Basketball is one of the most unique sports in the world. All you really need to play a game is 2 people, a ball, and a hoop. Of course, you could also play the game with many more players. And the video game industry has come up with a number of gameplay options.
There has been everything from street-level versions to games played in NBA arenas. There are one-on-one games or deep franchise modes where players make all the team’s decisions. And there are more arcade-like games such as the legendary NBA Jam.
Here are the 10 greatest basketball video games of all time based on innovation, gameplay, and the general enjoyment we get from playing these groundbreaking classics.
Jordan vs. Bird
Back in the early 1980s, the NBA was defined by two players. The championship pretty much came down to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In the middle part of the 1980s, though, came Michael Jordan, and he threw a monkey wrench into everything.
Taking a cue from the rise of Jordan, Electronic Arts decided to make a game based on the rivalry. The game was a sequel to a game featuring Bird and Julius Erving. The play allowed for gamers to either play one on one of to participate in a slam dunk or three-point competition.
The original incarnations of NBA 2K were created by Sega Sports and came out on the Dreamcast. The title was very focused on getting all of the intricacies of professional basketball right.
One of the most popular features of the game was the ability to use legendary basketballers. Players could access stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and, of course, Michael Jordan. Multiple versions of the game have been made beginning in 1999 and with the latest title being released in September.
The NBA Live series was first created by Electronic Arts back in 1994. The series was something of a counterpart to the John Madden football games with a different basketball star appearing on the cover each year.
One of the most enjoyable features of the game was the All-Star weekend. Players could participate in the dunk and 3 point shooting contests as well as the actual All-Star game. The series ran for decades with the last version of the game being released in 2018.
When NBA Street debuted in 2001, And 1 Mixtapes were all the rage. EA Sports decided to take advantage of the renewed interest in playground basketball with the game.
Gamers in NBA Street played 3-on-3 games with players from NBA rosters. Each team featured 5 players who could be rotated in and out. There were also streetball legends that could be used. They were based on NBA legends, like the character or Stretch looking and playing like Julius Erving. The game was a smash and multiple versions were later made.
With a college football game already in the books, Electronic Arts also looked to create a college basketball game as well. The first version, NCAA March Madness: 98, was released in 1997 and featured Tim Duncan on the cover.
Similar to the football version of the game, the players were noted by their numbers and not their names. The game, despite being well received and popular, was discontinued after the 2010 version. At the moment, there are no plans to re-release it.
Mario Party 6
So many of the games on this list are there because they captured the realism of the on-court game. The mini basketball game included in Mario Party 6 is something else entirely. Rather than Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, players had to play hoops with Yoshi or Toad.
And while the mini-game shouldn’t have necessarily worked, it totally did. Players delighted in the opportunity to throw down thunderous dunks with Bowser or Luigi. The title went a long way towards proving that having fun should be the first goal with any game.
NBA Courtside Featuring Kobe Bryant
Few players have put a stamp on the league quite like Kobe Bryant. He was drafted into the league in 1996. And by 1998, at the tender age of 19, he was the cover athlete on his first sponsored video game. And that made him the youngest player to ever have his own game.
And that video game was quite well received. It was a financial success, moving over one million units in 1998 alone. And the game was also favored by gamers. A sequel, called, NBA Courtside 2: Featuring Kobe Bryant was released the following year.
Wii Sports Basketball
The other games on this list wildly diverge in terms of playstyle. Some are one on one games that take place on a playground. Others are super realistic five-on-five versions of that game that take place in the Boston Garden or the Los Angeles Coliseum.
But Wii Sports Basketball was something else entirely. More than any game that came before it, Wii Sports players had to put in a little extra effort. There were a wide variety of competitions on the Wii from 3 point competitions to pick-up games.
Lakers Versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs
For a number of years, basketball games didn’t have an NBA license. That was changed in 1989 upon the release of Lakers Versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. This game featured such established superstars as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Patrick Ewing.
In order to play the game, users had to either have a system that ran MS/DOS or play on a Sega Genesis. One of the first EA basketball games, this title would set the stage for the company’s basketball dominance that was soon to come.
There are very few true game-changers in the gaming world, but NBA Jam was the perfect example of just that. The title did a perfect job of blending both the playground and the full-court versions of the NBA.
Featuring a 2-on-2 version of the game, NBA Jam seemingly lasered in on everything fun about the modern game. Nearly 30 years later, everything about the Midway/Acclaim Game remains pertinent.