Saber Interactive’s arcade-basketball title NBA Playgrounds had a rocky launch on the Nintendo Switch. Upon its release due to “technical difficulties” the online portion of the game was unavailable to Switch owners. Saber went on to say that the online portion of the game would be available in a few days. Those few days turned to weeks, and those weeks turned into approximately two months before the online portion was available to Switch owners. While it’s disappointing to see an unfinished product released on the eShop, Saber Interactive have done an incredible job at providing post release updates making the game a solid release, even if it did take some time to get there.
Let’s start with how the game played before the updates. If you are coming to NBA Playgrounds expecting the spiritual successor to NBA Jam or NBA Street, know right away that for all the visual and stylistic trappings of the game, there is a lot more simulation here than arcade sports. The previously mentioned games were games that anyone could pick up and play within a few minutes. You could make crazy shots from across the court and aside from the computer AI’s difficulty designed to make you keep putting quarters in the arcade cabinet were for the most part user friendly.
Playgrounds has over-the-top moves that when you complete them fill your lottery meter. When your lottery meter is filled you get a “lottery pick” a temporary power-up that can range from simple, the ability to make a single basket from anywhere with any player, to ones that can cause an insane disadvantage to your opponent like having their shot clock count down at twice the normal speed. You also have the ability to spend you lottery pick meter on pushing the opponent, making them drop the ball. There’s some strategy that plays into how you want to use your lottery meter, with some paying off much more than others.
The issue with the lottery pick meter is that the game can be incredibly picky on what it deems a worthy of filling up the meter. Block a shot that the computer is about to dunk, and the meter fills to the top almost instantly. Preform a flashy dunk, and it fills anywhere from a quarter to a half way. However sinking three-pointer after three-pointer with Larry Bird doesn’t do a thing, unless you take and make a “perfect shot” from his sweet spot on the court, more on that later.
Playgrounds’ single player comprises of four round tournaments where you pick your two-person team based off of the initial available roster (more characters are unlocked as you win games and unlock new card packs which include new players) and face off against two player computer controlled teams. When the game launched with no tutorial to speak of, the player suffered defeat after defeat while quickly learning that there were a lot of technical aspects of basketball that don’t fit in with the quirky arcade aesthetic the game is originally presented under.
The most jarring gameplay feature was that you can’t simple shoot the ball and have it go into the basket. You have to hold down the shot button until you’re at the right point in your shooting arc for it to go it. If you get it at just the right sweet spot it is considered a perfect shot and you get an extra point for it. The issue with this being that there is no tutorial or any indication on screen that tells you when you need to release. Since every player has their own stats each player is different and each type of shot is different. It’s a lot to try and nail down, especially when the game’s AI is incredibly inconsistent.
Your computer teammate can be incredibly smart, or just stand there doing absolutely nothing. While they are generally effective at getting rebounds, trying to set up an alley-oop is a lot more frustrating than it is fun. As I progressed through the tournament mode, I found that the players that I had built up just didn’t have it in their skill set, and found myself to be successful in avoiding them all together. Which is disappointing since they are a great way to fill up your lottery pick meter quickly. The computer AI is a whole other story. The way that they adapt on the fly is more annoying than challenging. For example if you get the lighting ball lottery pick power up which gives you the ability to make a basket from anywhere on the court, suddenly the opponents who haven’t been able to steal a ball from you all game have no problem taking it away from you, which in turn makes you lose your power up. However, the computer is not very good at watching the shot clock, as I found them getting shot clock violations all the time.
The more games that you play with the same characters the characters level up and earn new moves. While I didn’t find any real change in their stats as they leveled up, or saw any new moves, going through the available players and putting together the right two-man team for my play style was satisfying after slogging through the first few tournaments and having a decent roster to choose from.
Your profile also has an overall level that goes up upon completing games and tournaments. When your level goes up you unlock new trading cards. When you open your trading card packs any player that you don’t have becomes available to your roster and any players you already have get an XP boost. The players you get are random, and while I’ve read reviews stating that there are too many duplicates, I found myself getting mostly new players every time. Each game of each tournament also has special criteria as well that you can try to complete, and is something that I will definitely continue to go after even after completing all the tournaments.
Now that the game has been updated it fares much better. Since the online features didn’t arrive to the Switch until very recently, it was easy to feel as though this version had been abandoned. Saber Interactive have done a great job at giving the game new life, through both the online play and through roster and gameplay updates. They continue adding new players to the roster which is definitely welcome given that the way you unlock players in randomized.
Perhaps the best change that has been made to the game, and this is even bigger than online play, is there is now a shot meter that appears on screen every time that you press the shot button. Having this meter to advise you when to release the button for the best chance of success to sink the basket is a literal game changer as it also allows you to see where each player has the best chance of making a basket.
In its current state NBA Playgrounds is a lot of fun, and anyone who’s a sports fan should definitely check it out. If you already have it, but have tossed it aside due to the issues pre-update, I would recommend picking it up and giving it another try, as many of the games rough edges have been smoothed over quite well. This also makes the attempt to blend arcade style basketball with basketball simulation much easier to swallow and enjoyable. As someone who falls into the long winded category of “enjoys the competitive nature and skill required for professional sports but doesn’t agree with many of the non-sports aspects of professional sports” the more time I spent with NBA Playgrounds the more excited I got about giving NBA 2K18 a shot when it releases later this year.