NBA Unrivaled Review (Xbox 360)
If last year’s disappointing Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff was not evidence enough, NBA Unrivaled should help confirm what Tecmo fans have been angrily realizing for the last decade: The company has no idea how to update its classic sports franchises for modern consoles.
In Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff there were too few updates to the dated portions of the game's old-school formula. In NBA Unrivaled the developers not only ignored the existing flaws in the source material, but also eliminated the strengths that made Tecmo NBA Basketball an 8-bit/16-bit legend.
NBA Unrivaled has been removed from its simulation roots and turned into the equivalent of a low-budget, Saturday-morning cartoon.
For those who fondly remember Tecmo NBA Basketball, the gameplay probably is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Instead, what fans might remember about Tecmo NBA Basketball are the presentation elements, like the broadcast-quality soundtrack, dramatic cut scenes and choreographed halftime routines.
Alongside the game's true-to-TV presentation were features like a complete NBA roster and an in-depth stat-tracking system for the full 82-game season mode. These types of features helped set Tecmo NBA Basketball apart from lesser, more limited titles like EA's Lakers vs. Celtics (Genesis) or Bulls vs. Blazers (SNES).
Apparently, the Tecmo team responsible for this 3-D update never played much of the original game. The developers of NBA Unrivaled decided to throw the best parts of Tecmo NBA Basketball -- the features and presentation -- out of the gym while letting the weakest part of the original game take front and center: the gameplay.
While Tecmo NBA Basketball for the NES, SNES and Genesis was an accurate representation of the sport that fell neatly into the category of "sim basketball," NBA Unrivaled has turned the series' simulation style into a bizarre mix of arcade gameplay and traditional rules.
As with Tecmo NBA Basketball, each team in NBA Unrivaled gets four offensive and defensive sets that can be called upon at any time on the d-pad.
Unfortunately, the majority of these plays are rendered useless because of the poor AI behavior. Teammates assume a defensive formation and stand in their assigned spots, which is good, but then they never seem to budge -- regardless of what the assignments in front of them are doing. Offensive plays are just as ugly, featuring teammates who jog through their first "cut" then stop moving altogether.
This forces defenses to exclusively play the default man-to-man scheme, while offenses are limited to freelancing and using their own scoring strategies.
Then again, given how easy it is to drive the lane and pull off an unblockable dunk in NBA Unrivaled, perhaps "scoring strategies" should be changed to the singular.
Whereas the original Tecmo NBA Basketball limited the dunking ability of players -- based it on their real-life abilities -- every player in NBA Unrivaled can now perform spectacular, gravity-defying dunks at will.
Worse, however, is the fact that the game’s dunking range has now been extended all the way out to the fringes of the 3-point line (ironically, players still have trouble dunking the ball when they’re directly under the basket).
To make things even more dunk friendly, NBA Unrivaled goes out of its way to flash the shooting icon above the ball-handler's head whenever he’s in position to trigger an unstoppable dunking animation.
These additions would be fine if, like in NBA Jam, NBA Street or even the original Tecmo NBA Basketball, dunks could be blocked or just flat-out missed. But since all of the dunks attempted in NBA Unrivaled go in 100 percent of the time, regardless of who’s taking them or how far out the player launched himself, dunking becomes the game's dominant scoring method.
Conversely, the game provides zero help for would-be jump shooters. The cut scenes that used to appear after a perfectly timed jump shot in Tecmo NBA Basketball are nowhere to be found in NBA Unrivaled. This is a downer because the game's faster pace has dramatically increased the difficulty of timing jump shots. For this reason, there seems to be no reason to attempt any shot but a dunk in NBA Unrivaled, especially now that the new juke and sprint buttons allow ball handlers to weave through the defense and create easy dunking lanes.
In the end, most games go back and forth as both teams trade dunks. The only defensive stops occur when an opponent is dumb enough to settle for a low-percentage jump shot or a steal/charge causes a turnover before the ball handler gets into position for another Space Jam monster dunk.
As great as the original Tecmo NBA Basketball soundtrack was, I would have thought maybe some remixes or even the original tunes themselves would have appeared somewhere in NBA Unrivaled.
After all, if there's one thing Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff did right, it was including a note-for-note reproduction of the SNES Tecmo Super Bowl theme, which unlocked after you completed your first undefeated season.
Instead, the soundtrack in NBA Unrivaled consists of no more than two basic hip-hop beats (one for the menus and one for the actual games), each of which is comprised of the same 3-4 seconds of notes that are looped over and over again.
Given that it probably took more time to create these two hip-hop loops than it would have taken to copy and paste the MIDI file from Tecmo NBA Basketball, NBA Unrivaled's included "soundtrack" is completely unforgivable.
One presentation element that has been (somewhat) preserved in this update is Tecmo’s trademark cut scenes, which make an appearance in most of the usual spots. Nevertheless, the cut scenes have been redrawn in an outlandish comic-book style, and they fail to capture the drama of the stills that appeared in the original Tecmo NBA Basketball.
Instead of showing anxious shots of the crowd or the focused stare of a shooter as he motions through a 3-point shot, these cut scenes splash explosions, laser beams and other Hollywood effects onto the screen.
Get out the way! Darko's got an electrifying date with the rim!
Back in the 1990s, Tecmo NBA Basketball benefited tremendously from a roster and feature set that was hard to match.
While NBA Unrivaled does come loaded with a full NBA roster (albeit, with outdated player pictures taken from the 2008 season), the fact that it can't even match the remaining features of a 15-year-old game is, to say the least, discouraging.
In place of an actual season mode, NBA Unrivaled offers a "challenge ladder" that has been ripped straight from the PCB board of NBA Jam. Players pick a team and take on the remaining 31 NBA franchises, starting with the league's lowest ranked squad (the Kings) then gradually working their way up to a showdown against the world-champion Lakers.
Since challenge games are limited to two-minute quarters against a CPU opponent that is locked into "challenge" difficulty, most players will quickly tire of grinding out meaningless games against the cheating AI -- the AI passes the ball around like a hot potato and easily steals the ball any time the leather is exposed for more than a fraction of a second.
If you want to play another human player (and eventually you will), NBA Unrivaled allows for two people to play with or against each other via local quick play.
One-on-one online matches are also available; though, actually finding someone to play against is extremely difficult with no online lobbies and no way to view the current online population.
In fact, the playing community is so sparse that I have yet to find another user to play against. (Last time I checked there were only 14 players total on the online leaderboard, with only one of those players having logged more than five games.)
With those kind of numbers, you might as well pretend the online portion of NBA Unrivaled does not exist.
There is no scenario in which NBA Unrivaled can be called anything but a complete and utter failure. As a sequel or update to Tecmo NBA Basketball, it’s not only worse than the original game, it's a total disgrace to the franchise's legacy. As a challenger to classic arcade games like NBA Jam or NBA Street (which the original, simulation-style game certainly was not), NBA Unrivaled is about as competitive as the Washington Generals are with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Even facing the limited competition of an Xbox Live Arcade game, NBA Unrivaled comes across as the worst commercial release I have played to date on the service. That Tecmo had the audacity to charge $15 for this disaster of a game just shows how out of touch the company’s sports department has become since the industry moved from 2-D to 3-D consoles.
Foul -- Overcharging.
On the Court: Aside from the uniforms and logos, NBA Unrivaled in no way resembles professional basketball. Jump shooting is unreasonably difficult; dunks are automatic; steals, fouls and blocks are rampant; even basic NBA rules like the charge circle and advancing the ball on timeouts are broken.
Graphics: To quote an OS forum member: "Perhaps a better title for the game would have been NBA Unanimated." The game’s increased speed, combined with the limited eight-way movement and extremely jerky animations, lead to tons of clutter and clipping in the paint. Even in the open court, NBA Unrivaled plays a stiff, ugly game of basketball.
Presentation: It would not surprise me if the "soundtrack" (if eight seconds of music truly warrant that description) was programmed by interns on a single coffee break. More effort seems to have gone into the reworked cut scenes, but like most of NBA Unrivaled, the explosions and lightning effects miss the point of the original game, which was to add big-screen drama, not Saturday morning cartoon comedy.
Entertainment Value: Xbox owners who are looking for an arcade basketball game will be better off grabbing a copy of NBA Street, while fans of the original Tecmo NBA Basketball will have more fun dusting off their old cartridge than downloading this game. Both options are also cheaper and more enjoyable than the slap to the face you would get if you paid $15 for NBA Unrivaled.
Learning Curve: Sprint. Dunk. Repeat.
Score: 2.5 (Horrendous)