What's in a name?
In the early days of home video gaming, developers apparently didn’t have time to come up with catchy names for their products, choosing instead to simply slap a label with a one-word description onto the box as they shipped it out. Combat, Speedway!, Stampede, and other titles like these weren’t marketing material as much as they were laconic descriptions of what you’d be seeing when you plugged the cartridge into the machine. It’s possible that the developers of these games wanted us to believe that their works were platonic ideals of gameplay, the purest possible form of simulation; it’s more likely that they were simply owning up to the generic, no-frills nature of the products they were putting out.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in early simulations of real-life games. Before sports games grew into the tail that wags the multi-billion-dollar dog known as the video game industry, they were an afterthought for most publishers—more interesting than shovelware simulations like Checkers or Pachinko, but hardly anything to get excited about. Who had time to work on improving that soccer game when they could be making another Space Invaders clone instead? And so players looking for recreations of baseball and football were presented with a short menu of games entitled Baseball and Football. One look at the blocky graphics and stunted gameplay promptly sent players back to APBA and Strat-o-Matic.
Nowadays, of course, consoles have evolved into shockingly sophisticated sports simulators, to the point where their real-life counterparts are themselves almost an afterthought. The pain of losing an entire NHL season is lessened when you can play the whole thing out in NHL 2K5, and you can send the Twins to the World Series any time you want in MVP Baseball. Since the current crop of handheld gaming machines are constantly touted as having console-like powers, it stands to follow that they should provide a console-like experience when it comes to sports simulations.
No such luck, at least as far as basketball is concerned. The first pro basketball simulation on the PSP was developed as a launch title by Sony’s in-house 989 Sports, and was perfunctorily dubbed NBA. The no-nonsense moniker lacks the pop of recent console hoops labels; it’s not Live or ESPN or 2K, and it certainly isn’t Street or Ballers. What NBA is is a no-frills basketball sim that delivers little more than the minimum requirements for a contemporary sports game.
The basics of the game are there: standard NBA rules like lane violations and hand-checks are in place, and players can be substituted or even injured during a game. You can play a single game, a full season, or a run through the playoffs with any pro team, including the NBDL. Unfortunately, there’s no GM mode, so you can’t sign any of those developmental players when your third-string small forward gets injured, or make trades to get the teams’ rosters caught up to where they stand in the present day. NBA‘s players bear a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but after a while you realize that they look more like each other than their human models.
Because the PSP is not actually as powerful as the PS2, there are lots of little things shaved off the feature list of NBA, things that you wouldn’t expect to miss, but do. Spoken commentary in basketball games is often repetitive and grating, but its absence makes the games a little less exciting. So do the courts: the almost obsessive way in which games recreate basketball arenas always seems like a lot of work to put into what’s essentially an affectation, but NBA‘s single, sterile court makes you pine for the confines of a virtual Madison Square Garden or Target Center. These absences lessen the experience a bit, but as crimes of omission go, they’re relatively minor.
What’s more than a minor problem is NBA‘s poor AI. Basketball is a game of improvisation within a complex, flowing swirl of bodies; reading the relationships between people on the floor and trying to anticipate which way they can or should go next is like trying to track individual droplets of water in a hurricane. It’s not an easy thing for a computer to simulate, especially in a full-scale, five-on-five game, but most modern sims manage to do a decent job of approximating it. NBA‘s computer-controlled players, however, aren’t just ignorant of the subtleties of team play, but seem to have trouble with basic concepts like playing off the ball, or simply keeping their feet within bounds. No matter what plays you call, the players are liable to end up looking like a bunch of overgrown second-graders out on the floor, scrambling in a big crowd around the ball and bumping each other off the court in their confusion.
Aside from the online multiplayer option, NBA is torpedoed by discount-rack looks and depressingly bad AI. Like those generic sports games of old, it feels like little more than a token attempt at a sports simulation, a placeholder, something to fill space until a better, more fleshed-out game comes along. Not to mention a more fleshed-out name.