NBA Playgrounds Review — So Close, Yet So Far
NBA Playgrounds on Nintendo Switch does a good job at recapturing the former glory days of arcade basketball games, but falls short at the three-point line.
I’ve always preferred arcade sports games that are intentionally over the top. NBA Playgrounds clearly gets most of its inspiration from classics like NBA Jam and NBA Street. Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry the weight or quality of either of those series.
Right from the get-go, NBA Playgrounds has an absolutely terrible excuse of a tutorial and, without a training mode to practice in, the gameplay starts off as a chore to get used to. It’s not all terrible though; at its core NBA Playgrounds is a decent basketball game.
I was forced right into exhibition mode from the get-go. A few images popped onto the screen explaining how things worked. This is the only time the game tries to teach any of its mechanics to you. It was a very poor tutorial, but I had figured the controls would be simple enough to just pick up and play. Everything seemed simple enough — gameplay almost all worked well too. However, something about NBA Playgrounds’ shooting is really off.
Shooting is random and the game really does a bad job at making it clear how the timing works behind it. That fact is ultimately the most upsetting — when you do pull off cool shots, the game’s potential shows for a moment. It’s such an issue that every time I played the game against someone, they would get frustrated with figuring out why shooting the ball was so confusing. I eventually got the timing down after playing the game for a few hours, but the steep learning curve — one that frustrated local couch co-op — was a blemish on an otherwise decent game.
NBA Playgrounds clearly gets most of its inspiration from the likes of NBA Jam and NBA Street. Unfortunately it isn’t as good as either of those games.
After completing the game’s shoddy tutorial I went straight into “Tournaments” mode. I selected Walt Frazier and Willis Lead of the Knicks like the proud New Yorker I am.
“Tournaments” seemed more like a mission mode; each match had an objective to complete like sinking two consecutive three-pointers in a game. Completing these objectives actually helped me learn a lot of the game’s mechanics, but they aren’t necessary to progress. The first few were innocent enough, with objectives like ”block two shots.” But, once I got to the later stages, the difficulty got a bit ridiculous; scoring ten consecutive three-pointers is insane when you have to account for the game’s difficult shooting mechanics.
You unlock players in NBA Playgrounds by opening card packs, similar to “MyTeam” in NBA 2K17. Every time you finish a tournament you get a gold pack — gold packs are more likely to have epic or legendary players like Magic Johnson or Lebron James.
Players get normal packs of cards from leveling up. The game has some of its more iconic players doing funny gestures that they’re known for, but the creepy looking character models make everything seem a little bit… weird.
The severe lack of quality in the backgrounds outside each court don’t help either. Most of the NPC’s look the same, but color swapped. I noticed this one NPC kept doing an awful “dabbing” animation in the crowd that had me laughing my ass off for all the wrong reasons. Imagine a sort of creepy, stretched out My Sims ripoff… terrifying.
Along with that, NBA Playgrounds has a pretty forgettable soundtrack. The announcers are incredibly annoying and repeat the same things about your players over and over again too. It’s noticeably worse if you like playing as one team in particular, since the comments about the team never changes.
I ended up turning the volume of everything down in the options except for the sounds of the actual basketball game and the players. NBA Playgrounds’ soundtrack consists of about two or three songs that you’ll get sick of pretty quickly. Games like these should be even more fun when they’re accompanied by a soundtrack that’s on point.
NBA Playgrounds does not stand out more than any other basketball game before it, and I think it’ll be remembered as such. Once I had really started to enjoy the game more, I was already done with everything it had to offer. Online multiplayer isn’t currently available on the Switch unfortunately, but it will be in the future. To add to it, there’s practically no incentive to go back and unlock more characters by playing the same tournaments or exhibition matches over and over.
As for my experience with the Switch version, the Joy-Cons both work fine. More importantly, the game ran great on the go. The only problem is trying to teach another player how the shooting timing works is nearly impossible. It is hard to have any kind of meaningful versus match in tabletop mode, which is truly a shame. I had to let multiple friends try it to make sure I wasn’t just terrible at the game. It feels so simple and yet it’s seriously hard to pick up and play.
I’d say it’s a little steep paying $20 for this one. If you’re a hardcore NBA fan you might have an enjoyable time with Playgrounds, I’d recommend most other players stick to the 2K series. It’s hard to even recommend the Switch version because 2K seems like it’s just on the horizon. If you’re looking to play NBA Playgrounds I’d suggest at least waiting until online is available. But if you’ve really got a basketball itch, this game does a decent job at scratching it.