The Greatest Sports Video Games of All Time (maybe)- Tecmo NBA Basketball
I love sports video games. They are important. I am writing this today because it is very difficult to have meaningful dialogue about sports games. It’s an odd segment of gaming discourse and media. On one hand, sports games comprise the biggest releases every year. Look up FIFA and NBA2k, people may complain about those series but that hasn’t stopped sales. On the other hand, gaming discourse as a whole refuses to acknowledge sports game in any meaningful way (minus a few sites and journalist). Sports game fans are also different and seem to fall into a few categories. You have older guys who played Baseball for the Atari 2600 and kept their own stats. These guys were into fantasy sports before it was cool. On the other end of that spectrum you have the players who only play the newest and most recent game and everything before them was trash.
The disposability of sports games coupled with the dismissing of the history of sports games hurts my soul. Give N’ Go Basketball for the Super Nintendo was good but beyond that I would argue that it was important and had a lasting impact on sports game and gaming to this day (they were using the 2K camera before NBA 2K was a thing). I sell retro games and gaming accessories on the side (I am a student affairs professional by trade) and it’s wild to me how little people value some of the highest selling and most popular games of every console generation. Some sports game are rare and have collector value (NCAA Football 14 for example), and certain series of sports games have ascended to a status where they always seem to have value (NBA Jam)but there is a 2nd and 3rd tier of sports games that gets no love from anybody. I want to love them. That’s what this is.
Tecmo NBA Basketball is one of the rare basketball games from the 8-bit era that holds up well, even today. This game released in 1992. This game is one of the smoothest playing games on the NES. Outside of some sprite flicker, the games looks amazing graphically. When looking at NES era basketball games it’s hard not to bring up Double Dribble but honestly that’s because the selection of 5 on 5 hoops games was slim. Double Dribble is a decent game but it doesn’t simulate the NBA experience like Tecmo NBA Basketball does.
What is Tecmo NBA Basketball? It’s a five on five basketball simulation. You have options to play a single game or a full season. You have real NBA Teams and Players. The user interface is very similar to Tecmo Super Bowl. The game utilizes a raised sideline view where players can see most of the court and all players at any given time. You have a button to pass and to shoot. On defense, it’s a jump button and a “steal attempt” button. The game features a battery save which is amazing! This was a fully licensed sports title which was very rare at the time. This could be considered the sequel to the wildly popular Tecmo Super Bowl but this game never reached those heights of recognition or popularity.
How is the roster? The roster is critically important to sports games. Some games don’t have licenses and the teams have fake players. Other sports games have limited rosters and teams due to licensing issues. Tecmo NBA Basketball has it all. It has the full player roster and every team in the league at the time. Reggie Lews, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and all the best ’90s players are in the game. Sadly, Lewis passed away so his inclusion in the game feels a little more meaningful and Magic would retire due to his health at the time so his inclusion feels more meaningful as well. Michael Jordan would famously pull himself out of all NBA games in the next few years but he was still in Tecmo NBA Basketball. Some games are just released at a really serendipitous time and this is one of those games.
What’s wild about playing these 90’s NBA games is that the fandom never really moved passed loving these players. In NBA 2k21 MyTeam they are constantly releasing players from this era because it’s what the fans want. That said, the most important part about the roster in this game is that the players feel different. Larry Bird can shoot! Jordan is faster than most players and always hits a dunk animation. Making stars feel like stars is a big deal in any game and it’s hard to do without completely breaking the game’s balance. You can also see player profiles that show you ratings for players shooting and dribbling ability. This leads to a layer of strategy immediately because you need to make sure your best shooter are taking deep shots and to make sure your slower players aren’t bringing the ball up.
How are the graphics? Tecmo NBA Basketball has amazing colors, a usable UI, and expressive player animations. The courts have the proper colors and have the team logos on them. Players don’t have uniform numbers but the game constantly shows you who you are controlling on the scoreboard overlay during gameplay. The biggest issue graphically isthat the game only has one player model and the sprites don’t scale. Dee Brown is the same height as Robert Parish. They feel different, Brown is way faster but they look the same on the court. The player portraits are pretty generic as well, which is a departure from the detailed player profiles from Tecmo Super Bowl. In motion, I think the game looks good. The few cut scenes the game does have for when Referees call fouls or big dunks look excellent.
Is the sound good? The music is decent but the gameplay sounds are annoying bleeps and the ref whistle get’s old quick. I will never begrudge a game that plays an upbeat track during gameplay. The music constantly playing overshadows the annoying sounds. It also makes the entire presentation feel more complete. Playing sports games with no music and just ambient crowd noise feels really sparse and disconcerting and it didn’t get much better until we hit the Xbox 360 era and crowd noise really improved. Play NBA Jam on the SNES….it’s eerily quiet. Tecmo NBA Basketball does not have that problem.
How is the gameplay? One of best parts about Tecmo NBA Basketball is it’s pace. Such a large part of that pacing has to do with not using meters for dunks. Ultimate Basketball and lots of sports games from the era would have dunks and other “critical” moments in the game throw the player into a cut scene where you have to hit the right part of a meter to successfully complete the attempt. It’s a neat way to add agency to the action but it also feels like a Quick Time Event shoved into the game. It’s kills pace in basketball games. Meters like that are for golf games and football games. Tecmo NBA Basketball allows everything to happen in real time. Shots, dunks, steals, lay-ups, all happen during gameplay. It makes the games feel so fluid. Tecmo NBA Basketball for NES is a more fluid gameplay experience than the 16-bit Genesis game Bulls vs. Blazers.
Tecmo NBA Basketball does have fouls and out of bounds but they don’t seem to hamper the flow of the game too much. What’s wild about the game is you can call plays! If you press down on the d-pad and start, you run the pick and roll. Picks are hit or miss in this game but it’s pretty ambitious for an 8-bit title. For me, that’s how I walk away feeling every time I play this game on the Nintendo. I think, “wow, that’s ambitious.” Ambitious doesn’t always mean good but compared to some of the early Sega Genesis sports titles, I think Tecmo NBA holds it’s own.
Final Thoughts- Tecmo NBA Basketball is a forgotten series at this point. You can acquire this game for less than ten dollars anywhere that used Nintendo Entertainment System games are sold. This one holds up really well. It captures the pick up and play fun of Tecmo Super Bowl but is detailed enough that players who care about stats and the nuanced details of the game can still have fun. This is a game that deserves to be brought up more. Every time I turn this game on, I genuinely think, “Whoa, this is an NES game?” Then sprite flicker brings me down to Earth but any sports title from that era eliciting that type of response deserves to be played. THAT is why Tecmo NBA Basketball is one of the best sports games of all time! (maybe).