Forgotten Favorites: NBA Jam
This column looks back at the vast pop culture wasteland we as a society leave in our wake. It spotlights the odd, weird, forgotten and yet totally awesome games, movies, comics and television shows that we here at Strange Kid’s Club believe deserve to find a new audience or get re-discovered by their original one. Join me for this look back at some forgotten favorites.
Before 1993, most sports video games were what was called “simulators”. They realistically depicted the sport they were programmed to represent. Then, in 1989, Midway released a game called Arch Rivals. Its game play featured a two-on-two game of basketball with all regular rules intact. The big draw of this game however was the elimination of fouls. Players could hit other players and start fights to steal the ball. There was even a way to pull another players shorts down to his ankles. This unorthodox style of game play made Arch Rivals fairly popular. So Midway decided to create a sequel.
Mark Turmell began coding the sequel and the new game started off very similar; 2-on-2 game play with no fouls. Then as Turmell was coding the dunks, he made the animation crazier and crazier. The more outrageous and cartoonish he made the dunk animations, the more other developers liked it. Midway believed the game was good enough to present to the NBA for a licensing agreement. The NBA was very reluctant at first, but eventually gave in and NBA Jam became one of the first games to feature officially licensed teams and digitized player likenesses.
The development team selected two players to represent each of the then 27 teams. However two of the most popular NBA players, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, were not included in the game presumably due to conflicting video game licenses. However, Michael Jordan was supposed to appear in the game. At the last minute he decided to opt out of the deal. Due to his late decision, Jordan did appear in test machines placed around Chicago for several months, but he was removed when the production machine shipped.
Aside from the over-the-top antics of the video game and crazy announcer catch phrases, another popular aspect of the game was easter eggs. There were hundreds of hidden players you could unlock with the proper code on the select screens. You could unlock players like Frank Thomas, Bill Clinton, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, the Beastie Boys, the entire NBA Jam programming team, the Phoenix Suns gorilla and a viking. The best player to unlock was lead programmer Mark Turmell who had the highest stats of anyone on the game. Check out IGN’s Top 10 Hidden Characters in NBA Jam.
NBA Jam being a four player game produced a lot of excitement in arcades and promoted a lot of places to start NBA Jam tournaments. This led directly into the second version of NBA Jam, the Tournament Edition.
NBA Jam Tournament Edition (TE) ratcheted up the stakes with tons more players and even more outrageous dunks. For this edition, each team had at least three players you could choose from. And the number of hidden players also was increased and included all the fighters from Midway’s popular Mortal Kombat.
Another aspect added to the game play of Tournament Edition would be computer assistance. Computer assistance helped keep the game close and prevented extreme blowouts either by players or the computer. This made nearly every game close and made players want to pump in more quarters to try again when they lost a close one to the computer.
The NBA Jam Tournament Edition would be the apex of the game’s popularity and helped to take the sub-genre of hyper-realistic sports gaming mainstream. After NBA Jam TE, Acclaim took the license away from Midway and created several mediocre sequels including NBA Jam Extreme which featured 3-D graphics. Midway tried to rebound with further releases like NBA Maximum Hangtime in 1996 and NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC in 1999 but despite these two efforts being solid followups to the original, the moment had passed.
NBA Jam, in my opinion, could go down as one of the last great arcade games and possibly one of the greatest arcade games of all time. The competition and fun generated by the NBA Jam machine at its height rivaled such luminary games as Dragon’s Lair and Street Fighter II. Midway would use the NBA Jam hyper digitized formula to create other sports games like NFL Blitz and 2-on-2 Open Ice Challenge but they wouldn’t find the same success as the originator.
Here’s some video to get an idea of what playing NBA Jam in the arcade was like.
This same over-the-top game play would also be used later by EA Big for titles like SSX Tricky, NBA Street and NBA Ballers.
NBA Jam was ported to several of the home consoles like Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis and the original XboX and Playstation. Several years ago the NBA Jam rights were bought by EA Sports. In 2010, EA Sports brought back the original NBA Jam programmer Mark Turmell and in-game announcer Tim Kitzrow for a reboot of the entire franchise. This reboot was released for the Wii, XboX 360 and PS3. It features all the same game mechanics as the original NBA Jam as well as all the hidden players (including NBA legends like Bird and Magic) and amped up HD graphics.
I haven’t played it yet, but I guarantee you that I will.