By Marshall Garvey
Developer: Left Field Productions
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release date: November 8, 1999
Modes: Single-player, multiplayer
If you follow me on Facebook, know me in real life, or basically live on the same planet as I do, you know I love baseball to the point where I consider it a religion as well as my favorite sport. As we speak, I’m finishing a book about its history in Sacramento for the Sacramento County Historical Society, in addition to the continued promotion of my Presidents Baseball franchise. Beyond that, I’m also a devout fan of the oft-troubled but endlessly gripping sport of boxing. Hell, surprising as it is, I’ve spent more time practicing boxing than I have baseball.
But unbeknownst to many, I also harbor an appetite for perhaps the biggest adrenaline-rush sport of all: basketball. While it doesn’t have baseball’s elegant freedom from time limits or boxing’s fascinating emphasis on the individual, it’s a relentless thrill ride unlike any other. I love every little detail of it: the relentless athleticism necessary to merely keep up with its pace, the squeaking sound of sneakers pivoting and darting across the court, the heart-stopping suspense of waiting to see if a clutch 3-pointer makes it in. Not to mention, there’s an intricate artistry to the simple objective of getting that ball into the hoop. It’s a fast-paced blitz of strategy that I’ll confess to not fully understanding, but always admire when seeing it at its finest.
And speaking of basketball at its finest, we are pretty deep into the NBA playoffs as I write this, with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers ready to face off for ownership of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy tonight. Thus, in the spirit of the season, it’s only fitting we at Last Token Gaming induct a top shelf basketball video game into our Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, there’s a diverse plethora of memorable games to choose from. First to come to mind for many would of course be NBA Jam, which singlehandedly ushered in the genre of fast-paced, over-the-top arcade sports games. For a more offbeat aesthetic, you can’t go wrong with the original NBA Street. Hell, for maximum nostalgia, why not just straight-up induct the video game version of Space Jam, the 87-minute commercial disguised as a movie we all loved as kids?
Ultimately, the game that gets the call more than any other is the 1999 Nintendo 64 classic NBA Courtside 2: Featuring Kobe Bryant. As you may recall, I included it in my Christmas wish list last year as part of our staff holiday article. After all, not only did I play it with friends in my formative days as a basketball fan, but it’s considered by many to be the best game of the sport on my favorite system. Whether or not it’s the single greatest basketball video game ever to hit consoles, NBA Courtside 2 is not only in the upper echelon; it’s the game that truly captured the sport at its most realistically complex and as fast paced arcade entertainment in one package. 16 years on, it’s a replete experience that holds up exceptionally well, and also serves as a perfect snapshot of the start of the post-Jordan era of the NBA. (And no, the comeback with the Wizards doesn’t count and you know it.)
Being released at the end of a decade defined by NBA Jam and NBA Live, Courtside 2 distinguished itself with a plethora of unique and improved features. Most crucial is the gameplay, among the best ever featured in a basketball video game. Not only are the controls smooth and easy to get into, but the in-game action is packed to the hilt with dazzling moves and intricate strategy. The player can call crucial moves like the isolation play, the post-up, the no-look pass, and the triangle offense. Additionally, the computer-controlled players feature stellar A.I., providing an authentic challenge that forces you to adjust your strategy accordingly rather than just spam the same moves and players over and over. And if you’re not one for a realistic challenge (re: yours truly), there’s the glorious arcade mode, complete with slam dunk animations, flashing icons, no player fatigue, and easier shots. Whichever mode suits your skills, each play is perfectly called by legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn, with color commentary by Stu Lantz.
NBA Courtside 2 separates itself from its peers further with improved and new features. First is the ability to create a player from scratch, a new feature at the time and still a blast to toy around with today. Far from merely choosing between regular season and arcade, you can also play preseason, playoffs, quick play, and a basic practice mode. Additionally, you can trade, sign and release players between all 30 teams. The options menu allows you to adjust a multitude of in-game minutia, such as illegal defense, goaltending, foul outs, 3 in the key, and even player fatigue. While the player models are dated today, they were as good as could be at the time, and recreated the familiar faces of the game’s biggest names satisfactorily. Perhaps the best feature is the 3-point contest with Bryant, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Dee Brown, Dale Ellis, Tim Hardaway, Jeff Hornacek, and Glen Rice. It’s a fun challenge to sink your teeth into. And yes, the fact that I’m so bad at it that baby Jesus cried doesn’t at all mitigate my enjoyment of it.
Also to the game’s strength is its unique utilization of its cover boy, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. As a bitter, heartbroken Sacramento Kings fan, Bryant is hardly my favorite player. Not to mention, the majority of headlines these days are centered around his increasingly brittle body, commensurate with the Lakers’ rapid decline to the cellar in the standings. But back in 1999, no one tore up the court with greater intensity and balletic grace than him, and Courtside’s developers realized that in every way. Rather than simply slap his visage on the cover, they had Bryant do the motion capture for every single player, which makes its implementation of intricate moves all the more fluid and believable.
Perhaps most enjoyable of all, especially playing the game today, is how much of a contemporary snapshot it is of the National Basketball Association at the end of the millennium. Featuring over 300 players from the league, Courtside 2 is loaded with complete team rosters, league leaders in every category, and statistics for every single player. Aside from the premiere names of the time, it’s a blast to dig through the forgotten back ends of each roster. (Who knew Christian Laettner was with the Pistons?) If you can’t remember much about that year, here’s one way of putting it: That season ended with the San Antonio Spurs winning their first of five (as of this writing) championships. And who’d they beat in the 1999 NBA Finals? The New York Knicks. Seriously. The fucking Knicks. Remember that?
Much like when I inducted All-Star Baseball 2001 into the Hall of Fame a couple of years ago, I realize that unlike most HOF inductees, great sports franchise games of old can seem crowded out by the inevitable advances that later installments have brought. Granted, you could say Courtside 2 could still be inducted for its historical intrigue alone. Again, from the vantage point of almost 16 years since its release, it’s a perfect time capsule of a pivotal era in basketball history, one that’s almost entirely closed now with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and other young stars of that time nearing retirement. But a decade and a half’s worth of changes in the NBA, and the avalanche of annual game franchises like NBA Live and the 2K series, haven’t at all diluted the strength of NBA Courtside 2. As you sit down to watch Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James vie for NBA Finals glory, fire up your N64 and take a moment to travel back to the days of Patrick Ewing, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, and David Robinson. Whether you want to play a whole season, fool around with stellar arcade play, create Rasputin as a player and give him 100 on every skill, or master the 3-point contest, NBA Courtside 2: Featuring Kobe Bryant is as satisfying as a buzzer-beater that hits nothing but net.
Original commercial for the game: