Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Original 2K Basketball - NBA Action 98 (Saturn)

NBA Action 98 arrived during the Sega Saturn's final days in the US, and it has become almost entirely forgotten, even by sports fans.  That's very unfortunate, and it's a cruel twist of fate that in 1997, the Sega Sports brand was firing on all cylinders.  Worldwide Soccer 98, World Series Baseball 98, NHL All-Star Hockey 98, and NBA Action 98 are arguably the finest sports games of the 32-bit era.

Sega struggled to find quality software studios for their Sega Sports brand, especially during the Saturn era.  Their fortunes famously turned when they discovered a key Electronic Arts collaborator - Visual Concepts.  VC established their fame with a stunning John Madden Football 94 on the Super NES, and soon began to be groomed by EA to helm the Madden franchise.  Their debut, Madden 96, became an infamous debacle and was eventually cancelled.  This was the only year since 1990 without a John Madden Football title, and shattered the relationship between EA and VC.

In 1997, Sega turned to the developers for their basketball title, and the result is nothing less than stunning.  For a hardware system notorious for its difficulty, NBA Action 98 offers smooth, sharply detailed graphics, fully polygonal arenas and players, animated fans in the crowd, a dynamic camera system, elaborate play-by-play announcers, and a richly complex gameplay system.  Included features: pre-game player introductions, team-specific playbooks, offensive and defensive formations, player trading and "create-a-player," impressive instant replays, and a rock-solid frame rate that never clogs, stutters or slows.  This is a technical marvel for the Sega Saturn, and plays a superb game of basketball.

It's very easy to think of NBA Action 98 as a test run for NBA2K on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999.  The gameplay is virtually identical, and it's exciting to see where the 2K series began.  We are also reminded just how slowly sports video games evolve these days, if they evolve at all.  I honestly can't remember the last sports game that felt fresh, or innovative, or revolutionary, other than Nintendo's Wii Sports.  Visual Concepts sports games felt fresh.  These guys were hungry, desperate to prove themselves and leave their mark.  And they certainly succeeded.

I don't know how many people are willing to spend time on NBA Action 98, when the rest of the 2K series is readily available.  But I think it's important for fans to see where it all began, and appreciate the sheer challenge of creating such a beast from scratch.

Here's a gameplay video to enjoy.  See if this does anything for you:

Friday, February 15, 2013

V.R. Virtua Racing (Sega Saturn)

Sega's Virtua Racing went from being revolutionary to has-been so quickly, it's enough to give one whiplash.  When it appeared in arcades in the early '90s, it was a sensational hit, a promise of an exciting future of polygon-rendered video games.  By the time the home versions appeared, the technology had already been surpassed, leaving the flat-shaded look in the dust.  That's really too bad, because VR has always been a terrific arcade racing game, and continues to be fun today.

I've always been in the minority on this, but I always enjoyed Saturn's Virtua Racing.  Naturally, I would have preferred that AM2 handled the translation, instead of Time Warner Interactive (aka Atari Games), but even they were struggling with the Saturn hardware in those early months.  And given the shoddy quality of those early software titles, this game can proudly stand tall...Ghen War, Black Fire, Bug, NHL All-Star Hockey...ugh, what a sorry state of affairs.

Saturn Virtua Racing improves upon the arcade original, expanding to ten racetracks, numerous types of cars, and a season mode.  I think the designs work fairly well, and integrates nicely to the arcade's three courses.  The computer-controlled cars are fairly aggressive, and it's always a fight to gain (and hold) the lead.  The music is especially impressive, booming bass, crystal-clear CD audio, mixing with the wheezing of the engines and squeal of the tires.

I think this game's sins are largely of omission.  In 1995, people were drawn to Playstation's lush 3D graphics, especiialy games like Warhawk and Ridge Racer and especially Wipeout.  It's a bit unfair to expect Virtua Racing to compare with such next-generation flash.  But such was the Saturn's fate, a day late and a dollar short.  It's also true that TWI's Saturn conversion was a step below the arcade, visually.  Whatever, it's all quibbling.  I'll give this title a solid 7/10, be thankful for the old-school charm and warm memories.

Here's a gameplay video to enjoy:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua, another standout brawler for Sega Saturn, a system legendary for its fighting games.  I'm usually not a fan of wrestling video games, which usually reward button mashing over technical skill (thanks for nothing, Acclaim and THQ), but this is a very welcome surprise.

As you can see, graphics are extremely impressive, featuring 3D polygon environments, impressive shading, and detailed characters.  The animation and gameplay hues closely to the Virtua Fighter series, and it feels like a natural extension of Virtua Fighter 3 and Fighters Megamix.  The appearance of Jeffery and Wolf from VF is a star attraction that doesn't feel like a cheap gimmick.

Wrestlers have an impressive array of moves and holds, can perform reversals, fight outside the ring, perform different moves depending on their health, and gain support from cheering fans (that old Hulk Hogan rally).  Most impressively, you can damage and fracture an opponent's bones - break too many bones, and the referee will end the match.  Oof!  Nice.

Everything moves smoothly, and there's a satisfying Thud and Crash when you slam your opponent to the ground.  Even that static background crowd puts a smile on my face (if only the programmers could have animated that crowd a little).  Yes, I know today's PS360 crowd will probably roll their eyes and yawn, but I'm impressed.  There's a certain charm and satisfaction that comes from a really good-looking Saturn game.

The Sega Saturn has an almost limitless supply of "hidden gems" that continue to dazzle and impress all these years later.  If you're looking for an import game, All Japan Pro Wrestling is an excellent choice.  I can see this game becoming a hit at parties and get-togethers.  You probably don't have to be familiar with pro wrestling or Virtua Fighter, but it probably helps a little.  Pick this one up and you'll be impressed.