NBA Street: Homecourt
Some of the best reviewed and best remembered sports games of the past two generations have been of the arcade variety. In fact, these titles were once a staple of the genre. I’ve spent the same amount of time playing NBA Street, NFL Street, the Midway titles, and The Bigs as I have their AAA counterparts. (For this article, I’m purposefully leaving out extreme sports and racing games, which often intentionally straddle the line between sim and arcade).
What makes these titles shine is their ability to capture what we like about sports -- gameplay, player ability, roster management, etc. -- in quick, hard-hitting doses. When playing an arcade title, I don’t care about slider adjustments or statistical realism; I just want to see how the next play unfolds and ultimately affects the scoreboard. In some ways, these games are the purest representations of sports available.
Additionally, these games have often innovated and influenced the genre. Player abilities in games like The Bigs 2 aren't that different from those found in NBA 2K14 -- both kick in depending on situation and context. Building a team in the NFL and NBA Street games mirror what’s fun about modes like Ultimate Team without any kind of micro-transactions. And, while a little crude, the story lines in the Blitz games offered real context to an entirely fictional league.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen these kinds of title disappear from the traditional market. If I look at a list of disc-based sports games from the past two years, only one (FIFA Street) really follow the trend started by these other titles.
The BiGS 2
So where have all of the Arcade titles gone?
For one, arcade sports games have, to some degree, embraced the digital market. We've seen re-imaginings of games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz debut on the digital stores of the 360 and PS3 -- often to mixed results. These types games have also gained a tenuous foothold on mobile platforms.
Sometimes these experiences have been transferred -- and in the process watered down -- to motion-based games using the Kinect and PS Move. In these cases, the depth has transitioned from roster and game management to mastering often frustrating controls. Kinect Sports is a good example of some nice arcade gameplay limited by the motion-based focus of its design.
It's also the case that these titles have been relegated to the kids’ game sub-genre. Games like Little League World Series Baseball and Nicktoons MLB have contained some of the features I like in my arcade sports games, but are aimed primarily at children. To some degree, this is a natural fit; after all, these titles simplify sports to their most basic elements. However, in the process, some of the more interesting and complex systems are lost.
I would guess this movement from disc-based AAA sports arcade titles is symptomatic of the decline in sports games as a whole. When we are losing core series like NCAA and MLB 2K, it shouldn't come as a surprise that those on the periphery would go first.
I’m not sure if these titles will ever regain the popularity they experienced in the early to mid 2000s, so perhaps it’s time for everyone to check out what made them great -- developers included. A spring NFL Street-type game could easily fill the hole left by the departing NCAA series. A solid arcade experience could be the answer to baseball on the Xbox One. EA may even want to jettison what (little) progress was made on NBA Live 14 in favor of a new NBA Street.
In the meantime, try to pick up some of these games before they disappear for good during the transition to the next generation.