[14 June 2007]
Team sports display an interesting dichotomy in which cooperation is necessary and individuals are celebrated. In the history of team sports, no individual has been celebrated as much as Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan continues to be the National Basketball Association’s biggest superstar, and he is not even playing anymore. Ever since his career ended with the Chicago Bulls, the NBA has been looking for his replacement, while randomly appointing “the next Jordan"s and advertising the newest two hundred dollar Air Jordans. Every present and future NBA star is compared to Jordan. Even players from other sports are compared to him. “Jordanesque” is a term that may be used to describe a player’s killer instinct, airborne acrobatics, or high marketability level.
MJ’s ability to fill seats and push Nikes put him in a position to release movies and video games. Jordan vs. Bird: One-on-One and, according to Amazon.com, Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City were games that he was featured in. Another game he starred in, Bulls vs. Lakers, may look primitive compared to NBA Live 07, but really, the latter is just a time-improved clone of the former.
Freestyle Street Basketball is more for the casual gamer and basketball fan than any of those aforementioned basketball simulation games. It separates itself from the Jordan-ness of other games (including the similarly-thrusted NBA Street), putting the game itself, rather than the personalities, at the forefront. This is an approach that could potentially leave what Schiller called “the thing in itself”—there are no name players. It is just you and a pick up team, just like on the street or at the gym.
If only it were that simple. Freestyle Street Basketball replaces the “Jordanesque” traits of those other games with hip-hop. Judging by the theme song, performed by Lloyd Banks of G-Unit fame, the Ecko gear, and the tattoos you can buy, Freestyle Street Basketball is trying to convey a very specific street image. The game comes from a Korean developer, JC Entertainment, so either this image is what they think streetball is about, or the American version has made some changes. It makes sense—hip-hop and streetball are usually associated with each other. Fat Joe runs a Rucker Park summer league in New York, while Shaq infamously released a hit record in the 90s. That association is what we export and it has been reflected right back in how other cultures stereotypically view American basketball culture.
The gameplay is basic, so you can pick it up and play. The up, down, left, and right keys do not allow for as fluid movement as an analog stick, but the “action dribble” can be used to create separation from your defender. The only real movement problems come on defense, though the casual-minded intended audience almost necessitates a concentration on offense. Though there are only a few controls, the variability comes in shots, moves, and other skills that can be purchased through a bills and points system. Gaming has been moving in this direction for a few years now. It is expected that there will be downloadable goodies and extra content available via the internet. These extras reward repeat playing while encouraging more spending.
The arrival of the next-gen gaming consoles and increasing broadband subscriptions are making online play the only way to play. Freestyle Street Basketball would not be worth playing if there was no online play. While it forces you to play online, Freestyle Street Basketball also forces you to play nice with other people or get kicked off your team. Also, the creativity and diversity of playing styles make every game feel fresh.
The games are quick and fun. They run up to five minutes and you can play pick-up or you can create or join a team to play other teams. The short games make it less probable that one of the players will start lagging and/or quit, though games still end when a player suddenly disappears. Just like in real basketball, sometimes the games last too long as you struggle to hold onto leads towards the end of games. There should be an option of having games played until a team reaches a certain score, but these games have the potential of going way too long and falling prey to connection problems.
It is easy to get addicted to leveling up and personalizing your character. Some of the items available are level-restricted to give you an incentive to keep playing. The avatar you create is also restricted based on the position you choose for it, but these restrictions, such as the inability of guards to dunk, make the beginner level games run smoother. You may start out with the inability to dunk or dribble well, but through repeated plays you can mold your character in whatever way you like. There are some really cool avatars at the higher levels. The simplified approach makes Freestyle Street Basketball accessible to casual gamers. The unlockables make the game rewarding for younger people who will have the time to play every day, especially the kids who associate basketball more with Hot Sauce, from the And1 mixtape tour, than with Michael Jordan, the best basketball player ever.
The cartoony (cel-style) Avatars and the image the game tries to project clash in a Nick Cannon on Nickelodeon sort of way. It would be like the suburban-raised, globetrotting, Kobe Bryant recording a song called “Thug Poet”. Oh wait, he did. That said, Freestyle Street Basketball actually succeeds in focusing on the relationship that basketball currently shares with hip-hop culture on a PG and superficial level. Because really, maybe that’s all the relationship is: superficial.