Slam Dunk? Almost.
NBA Playgrounds, Developed by Saber Interactive and published by Mad Dog Games, is not too dissimilar to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers: booming with potential, young in age, but still with work to do and room to improve for next season. There is so much to love in NBA Playgrounds, with core gameplay being incredibly addictive and it’s the arcade basketball fix I’ve been longing for on the Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, it’s not without its hiccups – Online Multiplayer is still under construction, graphical consistency between Docked and Portable mode is an issue, as well as a lack of polish across the (score)board holds back this fun, creative title from taking the championship ring.
NBA Playgrounds presents a very familiar gameplay proposition to Midway and Acclaim’s NBA Jam, but more specifically, the re-imagining of the NBA Jam series we saw in 2010 from EA. Rather than the standard 5v5 matchup you would see in basketball sims such as 2K’s NBA 2K series, NBA Playgrounds is an arcade, on-the-street hooper with a 2v2 notion – pick your very best few from your favourite teams of the West and East Conference, and hit the court in a friend versus foe standoff. From the menu, you’re given a few options to show your skills and flamboyancy on the court. Exhibition Mode presents a classic ‘pick-up-and-play’ mode, whilst Tournaments mode conveys more of an ‘Around the World’ stylisation. In Tournaments, the game presents a number of popular and well-known capital cities of the world to flaunt your supremacy, including New York, Paris, Tokyo, Las Vegas, London and Shanghai.
There are four stages within each city, as well as a cup challenge at each stage that you must complete to progress. These challenges are match-based objectives, such as producing a certain number of blocks, three pointers, alley oops or dunks in a single match. It’s a fun addition outside of simply building a point buffer over your opponent, and I found that, in its own style, is almost a ‘play-as-you-go’ tutorial, teaching and allowing you to practice and master each facet of your skill set. Once you’ve played through the round of 8, round of 4 and semi-final, it’s on to the final battle to conquer the streets and respectively, the entire city. I found that the final stage of each city was honestly quite tough, and calls upon all skills to counter and match your opponent. You’re given the option to pick your players after seeing the objective, so it’s in your hands to select the perfect balance from your roster.
From launch, your player roster is a blank canvas; however, new superstars are unlocked in the form of card packs. A starter pack is provided to you, but you’re left to battle through matches to gather new card packs to expand your roster. It’s an interesting premise, one we’ve seen countless times over from EA Sports’ Ultimate Team game modes. Contrastingly here, card packs come at the cost of no real-world currency (there are no in-app purchases in NBA Playgrounds, to be clear) and is funded purely by your in-game efforts. A Card Collection option is available from the menu, and allows you to track your roster and collect your favourite players, both of past and present seasons.
While there is an option for Online matchmaking, it was unavailable to me at the time of review and release. Saber Interactive have officially posted a statement, claiming the current NBA Playoffs as the reason to its absence and a slightly rushed release, but it’s still a little disappointing that such a core feature is missing for now. It must also be noted that load times between matches and between menu screens are long, and quite possibly the longest I’ve seen in a Nintendo Switch title to date. I took an official timing of 42 seconds between stage selection and the opening tip-off, which is disappointing and one of a number of optimisations that need to occur in future updates of NBA Playgrounds.
Graphics and Sound
NBA Playgrounds is a colourful, vibrant take on arcade basketball, and at no point does it take itself seriously. Player models are popped on-screen as a ‘Bobble-head’, similar to NBA Jam’s rendition released in our last console generation. Facial likenesses to real-world players such as LeBron James and Steph Curry are spot-on here, and this paints the picture for the entire roster. Player caricatures look fantastic on the Nintendo Switch, but it must be said that there are clear inconsistencies between Docked and Portable modes, something I’ve seen as a common trend in Switch titles. While the game is colourful, crisp and smooth in Docked mode, lighting, blooming and textures clash in Portable mode, sometimes presenting a fuzzy appearance. It’s unclear if this is simply due to hardware, but my suspicions turn more towards optimisation. While there’s no official soundtrack on NBA Playgrounds, the compositions are fun and fresh, and themed well with each city tournament you’ll pass through. In the Paris tournament, the cliché accordion is mixed in with a hip-hop style beat, and in Tokyo, you’ll experience the plucks and twangs of a tri-stringed authentic shamisen, mixed with a modern dance beat. It’s quirky, but fitting, and does provide some rhythmic assistance to your build-up play.
I’ll be totally honest – I always have and will be a huge fan of arcade sports titles, and it all began from the cult classic title on the Super Nintendo, NBA Jam. It’s no lie that I jumped at NBA Playgrounds with the thought of it being the spiritual successor to the series. NBA Playgrounds provides the arcade basketball fix we’ve always wanted in a portable form factor, but what is seemingly a rushed development cycle has stopped it from being a recommendation to all players. For the NBA Jam and arcade sports title fans? Give it a go – you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what is a fun and addictive title – I’ll be sticking around for Online Play upon its release also. It might be hard to overlook some shortcomings in the way of optimisation and load times, but NBA Playgrounds presents a solid sports title offering and the first of its kind on the Nintendo Switch.
The version reviewed here was the Nintendo Switch version