Lakers vs. Celtics (1991): C+
Bulls vs. Lakers (1992): B-
Bulls vs. Blazers (1993): B
NBA Showdown ’94 (1994): B
NBA Live ’95 (1994): B
NBA Live ’96 (1995): B-
NBA Live ’97 (1996): C+
NBA Live ’98 (1997): C+
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 35th
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Years: 1991 – 1997 (see grades above for exact year for each game)
Note: Of all the games in the series of EA’s NBA titles, these were the Editor’s favorites:
Brad: Bulls vs. Blazers
Stryker: NBA Live ‘95
With all due respect to the Shining Forces and Sonics of the world, it was really sports games that made the Genesis successful. They translate well to video games since they are, you know, already games. Most importantly though, they appeal to that 14 to 21 year old demographic that had grown up on NES, but were getting a little too old to take an interest in the adventures of effeminate wood elves and, crucially, had money of their own to blow on games (and not much else). Never underestimate the chilling effect that a mother saying “You want me to buy you another game? Didn’t I just get you a new one 6 months ago?” can have on game sales.
Through a little bit of planning, and some good fortune, the Genesis established itself at the outset of the 16-bit wars as the place for good sports games. The SNES had a few decent efforts, but nothing that could compare to Genesis’ offerings. Oddly enough though, it was EA – a third party publisher with no interest in either system doing better than the other – that was putting out the “gold standard” for sports game during that era. All of EA’s sports franchises were on the Genesis first, and even when they became available on other platforms, the Genny version was always better (and if someone says otherwise, it’s a legitimate reason to throw down).
Out of all of EA’s sports franchises, the NBA Live series was kind of the least appreciated. It wasn’t the juggernaut that Madden was, and it wasn’t a bestselling game based on a sport nobody actually watches in real life the way the NHL series was. That’s a shame too, because the games themselves are good enough to get someone like me – who can’t do a lay-up, has never watched an entire basketball game, and lives in a Canada-bordering city with a team that left town the same year he was born – to enjoy basketball. It takes some goddamn magic to pull that off.
Pictured: some goddamn (Orlando) Magic.
Of course, it was easier for a basketball game to have crossover appeal back in the Genesis era. Like I said, I don’t really follow the sport, so I can’t say for sure if the talent level was really any higher in the early 90s, but there sure seemed to be a lot more superstars. The Dream Team probably helped some players become more famous, but this popularity was mostly thanks to corporate America – just about every team in those days had at least one player with some kind of endorsement deal. Charles Barkley appeared opposite Humpty in Nike commercials. You know, when he wasn’t trying to get you to buy Right Guard or telling you he’s not a role model. Larry Bird starred in McDonald’s ads, playing one-on-one against Michael Jordan, who also showed up in ads for everything ever. Beyond helping sell cheeseburgers and Gatorade, this exposure also raised awareness of the players and the sport, too. Let me put it this way – when my Mom knows Larry Johnson is the guy in the old lady wig and dress, you’re reaching out into untapped markets.
Was David Robinson a better player than Tony Parker? I’ve barely seen either of them play, but I did see David Robinson’s Nike commercial like 100 times, so I’m going to say yes.
Anyway, the NBA series sticks to the formula that worked so well for most of EA Sports’ games in the 16-bit era: a near-perfect blend of simulation and action-packed fun. The games tend to get the fundamentals of the sport right, without getting bogged down in frivolous details and unnecessary realism that detracts from the fun. As a result, instead of being a hardcore basketball simulation, or a over-the-top arcade-style dunkfest that barely resembles the NBA at all, these games end up occupying a coveted middle ground.
It’s basketball-ish. Or… basketball-y?
This approach of being realistic, but not so realistic that it isn’t fun, probably explains a lot of the game’s appeal. You don’t need a soaring basketball IQ to understand concepts like “get open” or “don’t let the guy on the other team get open”. Even more advanced strategies like “Don’t pass to the white guy” are easy enough for anyone to pick up and play. Later games in the series incorporated more strategy and improved AI, but never to the point where it got overbearing for the casual fan.
Oh, and the graphics. EA Sports had kind of a unique art style back in those days, and it’s oddly beautiful in its own way. You won’t hear many people going on about the graphics in Bulls vs. Blazers the way they might for Phantasy Star or something, but there’s something about the pixel art in these games that really, just seems “right”. Just like the gameplay, it’s a cross between being realistic enough that you know what it’s supposed to be, but just unreal enough to let you kind of imagine how it would look in real life. The NBA games are littered with awesome animations, and even after playing several games, Stryker and I were finding new dunks, shots, and other unexpected movements. And the “signature dunks” that appeared in the early games? Things of beauty.
Drink Gatorade and wear Hanes underpants!
The soundtrack to most of the games in the series screams “classic EA” as well. Hard to describe, but you know it as soon as you hear it. At times, the whole franchise feels like a basketball-themed orgy for EA fanboys. Best not to think of that literally.
Availability: The really good news is that if you’re interested in buying any of the games from this series, it’s definitely a buyer’s market. Finding a copy of any of these games should be about as easy as going to any place where they sell Genesis games, and a copy shouldn’t set you back more than about $4. The earliest or latest entries in the series might be a little bit rarer, but they’re also the least fun of the series, so unless you’re a collector, that’s not really an issue.