NBA Playgrounds review: It’s heating up, but not quite on fire

Saber Interactive
Saber Interactive /

Come on and slam, if you want to jam! NBA Playgrounds revitalizes the arcade basketball genre, but does it bring enough boom to light the nets afire?

Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Mad Dog Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch (Version reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: May 9, 2017

The arcade basketball genre underwent a renaissance in 2010 when EA Sports gave new life to NBA Jam and introduced a new generation of gamer to exaggerated dunks and a gaudy style of basketball play. This rebirth was short-lived, and the market soon turned their focus to developing realistic basketball games like 2K’s NBA 2K and EA’s own NBA Live. After years without an arcade-style basketball game, Saber Interactive comes with hopes of reawakening the arcade basketball genre with NBA Playgrounds – now available on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Inspired by NBA Jam and NBA Streets, the foundation of NBA Playgrounds feels sturdy but is the game a slam-dunk or a brick?

It is no small task trying to recreate the pick-up and play feel of NBA Jam or the stylish dunks of NBA Street, but NBA Playgrounds brings its best game and drives to the hole with fun gameplay and alley-oops an entertaining basketball arcade experience. When playing solo, the game has one main mode of play – Tournaments. In this mode, you travel the world and compete in, you guessed it, tournaments. You are tasked with defeating four teams in each tournament, and winning will net you additional power-ups, player card packs, and grant access to the next tournament location.

Each matchup in a tournament also features a secondary objective that you can opt to complete – for example, the final game of the first tournament will challenge you to perform an alley-oop. Completionists will enjoy trying to beat these challenges, as some offer a high level of challenge or require you to modify your style of play to fulfill. These optional goals are fun diversions and promote the player to replay certain tournament matchups. Upon completing all four challenges in a single tournament, you are awarded a new style of ball. It’s a small incentive, but an incentive, nonetheless.

Aside from the Tournament game mode, there is Exhibition Mode – and this can be played solo or in local multiplayer. You can set a point limit, game length, and other settings prior to starting to customize the experience to your needs.

NBA Playgrounds
Saber Interactive /

Be it Exhibition or Tournament mode, the single-player of NBA Playgrounds presents enough entertainment to keep you engaged for a few games, but the AI – be it friendly or the opposition, can cause bouts of frustration. Your AI partner will often be out of position or will take far too long to respond to the alley-oop prompt. Conversely, the partner AI is quite skilled on the defensive side of the ball and will block shots and steal the ball quite regularly. The opposing team AI, however, will play in sync with each other, as you witness the two pull off impressive maneuvers and perfectly execute alley-oops and other more advanced techniques.

…The game fails to explain the finer details when it comes to shooting and how to properly time your shots.

This simpatico chemistry is also evident when the opposing AI is on the defensive end. They will repeatedly steal the ball from your hands and intercept passes with ease, thus leading to moments of aggravation. Performing crossovers are the main counter to having the ball stolen, but a crossover will use your stamina and should only be used when absolutely necessary.

To combat the aggressive AI, you are free to spam the steal button. There is no penalty for attempting to steal the ball, so spamming the steal command is a fine way to counter the overly oppressive AI.

One area the game needs clearer instructions is for its tutorial. While the basics are covered, the game fails to explain the finer details when it comes to shooting and how to properly time your shots. With the lack of a visual or audio cue, you are left to figure out the perfect time to release a shot on your own. After much testing, we found that counting 1…2 *release* will guarantee you sink a three-point shot. It may not always be perfect, but it gives a general guideline to success.

NBA Playgrounds
Saber Interactive /

If you do manage to shoot the perfect shot, you will earn a bonus point – meaning a three-pointer will be worth four points. Practice and try to get the timing down, because it will help you when the game enters its final seconds and you need a three spot to tie it up.

…The dunks showcased in NBA Playgrounds are flashy affairs, complete with acrobatic flips and spins that defy the laws of physics.

The more you play, the more experience you will earn and the players you use will level up and learn new moves. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t provide any hint as to what the new moves are. Based on our observations, we witnessed the players perform some new dunks and crossover tricks. Just as you would see in NBA Jam or NBA Streets, the dunks showcased in NBA Playgrounds are flashy affairs, complete with acrobatic flips and spins that defy the laws of physics. Watching a player jump off the rim, catch the ball, and perform a dunk is always impressive.

New moves aren’t the only unlocks the game has to offer, either. NBA Playgrounds has a Lottery Pick meter, which fills with each shot you land. Dunks, blocking shots, and steals will fill the meter quickly, while three-pointers fill the meter at a very slow pace. If you play dirty and swing elbows or push players, you will use up some of the Lottery Pick meter.

There are six Lotter Pick power-ups in total – you unlock these by completing tournaments. A Lottery Pick can swing the momentum of the game in an instant, especially the Star Shot which multiplies the point value of your shot. There is also an Electric Ball that cannot be blocked and will not miss, and 2x 3-Pointer that nets you six points instead of three.

NBA Playgrounds
Saber Interactive /

The game shines when it is being played against other human players. Local multiplayer is a delight and an absolute blast as you marvel at the dunks and exaggerated move set of players. With the AI problems erased thanks to having a human partner, the game delivers genuine moments of pure fun.

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Since the game’s entertainment value increases exponentially when it is being played with other people, one could only assume that online play will deliver plenty of joy. As of this writing, the online mode has not yet been enabled for the Nintendo Switch version of NBA Playgrounds. As such, we will publish an update once the online goes live and share our online impressions at that time. The developer hopes to have the online live a few days after launch.

Portability is one of the Switch’s most attractive features, and NBA Playgrounds is, of course, playable in handheld or tablet mode. Regrettably, the game’s visuals are reduced whenever played on the Switch unit itself. There is a blur of the image as the game appears to be rendered below the native 720p resolution of the Switch screen. It’s by no means unplayable, but the decline of image quality is disappointing.

Performance-wise, though, NBA Playgrounds plays well on Switch. The only hiccup stems from the lengthy load times, which can take upwards of 35 seconds between character selection and the start of a Tournament mode match.

NBA Playgrounds has some rough spots, but one cannot deny that it is a fun arcade-style basketball game. Local multiplayer is a joy, and the single-player modes are entertaining enough to warrant a playthrough. If the online is able to recreate the fun of local multiplayer, then NBA Playgrounds will be tough to pass on.. Saber Interactive. . NBA Playgrounds. 7.0

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.