Genre: Arcade Sports
Release Date: April 6, 2004
In the beginning, Midway created NBA Jam. And the people played NBA Jam and saw that it was good. And Midway said, let there be Tournament Edition and the people played the new, even more over-the-top version of NBA Jam and saw that it was good. Then Midway said, let there be a flood of epic proportions. And Midway released a towering tidal wave of NBA Jam games for the arcade and every system under the sun. And this great flood lasted for 12 years. The immortal words “he’s on fire!” rained down on innocent gamers, women, and children relentlessly and the people saw that it was – well, actually, not so good.
In 2001, from nowhere came a dark horse riding up. It was Electronic Arts and they bore a gift of unprecedented innovation and originality. Their game face left Midway quaking on their knees as they beheld the magnificence of what they seen. Glowing, bright white like a thousand suns, slowly “the Gift” came into focus and they knew life for arcade-style basketball game designers would never be the same.
That Gift was NBA Street for the PlayStation 2. The people played NBA Street and saw that it was more than good. They saw that it was off the hizzle, fo’ shizzle.
But Midway would not sit idly by and watch as Electronic Arts converted an entire population of American gamers. So Midway went back to the proverbial drawing board in an attempt to formulate a plan to contend with the impending threat of the demise of their flagship franchise. Seeing the inevitability of NBA Jam being slam dunked into virtual obscurity, they went to work. They tinkered and toiled and after countless sleepless nights and missed weekends Midway emerged from the miasmic, swirling uncertainty with a new game, one that could go toe-to-toe with the best of Electronic Arts’ offering. That game is NBA Ballers. And it is good.
Like a long-foretold resurrection, NBA Ballers takes everything that made NBA Jam so great and seamlessly blends it with a heaping serving of NBA Street’s urban flair while simultaneously mixing in a potent dose of entertaining gameplay and originality that is all its own. NBA Street is still better, though.
Unlike its spiritual predecessor, NBA Ballers is primarily played one-on-one (or one-on-one-on-one in certain circumstances) instead of the traditional three-on-three style of play. Points are given out in 2s and 3s, the first player to hit 11 points and be ahead by at least two points wins the round. Winning two out of three rounds wins you the match and allows you to progress to the next challenge. Each round has a two-minute time limit and if the clock runs out before either player has scored enough points to win then victory will go to whomever has the most points when the buzzer sounds. Just like old-school street ball, players score on the same hoop and the ball must be taken back to the three-point line on each possession if it is rebounded after a shot that hit the rim. You are allowed to foul the opponent four times without penalty, but on the fifth foul the opponent gets to shoot a free-throw that is worth three big points, plus if he makes the shot he gets the ball on the next possession.
Gameplay is similar to that that of NBA Jam but multiple layers of depth have been added, which gives the game something of a NBA Street feel, but with a more (literally) over-the-top edge. Alongside the familiar roster of moves such as pushing your opponent or smacking the ball away when playing defense, you can also do things like grab the other player and pull/throw him back behind you, perform countermoves by hitting a specific button right as your rival attempts a trick, or even annoy the hell out of your friend/opponent by making his controller constantly rumble as he is getting ready to shoot a free-throw.
On offense you’ll get to bust out with a wide assortment of moves. Like most simulation style b-ball games on the market, you can juke in any direction with the right analog stick. There’s also an impressive array of “act-a-fool” trick moves that you can perform by pressing any combination of turbo buttons (R2, L1, L2) along with the spin button. For example, by holding R1 and tapping the square button you’ll bounce the ball off your opponent’s head. There are dozens of such stunts that you can pull to confuse and frustrate the defender. In terms of tricks and moves, NBA Ballers has a clear advantage over NBA Street.
Other offensive maneuvers include the ability to toss the ball into the crowd of onlookers and call for the pass back to you with a single button press. You can back the defender down onto the paint by engaging him with the X button and then repeatedly tapping X when the button-mashing tug-o-war indicator is overlaid on the screen; each player must frantically jam on the X button to move the ball in the desired location. You can bounce the ball off the defender’s head, alley-ooping it near the basket where you’ll jump up into the air and slam dunk it down for a spectacular-looking two pointer. And this stuff is only the tip of the iceberg. It would take an additional five pages to describe all the crazy feats you can accomplish in NBA Ballers.
But there is one move in particular that I’d like to mention. It’s called the “juice house” and I’ll be damned if I ever even figured out how to pull it off. The first stage of executing a juice house involves scoring enough trick points to fill the mysterious “house meter.” That’s the easy part. Once you do that you need to press some super-secret combination of buttons that apparently executes the (for me) never-before-seen move, which is supposed to automatically win you the round, break the backboard, and display dazzling special effects. The instruction manual says the juice house move is in fact possible, but then goes on to say that you’ll have to figure out how to do it yourself. Gee, thanks. As of this writing, none of the popular game websites I visited mentioned anything about it, not even gamefaqs.com! Puzzling.
There are two major single-player modes featured in NBA Ballers; rags to riches and TV tournament. Rags to riches is a story mode where you’ll create a baller using the game’s extensive customization system and participate in a reality-based television show and compete against real NBAers, winning cash and prizes along the way. Your created baller’s skills will automatically improve in the areas that are most useful to your unique style of play. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In reality however, stat boosts seem to be randomly awarded. Nevertheless, by the time you complete the rags to riches mode your customized baller will be the best player in the game.
TV tournament mode progresses in much the same way, except you play as an NBA star instead of a no-name street baller and you are awarded with points that you can spend to unlock a slew of different goodies such as legendary NBA hall-of-famers, famous court-equipped cribs, alternate clothing, pictures of hotties, random videos, and more. All the players you’ve unlocked in this mode can also be taken online and pitted against other broadband users in regular matches and tiered tournaments where Midway offers real-life prizes to the best of the best.
The visuals in NBA Ballers fall somewhere between good and great. Player models are hands down the most impressive aspect of the game’s presentation featuring facial modeling that is absolutely unrivaled and body work that closely mimics the real-life proportions of each character’s real-world counterparts. The various venues that are showcased in the game – which are supposedly the actual cribs of NBA stars – are nicely detailed and feature lots of little graphical nuances, but the numerous fans and spectators that occupy the background are disappointing 2D cardboard cut-outs. Player animation is smooth and fluid, though they tend to be recycled among different players. The soundtrack is full of addictive, bass-thumping songs that were created specifically for the game. Artists such as Jurassic 5, Raskal, and Ness Lee help to give NBA Ballers a very appropriette urban, hip-hop sound.
All in all, NBA Ballers is an excellent successor to the long-running, long-in-the-tooth NBA Jam series and a serious contender in the arcade-style basketball game sub-genre. The brief but constant loading times tend to slow things down a bit and a lot of the unlockables are pretty worthless, but its solid gameplay, spot-on character models, and bumpin’ soundtrack make NBA Ballers one of the best games of its kind to be released in recent memory.