Saber Interactive plays homage to NBA Jam and even a little bit of NBA Street with NBA Playgrounds, and does so with enough changes to the formula to make it interesting, even if the attitude and enthusiasm is a bit subdued. NBA Playgrounds has some erratic difficulty swings during exhibition and tournament modes, but the arcade basketball is fun and easy to pick-up-and-play solo, local, or even online.
Playing NBA Playgrounds is fast and fluid. Rather than quarters, there’s a solitary timer, defaulted to 3 minutes. After the jump ball, the first team to score first gets a bonus shot. And for any perfectly timed shot, you also get a bonus point. The timing is the biggest mystery in NBA Playgrounds, as other than counting it for yourself, there’s nothing on the player or in the HUD to signal if you’ve timed something properly. After scoring, the game is slow to get you back into the action to get the ball thrown back in bounds. Oddly, you can’t throw “buzzer beaters”. You can steal and block excessively, yet the game imposes a shot clock. The rules are inconsistent and fit the gameplay only. Some other oddities include bugs where you score a basket and receive the points, but visually the ball bounced out of the hoop.
Gameplay modes are what you’d expect. Tournament mode serves as the game’s singleplayer, letting you progress against ever-challenging opponents. This is also the way to unlock new locations like Tokyo. Though this straddles between being challenging and impossible to beat. There’s also an exhibition and local multiplayer. At the time of this writing, online multiplayer has not made its way into NBA Playgrounds on the Nintendo Switch version, and is untested.
The 150 or so NBA players included in the game are based on stats, some seem relatively accurate over others. Not entirely sure what these were based on, but works well enough. The crux of progression is through card packs, which you earn by levelling up. This can be a grind even in tournament mode as the XP that’s doled out is at a very slow pace. This becomes problematic as the difficulty is exacerbated by the opponents being gold tier, and the last time you opened packs, you got mostly bronze and maybe one silver tier player.
NBA Playgrounds has an expanded control scheme to that of NBA Jam. You can use the right-stick to perform a crossover to trip up your AI opponents. You can push, throw elbows, and steal to make your way to score. Power-ups play a role in the game, but there’s so many that don’t clearly tell you what they do until you use them. Power-ups include being able to score a basket from nearly any distance, infinite boost for performing crossovers, pushes, and sprinting. If anything, NBA Playgrounds is not clear on communicating what things do what.
Editor’s Note: This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch, and at the time of the review, online play was not functioning after it was unlocked from winning the first tournament. Online tournaments will be coming soon via an update. Timing for this is TBD.
Playing on the Nintendo Switch, the framerate was noticeably lower in hand-held mode. Thankfully, this only affected background objects such as the cars and crowd. Gameplay chugged during the action, which was seldom. There’s a blur to NBA Playgrounds, making it feel like I wasn’t wearing my glasses when playing. There’s great color and art to the game, but visually unimpressive at spots.
NBA Playgrounds would be a better game if some of the difficulty was tweaked, and all of the issues I’ve come across can, and will mostly likely be fixed via a patch. But whether that happens or not, remains to be seen. As it stands, NBA Playgrounds is a fun NBA Jam-a-like, that makes for an interesting twist on the arcade basketball game. If you’re looking to stray away from simulation, there’s still fun to be had in NBA Playgrounds.
A Nintendo Switch eShop code was provided by Saber Interactive for review purposes