It's no surprise that the strike-shortened NBA season has affected the quality of real-life basketball games. Faced with back-to-back-to-back nights and short training camps, players have generally performed slower and sloppier on both ends of the floor. Although the game looks as flashy as ever, players still have some kinks they need to work out. In that sense, the 1999 season mirrors the action in Konami's In the Zone '99, a fun-to-play yet flawed basketball game that shines one minute, then does something bone-headed the next.
From the stadiums to the player uniforms, the game's graphics make the most of the Nintendo 64's hardware. Thanks to a fully adjustable camera, you can play from any angle and direction - plus, as an option, you can flip the camera view to a "reverse angle," which is great for multiplayer showdowns. There's also an extensive create-a-player feature in addition to the gameplay modes standard for the genre. The NBA rosters are mostly accurate for the 1999 season, with a few late-trade exceptions.
Unlike the PlayStation version, this game lacks a slam-dunk competition. However, its three-point contest is a lot more engaging compared with its 32-bit sibling, as players use the analog stick to put the right "touch" on every shot - a smart use of analog control. The game further reinforces this innovative control with free-throw shots, using a button/analog stick combination that's challenging to the point of frustration.
The game's AI is steps above the PlayStation version, and it's solid in some respects: Players on defense are smarter and help out teammates, and if you get in a player's face you reduce the chances that he'll make the shot (cheesy can't-miss shots by the computer are rare). But for every AI highlight, there's an embarrassing blooper. The computer is particularly horrible on transition defense, as you can sit on the turbo button and blast to the basket for a dunk. In fact, much of the game's scoring hinges on turbo drives, which seem more fun against human players than the computer. Often, a dribbler on a fast break can screen a defender off his own teammate, which is absolutely laughable.
In terms of strategy, the game has a feature that lets you custom-create your own playbook. Unfortunately, play-calling seems to fall by the wayside when a good screen is all a player needs to turbo drive to the hoop, making those playbooks more ornamental than useful.
Perhaps the most discernible flaw is that gameplay speeds don't mesh: Passes float in midair too slowly in comparison with the players' movement speeds. It's not enough of a problem to make one stop playing, but it's not as realistic as it certainly could be, given the game's otherwise decent graphics. Compounding the problem is the occasional jerky camera - depending on the view you choose, some animations look choppy. Although the ambient stadium sounds are convincing, the announcer speaks in choppy phrases and offers silly-go-happy witticisms such as "Good basket!" and "Kaboom!" It's definitely ABA-level audio for an NBA game.
In the Zone '99 can deliver fun gameplay, especially with multiplayer games and three-point shooting contests, if gamers accept its defensive AI and speed flaws. Since its gameplay style encourages flashy dunks and burn-your-defender drives, it may also be in tune with players looking for less strategy and more action. Still, many aspects of its game need work during the off-season before it can reach its true potential.