Did you ever wish you were a little bit taller? Maybe a baller? Just had a girl who looked good so you could call her? Well, we can’t do anything about the last one — maybe Skee-Lo can help? — but the flood of basketball video games that came in the early 1990s and afterward may have helped with the first two.
The ’90s weren’t, of course, the start of basketball video games, but they did bring a change to where five on five simulation-style play, tournaments, full-seasons, and stats became the norm. All of a sudden, if you squinted hard enough, it felt like you were actually playing something that resembled real basketball. And then NBA Jam hit arcades with over-sized photo-accurate headshots of players and otherworldly dunks, and things went up to a whole other level as factions split between arcade style and simulations.
Clearly, the sim-games won the war. Visual Concepts’ NBA 2K franchise rules over all after finally inching ahead of EA’s long-revered NBA Live franchise, but from the simple days of Magic Johnson’s Fast Break on NES, there now exists a ton of fun games that will no doubt spark something in you if you’re a virtual hardwood veteran. And in tribute to those games and the looming debut (September 20) of yet another NBA 2K game, here’s a ranked look back at the best basketball video games of all time.
12. Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs
Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs was the first chapter in the NBA Playoffs trilogy, which was the first video game series to get a full-on endorsement from the NBA and the precursor to the NBA Live franchise (and 1994’s NBA Showdown). The animation was typically choppy through all three games (Bulls vs. Lakers, Bulls vs. Blazers), but the unmistakable thrill of playing as your favorite players (with a small assortment of signature moves and noticeable physical attributes, in some cases) while trying to win a title made that less of a concern back in the day. That is assuming you had access to your favorite players, since the NBA Playoffs series only made available teams that had actually made the playoffs the year before, as well as an All-Star team. Sucked to be you, 1991 Mavericks fans.
11. NBA Showdown
Unlike its predecessors, the noticeably smoother NBA Showdown had access to every NBA team and their full rosters. You could also play a full 82-game season and call basic offensive and defensive plays. Which, if you were like me, you did not do because who cares? Still, in hindsight, it was a cool simulation element and another step toward realism.
10. NCAA March Madness 2004
There’s no way this list is going to ignore the wealth of quality college hoops games we got to play along the way. NCAA March Madness 2004 was the magnum opus when it comes to representing your favorite college programs to the fullest. Have a healthy obsession with the Blue Devils? Pick them as your favorite squad in the game and they basically take over your main menu with a fight song, mascot and complete color coordination.
Not to mention that this was the first time the game came with color commentary from none other than DICKIE V BAY-BEE! (Admit it. You just said that out loud, didn’t you?)
9. NBA Live 06
NBA Live 06‘s Dynasty Mode was the best and worst thing to happen to basketball video games. If you finessed it the right way, you could pretty much build a superteam that would put the new Golden State Warriors to bed in less than a quarter. I’m talking LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal in his prime on one team. (No matter what you say, Eddy Curry for LeBron is a completely fair trade.)
The game is also known for allowing you to do insane things like try to finger roll from the three-point line and turn off out of bounds so you can pull a jumper from the opposing team’s bench. Literally. You could stand next to a pacing Pat Riley and go up for three.
8. NCAA Basketball 10
Contrary to popular belief, EA Sports didn’t stop making college basketball games because they weren’t good. NCAA Basketball 10 was actually great. You could recruit high school players, update rosters weekly and play with more than 300 D1 programs. It was the culmination of all of the best things from years of college basketball video games in one place. And then it died due to low sales and, quite possibly, a murky legal situation brought on by a lawsuit over likeness rights, though as Game Informer pointed out at the time, EA’s NCAA football games still charged ahead… for awhile until those legal issues intensified and those games were parked in 2013.
7. NBA Live 2000
NBA Live 2000 was a turning point for basketball video games. Those sim elements that had seemed so novel in the early part of the decade had begun to grow stale, resulting in EA injecting some of the elements that had lifted up the earliest basketball video games — like Jordan vs. Bird: One on One. The best part? You got to play as Michael Jordan (making his long-awaited debut in the franchise) if you could beat him one-on-one. There were also legends teams that you could go up against and you had the ability to run the NBA draft in franchise mode. That’s just a ridiculous leap forward from the relative limitations of even NBA Live 1995.
6. NBA 2K
While NBA Live was more feature rich, NBA 2K‘s smooth (and speedy) gameplay made for a superior experience and it was just so damn pretty. A true game changer that took advantage of the Sega Dreamcast’s (at-the-time) revolutionary technical capabilities, NBA 2K‘s player models were far from blocky and generic — the industry standard up until that point (though NBA Live‘s player models looked pretty solid too). Player’s faces were recognizable and even coaches looked like themselves. Truly, NBA 2K was a feast for realism junkies.
5. NBA Live 95
The first NBA Live game included the best parts of NBA Showdown and the Playoff series’ (but not Michael Jordan, who wasn’t in the game due to licensing issues… prompting Bulls fans to get creative) while smoothing out the graphics and gameplay. Did players still float semi-upright when they took a jumper? Yes, but you also had turbo boost and the challenge of trying to align two basketballs via the T-meter to shoot a free throw. It’s also worth noting that NBA Live 95 made huge strides in presentation, both in the setup menu and during games, which had more of a broadcast feel than previously. It’s little things like that that make this game a sentimental favorite for many.
4. NBA Street Vol. 2
In the early 2000s, the popularity of the flashy, awe-inspiring style of streetball grew to the point where it started showing up in NBA games. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to capitalize and make a video game where NBA players could pull off stunts they would never get away with in front of the likes of Joey Crawford. Thus, NBA Street was born, which allowed players to make passes off of the backboard, jump high enough to sit on the rim and break ankles at a moment’s notice. NBA Street completely revolutionized the way we look at basketball and basketball video games, building off of the influence of NBA Jam and taking it to a whole other level.
And then they released a sequel. Though it doesn’t relate to actual gameplay, the NBA Street Vol. 2 soundtrack definitely enhanced the overall experience thanks to Nate Dogg, MC Lyte, Nelly, and other hip hop masters. The game, itself, pretty much stayed true to the blueprint of its predecessor, but it wins placement over the original by giving players the opportunity to play on a team completely made up of three different Michael Jordans from different stages in his career.
3. NBA 2K16
The latest and greatest of the NBA 2K series had to get a spot near the top of this list, if for no other reason than because the game represents the highest level of achievement and sophistication in terms of graphics and gameplay. Indeed, NBA 2K16 takes full advantage of the technical advancements made by the current gen consoles, delivering a product that seems, at times, nearly indistinguishable from watching a real game on TV. But beyond beauty, the game goes impossibly deep with its incredibly rich and complex franchise mode, its RPG career mode, and AI that makes gameplay a real challenge for even the most experienced players. Though annual improvements on sturdy game staples may seem only incremental and like innovation has somewhat maxed out, the total package is still wildly impressive. Though granted, the joys of being a casual video game basketball player feel like they have been boxed out.
2. NBA Jam
NBA Jam, which was launched by Midway as an arcade game before being ported over to consoles by Acclaim in 1993 was the complete opposite of the sometimes drab simulations of its era. Jam was all about fun and ridiculous high (really very high) dunks, hidden characters, and bragging rights. Alone, NBA Jam lost some of its magic, which makes the console version slightly less memorable — NBA Jam supremacy was all about besting your friends at the arcade.
It’s sad that despite the many efforts, subsequent NBA Jam releases really weren’t able to live up to the first one, but oh how they tried, even going so far as to turn it into a one-stop shop with both a five-on-five simulation mode and a jam mode in 1999. Despite that, the influence of NBA Jam can be found in NBA Live 95‘s upgraded presentation and enhanced quickness, NBA Street‘s entire vibe, and in every other basketball game that embraces the chaos that comes with a rim-rattling jam and a bit of showmanship.
1. NBA 2K11
How do you combine the fun of arcade style games like NBA Jam and NBA Street with the thrill of absolute realism that comes from modern sims like NBA 2K16? You allow gamers to embody the man who, at once, was a living arcade game character and arguably the best pure basketball player of all time: Michael Jordan. NBA 2K11 has, by now, been topped in terms of gameplay, visual majesty, and depth by its successors — it is five years old — but it holds the top spot here because of the wish fulfillment unlocked by recreating (in vivid detail) Jordan’s biggest moments before unleashing a rookie version of “His Airness” into career mode.
Just think about it: a man who kept gamers at a distance for a considerable part of his career by keeping himself out of a number of these games (and several others) swoops in to cinch the top spot on this list by erasing all bad memories of slightly off-kilter versions of “Player 99” and allowing for the ultimate virtual recreation of his greatness. It’s so dramatic. It’s so perfectly Michael Jordan, the perfect video game basketball player.