The better mobile games out there are, at best, gentle ways to separate you from your money. The freemium creep is inevitable with basically any title designed to play on a phone, riddled with clock-based challenges basically making you decide if your time or money is more valuable. Scratching the itch those games create means juggling all kinds of imaginary image-based currency, including the ultimate decision about whether you should turn your actual currency into the virtual kind to get you more… stuff.
It’s important to lay all that out before we talk about Netmarble’s latest NBA collaboration, NBA Ball Stars. The mobile game debuted earlier in the month, and after grinding through a season with the title I can safely say you need to decide where you stand with freemium games and your tolerance for the format before you commit to checking it out. If you’re the kind of person who is all about optimizing stats and really enjoys puzzle games, it might be the perfect time-waster. But it could also cost you a lot of money to dunk with a digital Shaq if you’re not careful.
The goal is to win games by tapping groups of colored balls to score baskets and get stops with players you collect and power up in a variety of ways. Get enough currency and you can randomly collect new players, or acquire “contract shards” of players to unlock or upgrade ones you already have. It’s all admittedly a bit too complicated to explain in text, but it’s fairly intuitive and a little red dot will alert you when you have new things to tap and unlock in the various menus. Including a list of things you can buy with real money to make all of this leveling up and collecting significantly easier.
Not to harp on this aspect of Ball Stars but, well, the game sort of harps on that aspect on its own. That doesn’t impact the gameplay itself, but the prep you do between games to level up players and decide how best to use your coins and items to create optimal ‘Big Man’ and ‘ISO’ lineups to win matchups. Once you get into a rhythm with the puzzles and numbers game they present, it’s actually a bit of a nice mental workout to make the most of your four moves per possession. There’s a lot to think about: how to best defend and manage the end game with the clock ticking down, and counteracting abilities the other team may use.
But it’s not basketball, even if the players you’re powering up generally look like real NBA stars thanks to Netmarble’s NBA license. And though there is a “versus” mode where you play to 11, you’re not going move for move against real live opponents, just squaring off against that team and an AI making the best moves it can with what it has. It’s not always a fair fight if you’re not pressing the issue with your leveling up, though: teams much higher powered than you start with a bigger advantage on the scoreboard, and they can unlock special abilities much faster due to multipliers that really make the game tough if you’re playing weaker players.
The game’s also a bit glitchy right now, with some puzzle animations freezing when it really starts to cook on your phone and some highlights not lining up with what actually happened. The first time a winning buzzer-beater fell nowhere near the net but counted anyway made me laugh out loud, until it happened against me, at least. But those are small moments in an otherwise fairly seamless experience. The real issue is NBA Ball Stars is barely a basketball game, and the most cynical read of the product is admitting there are loads of this kind of game in the market, just skinned in non-basketball ways.
Still: it’s pretty fun, and there was even a fist pump or two during some close games where I managed to pull out an improbable win thanks to some timely turnover and 3-point shooting abilities. But keeping up with everything the game requires to really develop players and create lineups that keep pace with the opponents you face in the regular season and other modes is fairly exhausting. If you’re not glued to your phone you’ll feel like you’re missing out, and if you’re glued to your phone you often won’t do more than tap a few things every couple of hours.
The hurry up and wait of the game, constantly making you pay attention to collect rewards but ultimately leaving you little to do, puts you up close and personal with the reality that everything would be just a bit easier if you were willing to pay some more money to grease the wheels. That’s a step I very rarely find myself willing to take with mobile games, which is why I don’t see a long future for the game on my phone. But if you’ve ever fantasized about building a puzzle-game dynasty with an unstoppable Klay Thompson on the Boston Celtics, Ball Stars is certainly the title for you.