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: