but beyond that there are no customisable options.
Challenge is almost exactly the same as ranked, with the exception that you then need to provide a code to another player, which they must then enter to join you. The code defaults to your nickname, which seems like a shortsighted decision on Sabre’s part, but you can thankfully change this to any code you desire. Jumping into either a random or challenge match was painless and gameplay was lag-free and every bit as fun as local multiplayer.
NBA Playgrounds is a flawed game, but a fun one. Single player modes are playable but can feel like a bit of a slog for all but the most hardcore fans. Multiplayer fares much better, delivering an enjoyable experience that works well both online and off. The long-awaited update changes some mechanics but doesn’t address some of our frustrations surrounding shooting and especially with frequent duplicates in card packs. If you’re looking for a decent arcade baller on Switch, Playgrounds is your only choice for now, but you could certainly do worse even with a more diverse selection.