NBA Playoffs - Weekly Recommendations 18/04 – 24/04

Every week I give three gaming recommendations (very) loosely tied to something topical. These recommendations span platform, generation and genre and are all games that I have played, enjoyed and highly recommend. As always, comments are very welcome so please do chime in with any recommendations of your own. Check back each Monday for a new set, and click here for past entries.

The NBA Playoffs are upon us and it promises to be an exciting two months of high calibre basketball, even if my beloved Phoenix Suns will not be participating. There are no shortage of interesting sub-stories, with a collection of up-starts and stalwarts and several legitimate contenders, making it unusually difficult to predict who will end up on top. That won’t stop me from trying though; LA over OKC in the West and Heat over Bulls in the East, then Lakers in 6 for the Championship.

The NBA and basketball in general are well represented in video games. From straight-up simulations (NBA Live, 2K series), arcade fun (NBA Jam), mini game fodder (Wii Sports Resort) and even superstar cash-ins (Space Jam and Shaq-fu!) there a plenty of options for any armchair baller. Here are my three favourite basketball franchises, which between them have claimed hundreds, if not thousands of hours of my life, time which would have probably been better spent outside, working on my rusty jumper!

1. NBA Live/Elite – Various (1994 – present)

The first of the annual basketball-sims has fallen on hard times of late. Losing its status as the premier bball-sim to the 2K series was the start of a downward spiral which culminated in an aborted re-launch as NBA Elite. Before this fall from grace NBA Live dominated the competition for almost a decade, being one of the deepest and most entertaining video game simulations of any sport.

The first true entry in the series was NBA Live 95, released for the Mega Drive and SNES. Since that time it has integrated numerous features which have since become industry standards such as Create-A-Player, which allowed millions of fans worldwide to insert themselves into their favourite teams and keep their rosters up to date with homemade rookie and free agent creations.

On top of this we have seen All Star teams and events, Legend squads, management modes, dynamic DNA and daily updates. These features are all well and good but it is the ability to play as your favourite team in such a realistic setting, feeling like you are in full control of the action, that has garnered the most praise. Thanks to offence and defence that can be as complicated or as simple as you like, impressive player likenesses and signature moves and enough numbers to keep any stat fan happy, it remains one of the oldest and successful video game sports franchises out there.

2. NBA Street – Various (2001 – 2007)

As much as I love the original NBA Jam, I always found myself losing interest after a couple of games, slightly put-off by how little it resembles basketball as I know it. NBA Street is the perfect middle-ground – arcade style 3on3 streetball that remains sympathetic to the fundamentals of real basketball.

Debuting in 2001 on the PS2, then six months later on the GameCube, it features a cast of real NBA stars (later instalments introduced playable NBA Legends) alongside some amusing streetball caricatures playing games of 3on3 on courts across the US. Trick points are earned by successfully executing basketball manoeuvres, and once a sufficient number of points have been collected you can unleash a Gamebreaker – a special shot which both adds to your score and subtracts from your opponents. Fictional streetball Legends act as mini-bosses, selectable once beaten – including the cover star of the first game, Julius Erving lookalike Stretch.

NBA Street encourages on-court inventiveness, featuring gravity defying dunks and ankle-breaking crossovers, without sacrificing the essence of the sport. A perfect mix of high flying arcade hoops and real basketball proved a recipe for success, as it has gone on to appear in numerous incarnations across all major platforms. The recent disappointing NBA Jam reboot could have learnt a thing or two from NBA Street.

3. NBA 2K – Various (1999 – present)

I’m a relative newcomer to the 2K series, but it doesn’t take long to see why this upstart has claimed so many of Live/Elite's fans. Originally developed as a Dreamcast exclusive, it has been an annual release since 1999 and has been a multi-platform title since the DC went tits-up.

The 2K basketball package is an exhaustive one, featuring all the mod-cons we have come to expect from our basketball sims. Aside from the standard modes, it now offers live roster updates and the intriguing My Player campaign which sees you assume the role of an NBA hopeful. Starting from the bottom and attending pre-draft work outs, you battle for the attention of NBA scouts in hope of being drafted. The hard work doesn’t end there as you need an impressive showing in the summer league to make your team’s final roster. In a protracted game of RPG-like micro-management, you level up valuable skills as you gain experience both on the court and in drills, rising from and end of the bench afterthought to superstar. You are even taken to task in postgame press conferences where your answers dictate how you are perceived by your teammates, fans and the league in general.

To great fan-fare, NBA 2K11 features Michael Jordan and it makes the most out of the opportunity. The opening segment throws convention to the wind, as the first time you play 2K11 you are thrust immediately into the spotlight. Instead of being taken to the main menu as you may expect, you are placed in Game 1 of the '90-'91 Finals, controlling MJ in his first game on the biggest stage. This is an excellent opening for a genre that has a tendency to get stale, and it doesn’t let-up. The Jordan Challenges see you reliving some of his single greatest moments; lovingly and painstakingly recreated they perfectly recapture some of his most impressive achievements for a new generation to experience.

NBA 2K11 is not the perfect basketball game – there are issues with the controls, a plethora of bugs which 2K seem entirely disinterested in fixing (my copy will freeze if I try to play whilst connected to the net), and the mish-mash soundtrack is grating – but it does come pretty close. That is high praise indeed, coming from a stubborn NBA Live fan like me.


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