NBA Playgrounds was pitched as a spiritual successor to the iconic NBA Jam games, which sounds like the perfect sort of game for the Switch. But it’s got some key flaws, and it’s also the first game I’ve played on the Switch that has made me think about how underpowered the Switch really is.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: NBA Playgrounds is a 2-on-2 side-scrolling basketball game. Like NBA Jam, the court is occupied by caricatures of real-life jumping several kilometres in the air, doing backflips with the ball, and shooting 3-pointers from half court while the ball is engulfed in purple fire. It’s silly basketball, but it’s accessible as all hell, and games only take a few minutes.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Where NBA Playgrounds falls apart is in the timing. Most basketball games have some sort of timing mechanic when taking a shot, but Playgrounds might be the most aggressive yet. I had more success making shots off the bat in NBA 2K17‘s Hall of Fame mode than I did with Playgrounds, although it’s also dependent on what players you get from the start.
Some players, like their real-life counterparts, shoot the ball supremely quickly (like Steph Curry), while others have a much slower release timing. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to have to seriously manage in an arcade game. It’s far too easy to miss dunks and layups as a result, and working out the perfect release timing for those can be a lot harder because the animations can vary so much. (With jump shots, you at least have the general theory of letting go when the player gets to the top of their arc.)
NBA Playgrounds' trailer -- indeed, its entire existence -- is a throwback to arcade sports games like NBA Jam and NBA Street. The kind of experiences where you don't even need to be a fan of the sport in question to be able to jump on, learn a few moves, and have a good time.Read more
Luke already covered some of the game’s flaws above, but what’s especially glaring is how technically limited the game is on the Switch. In handheld mode, my preferred way to use the Switch, character models are blurry and unfocused. The loading times are surprisingly long – we’re talking about 20 seconds or so between the game and menus at points – which seems bizarre something that, on the surface, isn’t doing as much as a Fast RMX, Breath of the Wild or Mario Kart 8.
That said, Playgrounds does run at a stable 60fps. The developers made the right call prioritising that over image quality, but it also means Playgrounds is the first game that has genuinely made me think about what I’m missing out on with the Switch. Even on the main screen, player models look blurry and unfocused.
One of the developers responded on Facebook, saying that “there will be overall improvements” but the addition of online play was first cab off the ranked. Oh yeah: if you buy Playgrounds on the Switch now, you won’t be able to play online. The feature is disabled, although it’s scheduled to be patched in very soon.
It’s not just online play that needs a patch, either. As Luke mentioned in his impressions, Playgrounds has some pretty substantial – and bizarre – differences from NBA Jam. If you release the ball at the perfect moment, you’ll get an extra point for your shot. With the inclusion of powerups, or the bonus for the first basket of the match, it means you can be getting four or five point baskets. (Which, if you’re playing the AI towards the end of a tournament, means your double digit lead could vanish very quickly.)
There’s also a frustrating delay before play can be restarted after every basket. The game doesn’t restart until the defending team’s players are sent back to half court, which means you will often sit there waiting to pass the ball. Initially I thought I’d done something wrong, or hadn’t pressed something, but in actuality you’re just waiting for things to happen off-screen. It slows the game down and it’s a frustrating experience.
The balance is a bit off, too. Rebounding seems a completely useless stat right now, and there’s no stamina penalty on stealing the ball. That means you can just spam the steal button endlessly, which makes players with high speed and steal stats infinitely more effective than they should be.
But these things can be fixed up with a patch, and Sabre Interactive added that they’ll be working on optimising the game as well. So if you’re looking for an NBA Jam experience but you really want it on the Switch, I’d suggest you wait. The game can use a patch or two, and waiting a week is worth it for online play.
In the meantime, you might as well get NBA Jam on your mobile. The gameplay is actually still better than the moment-to-moment offering of NBA Playgrounds, although getting a stable multiplayer game is an utter nightmare.