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Kobe Bryant's NBA Courtside

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Reviewed by Raymond Almeda The long wait for a top notch Nintendo 64 basketball game has finally ended. Unlike previous roundball efforts, Kobe Bryant's NBA Courtside fully exploits the power of the N64. A joint effort of Nintendo and independent developer Left Field Productions, NBA Courtside exudes the quality that has become the hallmark of Nintendo in-house titles. Forget the arcade-inspired NBA Hangtime and the blurry NBA In the Zone 98; NBA Courtside is the N64 basketball game to buy. NBA Courtside is in many respects a basketball simulation, and the corresponding attention to detail on the part of the Left Field developers is impressive. Of course, the game boasts all the necessary basketball licenses that lay the groundwork for the game's realism. NBA Courtside is (obviously) sanctioned by the NBA, and thus contains official NBA team names, logos, and arenas. But in addition to the teams, over 300 actual NBA players are present, both statistically and graphically. One unfortunate exception is none other than Michael Jordan himself. Apparently Jordan cuts his own licensing deals, rather than being lumped into any players' association. In his place on the Chicago Bulls is the mysterious #98 named "Player," who is a suspiciously tongue- wagging dunk-slamming guy in his own right. The NBA Courtside gameplay engine is robust. Running in the N64's medium resolution mode (512x240 pixels), the game delivers crisp visuals without a trace of slowdown. The game's graphics performance is thus notably better than a couple of other medium-res N64 sports titles, FIFA 98 and NHL Breakaway 98. But the true strength of the NBA Courtside graphics engine is not immediately apparent with the default camera angle, which is somewhat removed from the action. It is during instant replays that the game's remarkable attention to graphic detail becomes clear. All of the on-screen characters are highly detailed, right down to their armbands and socks. Images of the actual faces of each NBA player have been mapped onto individual polygons. Up close, the player models thus resemble the characters in Goldeneye 007, only this time they are based on flesh-and-blood human beings. The ultimate effect is striking, and bears testimony to the N64's original "Project Reality" code name. In a couple of years, this texture mapping technique is going to produce characters that are indistinguishable from reality. Instant replays also reveal fine touches like a basketball that actually rotates in mid-air. Various reflections (of the arena lights, players, the basketball and goal) are evident in the shiny arena floor surfaces. Unlike the case with many games, the reflections in NBA Courtside are subtly and gracefully implemented. Control is easy and intuitive. The A button is used for passing, while the B button is used for shooting. The C buttons have a number of cool functions. On offense, C buttons are used for things like lob passes, setting picks, and behind-the-back dribbles. On defense, the C buttons are used to switch players, box out, and intentionally foul. The Z button is used for sprinting, while the R button is either a spin dribble (offense) or a shuffle step (defense). Meanwhile, the control pad is used to call offensive plays. All of these controls may sound confusing, but they are actually quite easy to learn and master. Beginners will be able to play and enjoy the game immediately, while veterans will have a blast with the more advanced moves. The upshot is that NBA Courtside delivers a complex game of basketball very smoothly. The music of NBA Courtside is catchy and well-composed. A mixture of rap and hip-hop, it calls to mind the excellent audio of 1080* Snowboarding with its incorporation of looping voice and sound clips. The music thus provides a refreshing break from the typically bland N64 MIDI fare, and may represent a refreshing trend for N64 games. If nothing else, it once again demonstrates that music need not be compromised by the cartridge format. The sounds of NBA Courtside are excellent as well. Play-by-play commentary by announcer Vic Orlando is seamless and professional. It does not sound artificial or forced like the sometimes lagging commentary of International Superstar Soccer 64. The arena sounds of the crowd are also well done; although there is some looping of crowd noise, it is very subtle. And the crowd reacts quickly and often to on-screen action with appropriate cheers and boos. The free throw shooting system of NBA Courtside is unique, to say the least. Pressing B starts a free throw animation, in which a hoop rotates from left to right in front of the real hoop. Players must use the control stick to line up both hoops before the shot is automatically released, a process which is more difficult than it sounds. Suffice to say that free throws are by no means automatic points. Whether this system is a good one is a matter of preference. The balance between offense and defense is competitive. There are three difficulty settings from which to choose (rookie, pro, and all-star) and naturally these affect one's ability to regularly nail down three-pointers. Some of our head-to-head matches have featured excessive stealing by the defense, an occurrence that hinders the realism of the game. But as in real life, good ball movement and guarded dribbling can prevent most steals. NBA Courtside is not only the best basketball game for N64, but one of the best basketball games for any system. The game excels in terms of graphics, control, sound, and authenticity. While some may find fault with certain minor aspects of the titles gameplay, the overall impact is one of uncompromising quality. NBA Courtside is a strong addition to the N64 library, and bodes well for the system's future as a sports console.

Overall 9.45 out of 10

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