NBA Baller Beats is a refreshing if flawed take on the rhythm genre.

The Good

  • Uses genuine basketball skills
  • Fun challenges
  • Can festoon virtual gameplay area with team paraphernalia.

The Bad

  • Requires lots of room to play
  • May annoy neighbors and family members
  • Lacks much in gameplay variety and depth.

In video games, as in any art form, it’s rare to come across something genuinely new and fresh. When that happens, there’s bound to be culture shock: you’re not quite sure what to make of what you’ve got in front of you. With NBA Baller Beats, Majesco has given us a framework we’ve seen before–it’s a rhythm game played with the Kinect–but has taken a completely new tack with the format. Rather than just moving your body as in Dance Central, in NBA Baller Beats you dribble and do various tricks with a basketball that comes with the game.

Stop it, you menace! Your beats are so baller they’re shaking the entire city!

  • Comment on this video
  • Watch this video in High Def

To begin, you pick your favorite NBA team, and you’re dropped into a room themed with that team’s logo and colors. You’re then given a series of ballhandling tasks that scroll forward in sync with the music. You’ve got to reproduce the ballhandling tasks properly to advance, and the more correctly you reproduce them, and the more accurately you stay in time with the beat, the higher your score will be.

For those who’ve never held a basketball before, NBA Baller Beats is a surprisingly useful teaching tool, especially for learning how to dribble precisely with your off hand. As you get higher into the game’s levels, you also learn tricks such as behind-the-back dribbles, quick pass fakes, and a variety of other, flashier stuff that’s best left to those with more skill than most of us have. In case you’re unfamiliar with the basics, there’s a tutorial mode called Beat School that you (or, say, a reluctant family member) can use to familiarize yourself with proper form.

While the game is generally sharp in terms of tracking the ball’s movements, the Kinect can frustratingly miss some correct dribbles, especially if you’re in a small room, lowering your score. Indeed, playing in anything other than a big living room or garage is not recommended, since you’re probably not going to have enough space to move around properly, and if the ball slips out of your hands, you’re going to break grandma’s prized china. You also probably don’t want to play this when your neighbors are home if you live in an apartment building, unless you want them to hate you forever. That said, the game does work on carpeted floors–the ball just needs a little extra oomph when you dribble–and you can always play barefoot if you want to reduce sneaker squeal.

Try the old UTEP Two Step in your living room.Try the old UTEP Two Step in your living room.

When you’re not listening to the ball bounce or to your shoes squeak, though, you get to enjoy NBA Baller Beats’ soundtrack. It’s a relatively diverse affair, featuring songs heavy on beat, but in a variety of genres from rock (Rise Against and Yeasayer) to hip hop (Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa) to electronic (Justice and Skrillex). Most of the songs are top 40 bubble-gum, and some are best forgotten as quickly as you complete a level, but a few are timeless classics, like Eric B. and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and Chromeo’s “Night by Night.”

It’s all pretty good exercise. You work up a sweat after only three or four songs, and you feel like you’ve been practicing basketball, rather than simply pretending to practice basketball. This isn’t just a simulation of dribbling skill tests; it’s about as close as you can get in your living room to going to ball practice, and if you stick with the game diligently, you’ll doubtless gain ball-handling techniques and ideas you can apply in real life.

Of course, there’s only so much you can do with a basketball, even matching it to music, so some tedium can creep in once you’ve played long enough. Game sessions can start to feel like running drills after a while, which is great if you’re trying to keep your handling sharp at home, but there’s not enough variety to keep you invested in the long term. You can always invite a friend over to compete against, if you want, which helps spice it up, but there’s no simultaneous gameplay (probably wise given space constraints). Instead, you switch out at key points in a song, and the game compares your abilities and precision after the song is over.

Score real high and you could be the next Harlem Globetrotter. Fail and you're stuck playing for the Washington Generals.Score real high and you could be the next Harlem Globetrotter. Fail and you’re stuck playing for the Washington Generals.

While the nod to multiplayer is welcome, it also highlights NBA Baller Beats’ biggest shortcoming: its lack of content. There are only so many moves you can do with a basketball, and mixing up the background music and team decals doesn’t do much to change up the experience. While scoring mode is nice, there’s little in the way of a storyline or twists on the core gameplay to keep you interested beyond a certain point. The game just runs out of steam after a while. In that sense, perhaps it’s best thought of as an exercise or practice assistant, and that should be first on potential purchasers’ minds when considering where to spend their hard-earned cash.

By Eric Neigher