I heard about NBA Playgrounds and knew I had to have it. An arcadey 2-on-2 basketball game promising big dunks and fast action harkening back to the days of NBA JAM.
Spoiler alert: some of these big dunks and fast action are delivered. But the game trips over its own shoelaces all too often. This is not an updated NBA JAM you can play with your kids.
Let’s talk about NBA JAM (or “NBA JAMS,” as your one friend called it back in 8th grade, even after you threw his own shoe at him and yelled “THERE’S NO ‘S’ AT THE END”). This will tell you how much I don’t want to talk about NBA Playgrounds, and swim nude in lake nostalgia instead. NBA JAM was perfect. No, no. NBA JAM: Tournament Edition was perfect. A ton of players, easy pick-up-and-play controls, big payoffs with flashy dunks, no-whistle fouls and simple, soundbitable announcing. Swoon. NBA JAM TE is the gold standard of arcade basketball and the only game that’s come close has been the NBA Street series.
The NBA JAM franchise is still active (or at least active-in-airquotes) in the form of NBA JAM: On Fire Edition on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network and NBA JAM for iPhone/iPad and Android. My 8 year old plays on my iPhone and has requested I download NBA JAM on his iPad and our Xbox One, so I thought NBA Playgrounds would be a great way to bridge the old classic and some new rosters.
NBA Playgrounds, by Saber Interactive and out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, promises to scratch that ol’ itch. And man does the trailer look tempting:
So first, here’s what the game gets right:
- Mostly fast, arcade action
- Big dunks
- Updated/present NBA players
- NBA legends
- Mix-and-match players on your team of two
- Power up individual players (on an XP system)
- A $20 pricetag
In a nutshell, NBA Playgrounds is the off-brand, the almost-JAM formula is still fun even with flaws and it’s not terribly expensive.
Oh, but the flaws:
- Weird scoring based on “perfect shots”
- Shots are actually hard to nail consistently
- You need to unlock every single player in the game via packs of virtual cards
- You might go a long time until playing with your favorite team
- Not as easy to pick up and play as, well…you know
- Announcing gets repetitive
- The 12-second shot clock feels really fast
- There’s an always-on power up system
So, listen: in order to make a shot, you’ve got to press the shoot button and release at just the right time. NBA JAM (and basically every other basketball game, from arcade to sim) had a similar system, but a lot more forgiving. I miss a ton of shots in NBA Playgrounds. I miss a ton of dunks. And when I’m not missing a dunk, I’m getting shoved midair. The always-on power ups are delivered via a meter that randomly choo-choo-chooses a powerup when it’s filled. You can get unlimited turbo, a one-time guaranteed shot, zones that multiply your shot values and more. You can’t turn them off, so get used to games where the AI racks up points from multipliers.
And wait! When you start NBA Playgrounds for the first time, you’ll have no players. No one. Zero teams. You earn players through card packs – which, to be fair, they gift you a couple of 5-card packs to start. But it might be awhile until you can play with players from your favorite team – and for my son, who only knows the Lakers and Stephen Curry, he’s immediately without players he cares about.
Does NBA Playgrounds have some redeeming qualities? Sure. Once you get the rhythm of the game, it’s exciting for a guy like me (who knows past and present basketball players) to unlock packs of players. It’s kind of fun to hold my breath and hope I’m going to get one of my old favorite players like Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen or Spud Webb. But all too often, my pack of five cards has multiple repeats. Bummer.
NBA Playgrounds might be a must-buy for a die hard basketball fan whose alright with this not being the NBA JAM they’re craving. For all of its missteps, I still want to play it. After all, I really want Magic Johnson and James Worthy so I can play out some Lakers fantasies I haven’t been able to have for awhile as a basketball fan.
But casual fans, and worse — your kids, won’t tolerate having to release the shot button at the peak of their jump shot. They won’t tolerate the quickest shot clock in the west. They won’t tolerate not being able to be their favorite team right now.
Do I regret spending $20? Nah. At a higher pricetag, I’d be disappointed. But if you can wait for a price drop on NBA Playgrounds, that might be the better play.