NBA Playgrounds is like playing a pick-up game at Rucker Park in New York City. It sounds like a great idea, but when you get there you quickly realize how brutal basketball can truly be.
When I initially saw what NBA Playgrounds looked like and entailed, I immediately got excited. My heart was filled with nostalgic feelings, and I could not wait to play it. I was ecstatic for what was to come because the game resembled a cult classic from my childhood called, NBA Jam. Now NBA Jam was a pretty basic game that took Arch Rivals to another level. The game had a simple concept, push, throw elbows, dunk as hard as you can, and score 3 times in a row to get “on fire”. NBA Playgrounds had a very similar idea only they took the dream into the current generation with modern NBA players and also a nod to some past players from the 90’s and beyond as well, giving it an extensive roster. It all sounds fantastic, and sounds like a simple concept but it unfortunately does not transition into the arcade game you would come to expect, and falls depressingly short of what expectations you may have with it.
The concept is pretty simple – the more games you play, the more packs you can earn to play in the different modes in the game. Each of these packs contains a star player from all 30 NBA Teams, each with multiple attributes at their disposal. It’s a cool concept that is adopted from games like Madden NFL and others and it really is exciting to open up a new pack of cards to see which player you get to play with next. The excitement to play with players of yesteryear like Shawn Kemp, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Chris Webber and others gives you a feeling of satisfaction and really takes you back to the NBA’s golden years. And to play with these players in Tournaments, and Exhibitions is just plain fun. But if you want to play online, you won’t be able to at least on the Nintendo Switch as that mode was not available for launch. Disappointing to say the least for many who look to play the game with friends online.
Where NBA Playgrounds struggles to excel is the gameplay. The game seems to play very similar to NBA Jam which may come as surprising to some since the controls are pretty minimal in NBA Jam but it clearly stems from an instance where controls from a 90’s style of video game just don’t transition well to a 21st century arcade style basketball game. While playing on the Nintendo Switch, I quickly realized that the controls weren’t nearly as tight as I would have liked them to be as they felt very jerky and not nearly as smooth as I would have expected either.
One unexpected impediment that I noticed while playing the game really gave me a feeling of huge disappointment was dunking. Yes, dunking the basketball: the main highlight reel and epitome of NBA Playgrounds itself. When playing NBA Playgrounds, everything is timed. This includes shooting the ball and dunking. When shooting the basketball if you are able to release the ball perfectly, the game will reward you with an extra point. This comes in handy if you are feeling it from behind the arc. However this seems to also transition when dunking the basketball as well. I have never played a basketball simulation or arcade style game where I missed so many dunks. It became very frustrating while playing because your player looks super fancy and fly while going up for a slam but when he comes down, the ball hits the back of the rim making him look like a fool. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is not that difficult to dunk a basketball if you have been blessed with that ability in real life, and there’s no reason why it should be this difficult in an arcade style basketball game with professional basketball players who are considered to be the best in the world at what they do. This makes the game more difficult than it needs to be as the computer rarely misses when they dunk the basketball so your best bet is camping behind the arc shooting J’s all day (until the computer starts blocking those too, of course).
NBA Playgrounds’ graphics fall disappointingly short as well. After playing Mario Kart 8 and seeing how beautiful that game looked, I thought it would be a colorful, flashy looking basketball game demonstrating what the Nintendo Switch is capable of. Instead, colors are flushed looking, and dull and weren’t nearly as vibrant as I expected. The screen appears bright, and colors just do not pop like they should, and aren’t what I would expect from a console that has the capability to display amazing graphics from the likes of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and Mario Kart 8. Granted, those are different styles of games, but they also had a lot more going on in the background as well.
All in all, if you do not have high expectations and are looking for a quick pick-up game of basketball to play while on the go, check out NBA Playgrounds. However, if your expectations are for a game that mocked NBA Jam or NBA Street, you will be surprisingly disappointed as I was for this is one arcade simulator that just didn’t meet my expectations. NBA Playgrounds is available now on the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PC (via Steam). Mammoth Gamers was provided a review copy of the game from Saber Interactive for coverage. For more on NBA Playgrounds, make sure you keep it locked to Mammoth Gamers.
+ Nostalgic players take you back to golden years of the NBA.
+ Multiple modes of play.
+ Unwrapping cards and unlocking players within the game.
– Online play unavailable at launch for the Nintendo Switch.
– Graphics fall disappointingly short for a game of this caliber.
– Controls are very jerky, and not very smooth.