NBA Playgrounds aims to be a return to the greatness of the 90s NBA arcade games. In short, it wants to bring back the glory of NBA Jam. For the most part, it succeeds. We reviewed Saber Interactive’s and Mad Dog’s new 2v2 arcade game on the Nintendo Switch, and while the fun is there, some inconsistencies in difficulty and overall lack of polish keep this one from being truly great. This is our NBA Playgrounds Review.
The game modes are sparse but serviceable – exhibition matches for quick play, “Tournament Mode” for a sense of progression as you play across various playgrounds in the world, and Online which is sadly not available on day one for the Switch but coming “in a few days” after launch. For couch co-op and versus play, it’s just like the bad ol’ days of NBA Jam. I even had my four-year-old son tag teaming against the likes of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The worst part of gameplay in NBA Playgrounds is the difficulty spikes in the Tournament mode.
You’ll start in New York, then Tokyo, and move to Paris as you unlock other locations by beating earlier tournaments. For a while, the difficulty gets higher as you play through the cities, but by the end of Paris, you’ll be pulling your hair out. The opposing team will make every steal, nail every shot perfectly (which adds an extra point), and basically be infallible. Meanwhile, you’ll suddenly be missing shots you used to make, bricking dunks, and failing harder than a kid who didn’t study for the big exam. It’s a wall you run into, progress-wise, and the reason I’ve stopped playing NBA Playgrounds solo until either a.) a fix is patched in or b.) I find out what the NBA Jam cheat code is (ha?).
You’ll start the game with a handful of NBA players, maybe a few retired Hall of Famers, but as you level up your profile and beat tournaments you’ll unlock more packs of cards that grant new characters – by the time of this review I’d only unlocked roughly a third of what’s available, with the big hitters like LeBron, Magic, and more still locked away. Each player levels from Bronze to Gold as well, unlocking special moves as they go. Karl Malone and Tim Hardaway are my standbys, a perfect tandem of speed and shooting with defense and dunking thrown in. The Mailman even had his signature dunk, as do all the legends.
NBA Playgrounds isn’t a perfect recreation of the NBA Jam greatness of yesteryear, but it’s a pretty good start. Online play is sorely missed on the Switch, with no clue of how long “a few days” really will wind up being. I also feel like it’s lacking in game modes, though I’m hard-pressed to think of what other modes there could be. Online Tournaments are coming in a patch too, which will be fun if it’s anything like the great tournaments on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. But the apparent lack of content paired with the difficulty spike in the solo Tournament mode means NBA Playgrounds is just two big steps away from being a great game. Right now, it’s merely pretty good.
NOTE: Our review was conducted on the Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the developer and publisher.