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NBA Baller Beats reveals insecurities you never knew you had (hands-on preview)

My left hand is completely useless. It can neither write nor draw, much less handle a basketball. But for 24 years of my life, it hasn’t been a problem. Until one fateful day in late July, when publisher Majesco Entertainment invited GamesBeat over to a hotel room for a NBA Baller Beats demo.

Exclusive to the Xbox 360 and out on September 11, NBA Baller Beats uses the Kinect, Microsoft’s motion and voice-tracking camera, for its rhythm-based dribbling gameplay. Unlike previous Kinect games, this one actually requires that you play with a rather unusual peripheral: a basketball (if you don’t have one handy, the retail release comes packaged with a full-size Spalding game ball). You can also use any other ball just as long as it’s in the general size of a basketball and not completely black in color.

I offered to let Majesco’s brand ambassador, Keenan Browder, demonstrate the game first before I embarrassed myself.

He played on “Pro,” a medium difficulty that falls between “Rookie” and “Baller.” These settings determine how many moves you’ll have to chain together in each song, as shown on screen via virtual flashcards. Browder deftly moved from one crossover to the next, bouncing the ball in near perfect harmony with Gorillaz’s “Stylo” track playing in the background. It’s a slow and easy song with well-defined beats.

Browder kicked up the tempo a notch with his next song choice, “C’mon (Catch’em by Surprise).” The TV exploded into an impressive display of brightly colored confetti and fireworks to celebrate his high score.

After Browder was done, Tony Chien, the product manager at Majesco, turned his attention to me: “You wanna give it a shot?”

NBA Baller Beats move school

Finding a rhythm

Rookie mode? Check. Slow song? Check. I gravitated toward a two-minute snippet of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” It wasn’t pretty. I missed the timing of the beats and the color-coded moves by a mile as the ball floated down the runway on screen. And whenever I had to switch to my left hand — the runway is divided into two lanes, one for the left hand and one for the right — I lost control of the basketball, ran to fetch it, and scrambled to find the rhythm again.

“One of the benefits [of playing the game] is really developing your skills,” said Chien, assuredly. “So you have court vision: You’re not looking down. You’re looking straight ahead. And you’re also dribbling with both hands. You’re building stamina for the court. This isn’t just another game where you’re sitting on the couch…. And there’s no pretend. Like in Wii and Kinect games, you’re pretending to do something, like playing tennis or bowling.

“[In NBA Baller Beats], you’re not pretending to play basketball; you really are playing basketball.”

Photos of my pathetic performance appeared on the TV. Much like with Harmonix’s Dance Central titles, the Kinect snaps pictures as you play the game, and you can later share them on Facebook. A YouTube share option is also in the works, but thankfully it wasn’t ready to be shown yet.

Feeling a little more confident, I selected a slightly faster song in Interpol’s “Obstacle 1.” The right-to-left and left-to-right hand switch of the crossovers still gave me problems, but now there was the added challenge of the pump fake: a move where you hop into the air as if you’re going to shoot the ball. But my timing improved from my last run through, and for the first time that day, it actually felt kind of fun.

NBA Baller Beats was growing on me.

NBA Baller Beats Timberwolves

But it’s not a fitness game….

At least not overtly. However, if you dribble, jump, pump fake, and practice your crossovers enough, little beads of water called sweat will be dripping down your skin in no time.

“[We] think it’s definitely a fun sports game first,” said Chien. “We’re not really considering it a fitness game. But that’s just the benefit you get from playing.”

Full disclosure: I’m not what you would call “in shape.” Playing through the two songs didn’t knock me out, but it was enough to convince me to take a short break. Surprisingly, the game lacks any kind of a calorie-counting mode, though it’s something Chien says they might consider for a sequel.

But this hasn’t stopped the development team, HB Studios, from losing a bunch of weight themselves, especially in the quality assurance department, where testers must play the game eight hours a day. Chien says even their producer lost over 40 pounds.

“One of the biggest issues that people, especially at E3, came up with was, ‘Well, I can just go outside and play basketball,’” said Browder. “Well, yeah, that’s true, but a lot of people aren’t going outside and playing basketball. They’re sitting at their couch and playing video games. So this is giving them the alternative. Instead of just sitting there, they can get up and actually get active.”

He has a point. Browder and I took turns in the game’s Battle Mode, a multiplayer experience where each player dribbles to the same song to compete for a high score. After soundly defeating me, pictures of our performance once again popped up on the TV.

“It makes you look like a baller,” he said, laughing. That’s good enough for me.

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