Professional basketball took a backseat to major sports like baseball and football when it came to getting their teams, players and branding into home video games. Major League Baseball had its name and teams represented in the aptly titled Major League Baseball on the NES (1988), while R.B.I. Baseball (also 1988) gave us real baseball players for the first time. The NFL got on board with video game licensing on the NES with NFL Football, while its Player’s Association had already signed on in early 1989 for Tecmo Bowl. Sure they licensed out just the NBA logo for NBA Basketball on the Intellivision in 1980 but it wasn’t until 1991 that we had a console release for a NBA basketball game. While Electronic Arts kicked off what would be yearly releases of NBA games (now carried on by 2K) with Lakers vs. Celtics on the Sega Genesis, the real granddaddy of the pro hoops hardwood was a MS-DOS release under the same name some two years prior.
Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs was released in 1989 for DOS-compatible PCs and combined what other sports games had been lacking to this point. The first NBA game had both real teams and real players. The game featured eight teams from the 1989 NBA playoffs as well as both the Eastern and Western Conference All-Star teams. The Lakers, Suns, SuperSonics, Jazz, Pistons, Celtics, Bulls and Knicks made the cut in the MS-DOS version of the game with the Sixers, Spurs and Trail Blazers replacing the Knicks, SuperSonics and Jazz in the 1991 release. Lakers vs. Celtics had more than just real players names, the players had distinct likenesses and their own signature moves too! The game is also famously the only NBA video game to feature Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as an active player. Kareem had retired by the time the Genesis game came out.
Lakers vs. Celtics was more than just authentic NBA eye candy. A simple two-button layout for pass and shoot made gameplay simple and easy to pick up. The game also featured considerably deep simulation elements. You managed substitutions as the game had fatigue counters for all players. Couple this in with a halftime show plus full team rosters and you can imagine the kind of excitement this initial NBA effort had on sports gamers.
From a game mode standpoint, Lakers vs. Celtics had your standard exhibition game, with a number of different difficulty levels and the ability to choose between an arcade or simulation feel. The main event was a tournament mode to emulate the NBA playoffs. In what would be a staple barrier of entry in Electronic Arts sports games in the early 90s, starting a tournament automatically locked in the Showtime difficulty (the hardest) as well as 12-minute quarters. The quarter length isn’t a negative here as the clock moves considerably fast but having to beat the game on the hardest difficulty was certainly a challenge, especially for young gamers like myself at the time.
I first laid my eyes on the VGA Lakers vs. Celtics at a friends house when his two older brothers could not stop gushing over the game. Being able to watch them play, and then stumble through it myself, while clearly making out NBA superstars like Larry Bird, Tom Chambers, Michael Jordan and Mark Eaton (hey, he was very distinct as the 7 foot + center on the Jazz) was mesmerizing. Through the magic of DOS Box I was able to recreate this experience recently and, after all these years, it did not disappoint. The NBA and Electronic Arts hit the ground running with their initial effort and paved the way for incredible success in the future with Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. As you look at NBA gaming milestones like the original NBA Live series, the NBA 2k series on the Dreamcast and the games of today’s generation, remember that this long lineage is due in part to a groundbreaking MS-DOS game from 1989.