Everyone remembers NBA Jam, and most of those memories are fond. NBA Playgrounds developer Saber Interactive is well aware of that fact. Mimicking the arcade 2-on-2 of Jam with a dash of NBA Street-like style, NBA Playgrounds invokes both games but stops short of matching the quality of either. Still, it’s a fun, goofy arcade hoops game, and if you’re here for boisterous exhibition more so than extensive single-player or online content, then you’ll feel right at home.
Pass Me the Rock
Playgrounds’ visual style, controls, and all-around approach to basketball will be quickly familiar to longtime Jam-ites. The game’s roster is card-based, and upon booting it up I was immediately prompted to draw a pack and begin assembling my collection. Each NBA team has five players represented in-game, while legendary players are unlockable down the line. Early on your picks are going to be pretty vanilla, so don’t expect Michael Jordan to show up any time in the first few hours.
Online and Tournament modes are locked to start, and Exhibition cues the game’s tutorial. As stated, Playgrounds controls similarly to Jam; teams of two face off, and scoring consists of dunks, ridiculous long-range jumpers, and monster alley oops. The latter are triggered by holding the ZL trigger, which instructs your teammate to leap into the air and wait for your pass, only to slam the ball violently (and often unsuccessfully during my first hour or so) shortly thereafter. Luckily the system is simple to get the hang of, and before long I was scoring nearly half of my points this way with ease.
What’s surprisingly less intuitive is shooting and dunking sans teammate assistance. Jump shots, layups, and dunks all utilize a press and hold system, requiring you to release the button at the perfect moment for the highest rate of success. Though I eventually made peace with the timing, its rhythm is slightly bizarre - maybe it’s just been too long since I played Jam, but I don’t remember chastisement for being “late” or “early” on dunk and layup attempts so often. To be fair, Playgrounds is its own game despite heavy influence, and I did overcome this hurdle with an hour or so of effort. Just know that while Jam’s tutelage has clearly been taken, the games are not identical.
Playgrounds’ main twist comes in the form of a lottery bar, similar to NBA Street’s gamebreaker meter. The bar fills over time as you score (and fills faster the more style you pull off), and eventually triggers a slot machine-esque bonus upon peaking. Rewards include extremely high luck at scoring long-range shots, multiplied points for alley oops and dunks, and an array of other perks. The lottery bar is central to the Playgrounds experience as opposed to being an optional diversion, and as such you’ll want to learn its ways ASAP. It’s not as fun as gamebreakers from Street (nor is it aiming for the same thing), but it does break up the simple gameplay nicely.
Everything else you might expect to be able to do is here; ridiculous shot blocking, aggressive ball-swatting, and even deliberate pushing have all found their way into Playgrounds. What you may not find are enough modes or gameplay variety to keep you interested, as Exhibition, Tournaments, and Online Match are your only options. Exhibition is straightforward and self-explanatory, while Tournaments offer CPU matches of increasing difficulty across the game’s variety of locales (New York, Paris, Shanghai, and others), though the difference between them is pretty negligible and purely aesthetic. Online play is also regrettably basic; matches are auto-assigned and random, meaning you’ll essentially be squaring off endlessly with random opponents until you get bored and play something else. It’s better than no online at all, but even on a Nintendo platform I’d hoped for something a bit more robust.
NBA Playgrounds is not bad for $19.99, but even at that price it sorely lacks depth and slightly lacks polish to an extent that makes it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend. It’s true that Switch isn’t exactly swimming in arcade sports options, so if you simply crave NBA Jam-style basketball thrills with friends over beers, then you’ll probably be satisfied. Most single-player content can be completed in an afternoon otherwise though, and while chasing legendary players and wacky dribbling moves is fun, it wasn’t enough incentive to hold my attention.
If there’s never another arcade-style hoops title for Switch, then Playgrounds certainly meets my bare-minimum needs. It could have been so much more though, and as such I’m hoping Saber Interactive comes back with a fleshed-out second attempt (maybe another sport?) sometime down the road. In the meantime, Playgrounds delivers the outrageous exhibitions you’re looking for - just don’t expect it to provide much else.