For people of a certain age, the phrase “Boomshakalaka” shall forever be ingrained in their memories as an emblem of a simpler, gentler time, where colourful sprites played across CRT screens around the world and local multiplayer was the only rodeo in town. NBA Jam’s raucous two on two basketball was amongst the best games of the era, and while others have tried to reignite the same spirit – most notably the NBA Street series – they’ve never quite recaptured the same feel.
With this in mind, Saber Interactive have looked to the current generation of consoles and found them sorely lacking in that same anarchic streak of b-ball, deciding to enter the arena with NBA Playgrounds, a fully licensed, modern take on the sport looking to build on the legacy of both Jam and Street. Though they’re so nearly successful, this is a touch more rim-rattler than slam-dunk.
As before, this is two on two basketball, featuring an array of players from both the past and the present, but with an added dose of craziness that sees players fly high up into the air to dunk, spin and twirl around the court, not to mention the lightning strike as powered-up shots find their mark. As you score on and steal from the opposing team, you build up your special meter until it fills and you get a shot at a Lottery Pick power-up, which range from an unmissable shot to score multipliers, and can utterly swing the course of the match in your favour.
With the hyper-deformed giant heads of the players, it really does look much like you’d expect a modern NBA Jam to look, but as you spend more time with the game you start to realise that it’s a little bit of a low-rent affair. It does run smoothly – in both docked and undocked mode on Switch – although there is a major downgrade in terms of character resolution when playing in handheld mode.
It does sound pretty slick, though the commentators really don’t get excited enough about the action, and there aren’t enough “Boomshakalaka” moments to latch onto. It feels as though they could have gone all out for comedy gold, and there are flashes that’ll raise a smile, but confusingly they decided to hang onto a more straight-laced delivery that needlessly grounds it in reality. It’s a real shame, though you can turn it off and… provide your own maybe?
The controls are surprisingly comprehensive given the arcade stylings, and if anything they’re a step too complicated for simple pick up and play. Still, if you’ve played any basketball games in the last decade or so they don’t feel too dissimilar, but the emphasis on perfect delivery adds an extra wrinkle that’s too indistinct to play such an important role.
You can earn extra points for perfect releases, or for getting the first basket of the game, or if you’ve rolled the basket multiplier as a power-up, all of which serves to take away the emphasis on actually requiring any skill to play. This can result in all-too familiar blowouts, and in these situations you often just have to accept the loss, mop up the small amount of XP and start again, which can begin to feel like a mundane grind.
If you want to unlock all of the characters, you’ll have to work for them, and each time you level up you’ll receive a pack of cards with five more players concealed within them. I still love a good unlocking system, even in this style of multiplayer game, and NBA Playgrounds ensures that there’s plenty of work needing to be done before you’ve filled the roster. You’ll get a kick out of legendary players like Stephen Curry or John Stockton appearing. Besides that, there are challenges to complete in each round of the tournaments, and extra courts and Lottery Pick bonuses to unlock when you win.
If you’re playing alone things can begin to wear on you pretty quickly though, from the scoring inconsistencies to the often woeful friendly AI. When you’ve added in other niggles like overly precise scoring releases, inconsistent opposition, or the length of time it takes for the game to reset after a basket, you may be searching for a real opponent pretty sharpish.
As with so many games, and indeed the original NBA Jam games, playing them with another human being beside you really can’t be beaten for the fun and amusement that it brings. When you’re in the moment with some like-minded friends, NBA Playgrounds is up there with the best of them, and while it’s also out on PS4, Xbox One and PC as well, the Nintendo Switch and its variety of multiplayer options is the perfect home for it. Unfortunately we’re still waiting for the online multiplayer to be patched in, which is a huge shame at launch, but should be something for players to look forward to if the experience holds up.
NBA Playgrounds gets so much of the setup right, often reawakening the spirit of the NBA Jam series, but it fumbles some of the finer details with needless complications and lacklustre AI. As a solo experience there are much better ways to spend your money, but when it comes to multiplayer NBA Playgrounds is so very nearly shooting nothing but net.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch