The Saturn has been starved for basketball games, and the few that have been released on the system aren't very good. NBA Action 98 will probably be one of the last basketball games to land on Sega's beleaguered 32-bit system. Although it isn't a spectacular title, it is the best basketball simulation the Saturn has to offer.
NBA Action 98 is a substantial improvement over the original, especially aesthetically. The 3D player graphics are more detailed, now sporting a variety of different player sizes, improved texture-mapping, and more motion-captured moves. Unfortunately, these fancy graphics animate too sluggishly, especially when offensive moves such as dunks, layups, and fade-away shots are executed. Sometimes it seems like the players float through their motions, as if the game were being played on Mars. Basketball is a game built on speed, and these stiff and slow animations undermine the NBA Action's attempt at re-creating the sport - though not fatally.
Even though the speed of the player animation is a detriment to its gameplay, Action 98 manages to overcome its flaws and deliver a pretty good basketball simulation. The computer AI is reasonably smart, although its Achilles' heel is that it gives up a few too many points in the paint. The on-court action is realistic: Players move around the court as they should by setting picks, screens, and cutting to the hoop when they don't have the ball. Serious players can use the game's on-court play calling or the controller's shoulder buttons to have teammates cut into the lane.
In the end, basketball games are decided by one-on-one matchups, not fancy play calling. Here, Action 98 excels by providing players with lots of different moves, jukes, and post-ups. Hitting one button fires shots up, while a different button causes your player to drive to the hoop, dunk, and juke. As a result, it's very easy to string a combination of moves in an effort to get closer to the basket or to just show off. Special signature moves are available specific to some of the more popular NBA stars (insert your favorite Rodman joke here).
The only area of this game that is sorely lacking is its atmosphere - or lack thereof. Action 98's monotonous crowd noises and boring sound effects make you feel like you're playing in a hardwood graveyard, not a high-energy NBA game. The dunks may be thrilling, but you'd hardly know it from the crowd's reaction. At least Chick Hearn's commentary (replacing the embattled Marv Albert) is acceptable, but it's no better than average. Maybe you could liven up NBA Action by listening to a Jock Jams CD while you're playing. Then again, maybe not.
Action 98's gameplay is accompanied by the standard set of options that includes season play, player creation, and roster editing. One of the more enjoyable and unique features is a practice mode that lets you do just that. I found it was a great place to horse around and check out all the game's dunks and layups. I hope more basketball games incorporate this feature.
If you're a hoops fan who only owns a Saturn, you have little choice this season than to pick up NBA Action 98. Fortunately, Sega's basketball game is a solid simulation in spite of its obvious flaws.