Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 04/27/05 | Genre: Sports
What is it about sports that turn people into whooping animals who suddenly get the urge to yell things like "Oh snap!" and "He just juked you out of your socks!"? Well whatever it is the popular line of EA Big sports games have definitely bottled it and smothered it onto a game disc with their ever popular NBA Street series. Never heard of it? Here's the lowdown:
It would be impossible to accurately convey what NBA Street: Showdown is really like without at least mentioning the console games it's based on. As the spiritual successor to NBA Jam the first NBA Street that showed up on PS2 played it pretty straight, bringing over everything that made Midways classic baller great. However even though it was a return to the same ground covered by Jam, the street series differentiated itself with a new trick system that promoted players doing neat ball handling and crossover moves. The trick system in Street is for the most part shallow, made mostly for show and to build your meter for a score-boosting "gamebreaker" shot/dunk. This is where NBA Street Vol. 2 comes in, the format of the game took a very large step forward expertly re-inventing the already fun original with a new look and flavor that focused on two things, 1) old school NBA stars and style and 2) AND1 (look up the AND1 Mixtape basketball series if you just said "What") basketball attitude where focus is less on scoring the most points fastest, and more on dazzling ball handling skills and embarrassing your opponents with your prowess on the court. The trick system was vastly expanded to include trick passing, "Off the heezay" moves where you bounce the ball off your opponents face and "Juke" effects that stun opposing players unlucky enough to get in the way of the flashier ballers trick extravaganzas. The entire package resulted in what I think makes a great sequel: A familiar but vastly expanded experience. Sadly I haven't yet got to play Volume 3 which came out recently, but for the sake of this review I'll mention that it seems the port to PSP is based mostly on NBA Street 2 with some characters, courts and graphical styling in the menus taken from Volume 3.
The one glaring black spot I have to get out of the way here is obvious: Controls. A myriad of different quirks and cut backs and one extremely damning design decision at their best make the game a bit more hectic than it should be and at their worst will absolutely ruin plays. Firstly, the most major sin in this category is the baffling decision to make dunking and tricking based on a tap/hold system. Here's what this means: Whenever you go to perform a dunk or trick you'll throw out a different variety based on whether you hold the button down or just tap it. The upside to this is obviously that you get two trick/dunk instead of just one in a conventional system where just hitting the button does what you want it to. It sounds nice in theory but in the actual game the effect makes it so moves that you hold down the button for are extremely delayed (you'll hold the button for dunking at the top of the key but your player will run 3 more steps or so until they're under the basket instead of just jumping from right there). And if that's not bad enough even your basic tap moves are delayed as the system seems to be waiting to see if you're really just tapping or starting to hold the button. This whole debacle will be most annoying when your first start playing, and doubly so if you're already used to the NBA Street 2 control system. Thankfully this particular annoyance can be adjusted to for the most part, eventually you'll learn how long it takes to "charge" a held button and when exactly you should expect to see your shots leave your players hands, so don't make the mistake of thinking this is a complete deal-breaker. Load times are also a tad annoying but I've only got Lumines and Wipeout to really compare it to, so your mileage may vary on that particular point.
Phew, alright. Still with me? Assuming you can get yourself accustomed to the somewhat strange control system I can safely say you are in for one heck of a PSP game. The formula of the game revolves around the balance of constantly scoring and tricking. While tricks do serve the immediate purpose of sticking one of your opponents to the floor where they stand the real meat is that tricking will build up your gamebreaker meter which eventually leads to well... gamebreaking shots that add to your score while decreasing your opponents. However tricking constantly also opens your team up to more turnovers and the risk of running out the shot clock. So what kind of game will you bring? Run n' Gun dunkfests that put the numbers up on the board or a fireworks display or ball handling that nets you one big jump in score?
The game has been specifically aimed at the portable market with a few real fast pick-up-and-play modes including minigames where you either scramble around a half court trying to block shots or play a representation of those classic moving-hoop fair games. But the "King of the courts" single player mode is where it's at in my mind. You start out designing your own "leader" for a team of ballers. Your start is pretty humble and if you're playing on any difficulty other than easy you'll probably lose a few pick up games before you begin to advance. However when you finally net that first court things get a little more even. Once you beat a team you can take a player from their squad and put them on yours (Keeping about 4 in the reserves). You progress from court to court taking them over, gaining points to improve your created player (buying better skills, clothes, moves and even bling!), recruiting new players. The real genius part of this mode however is the fact that you don't just conquer a court and keep it forever, every once in a while you'll have to defend a court against a challenger to stay the king of it. I guess it's very subjective as to whether or not this is a good thing, I can easily see how people would take it as an artificial way to extended the time needed to actually "beat" the game. But it's my review, and I think it's a good thing.
The biggest compliment I can give NBA Street: Showdown is that it genuinely IS an NBA Street game. A lot of ports to portable systems sometimes think that people won't notice when the game has moved to a new engine or was scaled back too much effectively changing many fundamental parts of what they love about the original series. Showdown is scaled back in various areas (most obvious in the graphics) but never to the point that it kills the original experience people had on the original PS2/Xbox versions. Although I do have some complaints about NBA Street, that is the bottom line. EA kept the soul of the series in the game. And the series kicks butt.
This article appeared in the July 2005 Issue of CVGames. You can view this Issue by clicking here.