NBA Baller Beats review: Sweat the technique

Let's get one thing out of the way right now: Within five minutes of playing NBA Baller Beats, a rhythm game paired with an actual basketball, I sent the ball sailing through the air and square into a table lamp. The lamp is okay, and thankfully my wife wasn't around to see it.

I've never been great at sports. Between the pressure of supporting a team and a tendency to over-think just about everything, the moment-to-moment demand of most sports overwhelmed me as a child. That has subsided somewhat as I've gotten older, though even now the only things resembling sports in my life are running, cycling, disc golf and the (semi) occasional match of tennis.

I couldn't tell you if NBA Baller Beats is a capable training tool for the discerning baller. I can, however, assure you that NBA Baller Beats is a lot of fun, and it just might help you learn a real-world skill.

Using the Kinect, Baller Beats tracks the location of the ball, recognizing when and where it strikes the ground. Employing a traditional rhythm game format, players bounce the ball to the beat of a song, occasionally performing special moves like crossovers, pump fakes and behind-the-back dribbling. Any basketball (or basketball-like object) will work, supposedly. Not that it matters, as new copies of the game include a Spalding basketball anyway.

Yes, it's the very same ball you might practice with in the driveway. Appropriately, you'll need about a driveway's worth of space to play NBA Baller Beats. Even for a Kinect game, the space requirements are very high, and you'll have to take into account the fragility of surrounding furniture and household effects (loved ones, pets, etc). My table lamp turned out to be pretty hardy, but you can bet I moved it out of the way after my initial mishap.

One other technical issue to consider is the surface of your floor. Logically, the game should work with just about any surface you can bounce a basketball on, though obviously a bare, hard floor is ideal. Those with uneven flooring like natural stone tile may want to be careful as well – the last thing you want is unpredictable bounces.

NBA Baller Beats review
The good news is that, once everything is set up, NBA Baller Beats is a joy to play. The first few songs are simple. Dribble the ball with your right hand for a measure or two, cross over to the left hand, dribble for a measure or two, repeat. As the songs escalate in difficulty, however, things get much more interesting. Dribbled beats become more intricate, special moves become more complex. By the time you work your way up to Skrillex's "Bangarang," dribble beats are furious and double crossovers are followed immediately by between-the-legs crossovers – and that's on Rookie difficulty.

Not that I was actually accomplishing all of these things, but I was accomplishing some of them. I, Richard Mitchell, self-proclaimed basketball amateur, was performing rapid-fire between-the-legs crossovers in succession. Sometimes I performed moves without even thinking about it – the immediacy of the song wouldn't allow it. The Pro and Baller difficulties, however, are out of my league entirely, resulting in little more than a handful of on-time dribbles and very poorly executed "Hopkins" maneuvers (that's dribbling the ball between your legs and back into the same hand). The higher difficulties throw a huge array of moves at you, but I think I could muster up a modicum of mastery given enough time. Suffice it to say that it's a little more demanding than rewiring your brain to use the orange button in Guitar Hero.

Unfortunately, as much fun as it is to dribble to the beat of popular songs, NBA Baller Beats suffers from a few shortcomings. First and foremost is a dearth of gameplay options. There's a rudimentary training mode that lets you practice each move in the game, the single-player mode, and a versus mode that allows up to 8 players to take turns in a score competition. There are also some cosmetic options to unlock and some useless in-game trading cards, but that caps off the whole of content in NBA Baller Beats.

NBA Baller Beats review
The most glaring omission is any option for selecting the desired skill moves you'd like to practice in a given song (training mode only offers a generic beat). Each successive difficulty level has a larger set of required moves, but there's nothing in between, no way to mix and match moves from different difficulty levels. For instance, the Rookie difficulty will never ask you to perform a behind-the-back crossover. If you want to improve that move, you'll have to jump to Pro difficulty, but that means you'll also be introduced to flow dribbles, backwards between-the-legs crossovers and more.

There's nothing wrong with setting standards for each difficulty, but it would nice to have the option of choosing which moves to practice on a selected song. Heck, you wouldn't even have to score the mode, just let players create a "playlist" of moves to practice, let them pick a song and have at it.

Not that the score really matters much. Despite the claims on the back of the box, there are no online leaderboards in NBA Baller Beats. In fact, similar errors make me think the game wasn't quite finished when it went into production. For instance, a pre-game warning notes that music downloads aren't rated by the ESRB. It's not an unusual notice, but what is unusual is that NBA Baller Beats has no facility to download songs whatsoever. It's not like there's an empty download store – the store just isn't there. There are thirty tracks on the disc, and each difficulty really does provide a different experience, but once you grow tired of the selection that's it.

Like most Kinect games, NBA Baller Beats takes embarrassing snapshots of you while playing but, despite a loading screen message to the contrary, there's no way to share these images with friends. Upon choosing an image from the gallery, there are two options: close the image or delete it. Uploading and sharing snapshots is a fairly standard feature for Kinect games, and its absence here is weird, and again makes it seem like NBA Baller Beats is unfinished. Other players may not have the sophisticated screen capture technology that I do, rendering them unable to share glorious images like the ones below.

The lack of options, even genre standards like music downloads, keep NBA Baller Beats from rising to the highest ranks of rhythm games. None of these issues prevent NBA Baller Beats from being a fun game,, though (and even a competent practice aid). Die-hard rhythm fans are bound to enjoy its unique spin on the genre, and it's tough not cracking a smile while bouncing to the beat of the Onyx classic, "Slam." That's assuming you can remove the grimace of pure concentration for a few seconds, of course.

If you're in the mood for a rhythm game unlike anything else and don't have to worry about ruining the relationship with your downstairs neighbors, give NBA Baller Beats a try. Just move the lamp first.

This review is based on a retail copy of NBA Baller Beats, provided by Majesco.

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