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NBA Playgrounds (Switch) artwork

NBA Playgrounds (Switch) review

"Terrific highs are sabotaged by weak lows, resulting in an underwhelming throwback to arcade basketball's glory days."

NBA Playgrounds tries to pick up where NBA Jam left off: with frantic two-versus-two action starring your favorite athletes. Officially licensed by the NBA and developed by the generally capable folks at Saber Interactive, this new game very much looks the part of a classic arcade basketball game revival. However, deeper systems are at play under the hood, and they gum up the works a bit even though the visual presentation hits virtually all the right notes.

When I found out NBA Playgrounds was coming to Switch, I knew I had to play it. I've long been a fan of arcade-style basketball titles because they make my favorite sport accessible in video game form in ways that sims such as those in the NBA 2K series never quite have. Luckily, I was able to secure a review copy from a helpful PR person who was trying to spread the word about its availability.

NBA Playgrounds (Switch) image

After a lengthy download, I jumped right into the tutorial. Exhibition mode capably introduces players to the control scheme, which more or less enables the expected on-the-court heroics. Playing as your favorite NBA star (maybe), you run up and down a small court, performing various moves that keep the action lighthearted and cartoon-styled. Of course you can shoot and pass. That's a given. You can also flagrantly shove your opponents, launch into spectacular alley oops and crossover dribble halfway across the court if that's what it takes to dodge out of the way of an approaching opponent.

Unfortunately, a lot of the most important stuff I mentioned above is difficult to consistently manage with any grace. Your player moves awkwardly, so it's hard to direct him where you want to go while he is on defense. And since this is an arcade game, shoves and steals are extra important. You have to mash the Y button to steal, at which point your character drunkenly wanders around the offensive player, extending his arms in all sorts of directions. Maybe that barrage of elbows and fists succeeds in knocking the ball loose. Maybe your player's AI teammate even scoops it up and gives the pair of you a chance at a fast break. What's more likely, though, is that knocking the ball loose accomplishes nothing. Either the opposing player who had the ball at the start of the play miraculously grabs it again, or his teammate does. Then, when you are on the offense and want to make a play of your own, the other team scoops the ball out of your hands with ease, almost never missing an attempt.

Shooting is similarly difficult. If you're moving too fast, you attempt a wild shot that is almost certain to miss. You do better if you pull up and take a quick jump shot, but that careful maneuver might result in you getting knocked around by the other team (there are no foul calls here). Even if you are unmolested on the approach, you have to time your shot carefully, lest your player fire off an embarrassing air ball. A perfect shot, meanwhile, is rewarded with an extra point or more. So... guess how often the AI manages to perform perfect shots in a tight match? That's right: nearly every attempt is a swish, even if the AI tries shooting from the free throw line on the opposite side of the court. I haven't seen it do that very often, to be fair, but the one time such a ludicrous maneuver was attempted, it was a resounding success. I hate matches where I sink or swim based entirely on my skill, while the AI is working from a script that seems to say "Never miss."

NBA Playgrounds (Switch) image

Of course, you can always go in for a dunk when perimeter shots aren't working for you. In a surprising development, though, passable dunks often prove more difficult to pull off than three-point shots. You have to get the timing just right, and you're not safe even once you start gliding through the air toward the hoop; the opposing players might knock you to the ground. If you try to return the favor the next time they launch into a jam, they'll probably just elbow you out of the way as an extended "signature move" animation begins. Good luck stopping that!

The problems I've noted above don't crop up consistently, at least. In some close matches, I'll lose by a couple of points or so and feel that the loss was reasonable and I just needed to work harder. Then I'll try again and lose by 20 or 30 points. One thing I've noticed is that the easier matches are really easy, and the harder ones take "cheap" to absurd heights. Progression is weird, in that you must participate in four-round tournaments. Each one starts out easy and gets tough by the end. Then you begin another one and everything is easy again... before quickly getting tough once more. You have to clear tournaments to unlock additional arenas, so the effort ultimately proves worthwhile, but I do wish the setup were a bit smoother.

Speaking of unlocking, you acquire the various players by obtaining card packs. Each pack contains several cards. Gold packs, though rarely awarded, increase your likelihood of snagging a really great card. But there's no guarantee, and you also will probably get some of the same cards multiple times. The redundancy does you almost no good. By the time I unlocked something like a dozen packs, I still didn't have access to any Spurs or Grizzlies players, because there were so many duplicate cards for players I didn't even much care about. I lucked out and got a couple of Blazers cards early, which made me happy, but then I suffered through an extended dry spell and I still don't have Damian Lillard (though I know he's in the game because I've beaten him on the court).

NBA Playgrounds (Switch) image

The selection of players is surprisingly solid, though, I must say. There are around 150 players in all. One of the very first cards I gained was Clyde Drexler, who hasn't played basketball in years. He was a great player at one time, and he's a strong performer here. Other historic players also make appearances, so there's a good chance you can find a number of greats who appeared in NBA Jam at one point. That's pretty cool, actually.

Once players are acquired, they can gain experience points and go up ranks. They all start at the copper rank, and eventually advance to gold if you include them in your active roster often enough. This process is supposed to make them perform better, but I didn't actually see any performance enhancements even when I was paying attention. The difference is a little too subtle for me, or the rubber band AI is severe enough to make it irrelevant. I'm not sure which is the case.

Besides the issues I've noted above, NBA Playgrounds suffers from disappointing navigation and technical deficiencies. The game closed itself down once, due to an unspecified issue. Load times between rounds in a tournament last over a minute in many cases (I clocked it), and changing which players are on your team is difficult because the interface isn't intuitive. I also saw "very" spelled as "ver" in one of the more common load screen notices, which seems like something the QA process should have caught. On a more positive note, the game's two announcers have a lot of personality. One of them previously provided voice work in NBA Jam. He does a great job here, too. I just wish there weren't so many repetitive lines asking if I have a button stuck on my controller, or telling me that maybe I should reset the game and try on "easy" difficulty. I get it, guys: I suck at the game. But in my defense, that only occasionally feels like it's actually my fault.

When the review key for NBA Playgrounds arrived, the accompanying note assured me online play should be available within a few days. That was around a week ago, and "Online" is still nothing more than a grayed out option on the main menu, even though I've cleared numerous tournaments and unlocked dozens of players. There's no Season mode, and the game's design is sufficiently frustrating that I can't easily find any local competition to compete against, so I'm not particularly motivated to keep playing until some of that is addressed. You may enjoy the game more than I ultimately did, though, if you're able to gather your friends for a few afternoons of casual gaming. Then again, they might resent you for asking them to play. It's hard to say until you try...


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 17, 2017)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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