Overall Rating: 3/5 Stars
Ultimate Basketball on the NES is a story of unmet potential in the face of sharply honed video game development. It was released in 1990 by American Sammy, and featured seven available teams cleverly modeled after real NBA teams, but without any professional references. One player or two could participate in a single game or a multi-game bracket tournament, with the games being of variable length and difficulty. Every single player had a rating for speed, shooting, and defense, with each team boasting a ten-player roster, allowing the player to substitute at appropriate times. Was this the best basketball game on the classic 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System console?
The controls begin simple enough, with the A button swiping for midair steals on defense and passing on offense, jumping on defense (though it seems to do little good for rebounding) handled with the B button, which also jumps on offense with the ball, using a second press to shoot. While this seems fairly standard for a basketball video game on the NES, Ultimate Basketball goes a bit deeper.
The Select button brings up a player substitution screen at certain available times, such as when the ball goes out of bounds and play has stopped. The players can be taken out with the B button and inserted with A, taking into account their skill statistics and level of stamina, which shows as a bar that decreases as they play, reducing their effectiveness. This adds a great layer of strategy to the title.
Also, during dunks and free throws, the game switches to a full-screen animation, showing the suddenly big-sprited player making the play, but only if the controlling player hits the B button at the right time when a ball travels across a bar, a demarcated spot in the middle denoting the appropriate timing. Furthermore, the player can actually scroll through available teammates when performing an inbounds pass; which, unfortunately, is an essential skill to learn, considering how vicious the comptuer is at stealing inbounds passes.
Additionally, steals are performed automatically, when a defending player is close to an offensive player for a couple seconds. At first, this seems very counter-intuitive and quirky; but, really, it just serves to add a layer of complexity, for better or for worse, that forces a human player to pass often and watch their distributing lanes carefully. The computer players do seem to steal far too easily, though, no matter what difficulty level, especially in inbound passes; which, by default, should be easy. Unfortunately, this full-court press effect resulting in constant turnovers is the key lowlight of the game, preventing it from being truly great.
The other elements are accomplished with great flair, though, as the game plays smoothly and at a decent pace. Having different players at different speeds and other observable skill levels is a nice touch, as is the cutscene for long three-pointers. The challenge level is high, but overall, once the scheme is gotten used to, this represents one of the better basketball games on the NES.
This is definitely a video game that is helped by its graphics. Animation flows smoothly and with little issue. The full-screen animations for dunks and three-pointers are actually rather remarkable for the NES, especially considering that they can vary, depending on whether or not a defender is present, and the interactivity of the dunking scenes. The colors and background elements are pleasantly arranged, unlike some other sports titles that are lazily drawn. The entire gameplay experience just feels sharp and defined.
The title screen background music track is well-arranged and enjoyable. The main theme through the gameplay, however, is a little too loud, drowning out the effects. Not only is it a tad emphasized, but it is not entirely appropriate for a basketball game. It is constantly projecting a tense atmosphere, rather than exciting; in its solo staccato bass thumps and lilting piano-like highlights, it hits a mood perhaps better reserved for a high-fantasy title or other more grand adventure, but certainly not the fast-paced entertainment of a basketball game.
Ultimate Basketball is certainly a distinctive game, down to the unique-lookin’ athlete sprites that actually have little pixelated noses. The visuals and gameplay mechanics are executed to a slick degree, showing some fairly impressive development prowess.
That alone is worth notice, especially in the field of NES basketball games, some of which get downright lazy in their presentation. But, unfortunately, a couple critical elements prevent this from being the gold standard for the niche genre; namely, the computer’s tendency to swarm defenders around an inbound passer, often stealing the ball. With experience in using the five second limit to its full extent and cycling to the most open man possible, this can be overcome, but it represents such a focal challenge to an otherwise solid basketball video game that it is noticeably distracting, even potentially frustrating. Alas, the entirety remains an above-average effort, and among the best basketball games available on the NES console, racking up three stars out of five.