Welcome to NBA Jam: The Retrospective

NBA JAM logo

NBA expert Andrew Riche and gaming expert Maurice Pogue go “Boom-shaka-laka!” all over you as we discuss how an early 90’s video game changed everything.

Andrew Riche: It’s amazing to think it has been 20 freaking years since the year 1994, which, as detailed in plenty of pieces you have read on Place To Be Nation this week, was a pretty !@#$%^&* great year. 1994 was also a watershed year in the game of basketball right down to the very definition of the word “game.” If you were merely watching the NBA product on television, this claim might surprise you. The Rockets and Knicks did go seven games in the NBA Finals, but it was a pretty forgettable series that was overshadowed by police cars chasing a white Bronco on the Los Angeles freeway. Ratings, predictably, were way down compared to the three previous Chicago Bulls’ championship victories on NBC. The league had just suffered through its first season without the recently retired Michael Jordan, a famine that fans young and old alike never wanted to suffer.
So what made 1994 stand out for NBA basketball fans? Well, if you were a teenager or younger back then, you know exactly why. That was the year that Midway’s NBA Jam video game hit the home console market after a highly successful run on the arcade circuit one year earlier. One estimate in 1994 placed NBA Jam as the most popular arcade game of all time, earning more than $1 billion in QUARTERS! I don’t know if even Scrooge McDuck could have dived into a coin vault that deep. Fans of yesteryear would snicker at this retro obsession for, of all things, a video game with 2-on-2 basketball and blow it off as a whole ‘lotta pixels and noises that signify nothing. But fans from that era who enjoyed the beauty of “Jam Day” (March 9, 1994, a.k.a. the day the game was released on Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. It was eventually also released on Game Boy, Game Gear, and Sega CD.) don’t need a lot of reminding to put a smile on their childhood-reminiscing face.
While I was just as obsessed with the NBA back then as I am now (which may explain why my parents did not let me go out that much), I alone cannot explain the true impact that NBA Jam and its fiery hoops and big-headed dunkers had on the sport and its relationship with popular culture, so I had to bring along a gamer extraordinaire in Maurice Pogue. He is a brilliant writer who has taken care of the video game department at Place To Be Nation for as long as I have been taking care of basketball, and I think it is time for these worlds to collide, just like they did back in 1994. Maurice, what was your first experience with NBA Jam and what type of impact did it have on you as a gamer, possibly long before it became street vernacular for hoops junkies like us?
he's on fire dunk
He’s on fire!

Maurice PogueI was one of those gamers who liked to hang out in arcades but did not play that many, because I either knew or expected that the games would eventually make their way to consoles, so I liked to save my money for rentals and purchases. Sadly, my methods would prove to be a catch-22, and the arcades would gradually die because of this very trend, beginning with the port of Street Fighter II on the SNES. However, when I did decide to spend money in an arcade, I would be found spending my money on games like Shinobi, and beat-em-ups like X-Men, The Simpsons, and TMNT. To be honest, I remember being discouraged from playing NBA Jam in the arcades, because I did not want to insert more coins to continue past halftime.

I am sure I played NBA Jam after it released on the Sega Genesis, because I knew a friend in those days who would buy every “big three”  sports game—two of them if there were both Genesis and SNES versions.  Unfortunately, my memory fails me except for the disappointment of having to play with Horace Grant alongside Scottie Pippen for the Bulls instead of Jordan. As Andrew pointed out above, Jordan had retired from the Association for a year, mourning the passing of his father and taking a swing—pun intended—at a brief career in professional baseball. Surprisingly, it was not his retirement that kept him out of NBA Jam, but one of those kind of contract embargoes that would keep him out of practically every basketball game released throughout his career with notable exceptions such as NBA All-Star Challenge or Jordan vs Bird.

My memories become more clear later on, as I remember a few years when Blockbuster Video co-sponsored some video game tournaments alongside GamePro magazine. As a Genesis owner, I would rent, practice, and compete for high scores in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, Judge Dredd, Virtua Racing, and NBA Jam, which put the “arcade” in the arcade-style basketball game. Of course, it was not necessary to insert more coins to continue past halftime on consoles.

Once I became used to the idea of just shoving everyone onto the hardwood, I was able to shut down my opponents. It would not be inaccurate to say that the NBA Jam games that I played simulated the Bad Boy Pistons without penalties. Indeed, the irony about NBA Jam is that it was designed with the intent of creating silly offensive scenarios, but I often found myself in “tackle basketball” games.

Arch rivals punch
You got knocked the $&#^ out!

Andrew: It should not come as too much of a surprise that the game had quite the relaxed rules on manhandling your opponent given the fact that Midway was the same company that, at the same time, created Mortal Kombat. It did; however, take a little bit of convincing for Midway to get the NBA to sign on the dotted line in order to slap their official license on the game. A few years ago, a video was uploaded on YouTube detailing Midway’s spectacularly promising pitch to the NBA for their “ultimate round ball experience.”

We see a lot of the familiar elements like the camera side pan of the court and the motion capture by former players like William “Air” Morris and Stephen Howard to simulate jump shots and that nifty pump reverse dunk. What fascinated me about the video was what missed the final cut on Midway’s pitch, like coaches’ tips in a pop-up window, instant replay, or close-up camera angles. Maybe, in a case like this, less was more, but you have to wonder how much things would be different for fans had the game added more features on its first-gen release.

Even back then, professional leagues were known to keep things close to the vest in terms of representing their sport’s legitimacy when it came to video game adaptations in order to avoid negative misconceptions. Although having a Michael Jordan video game seemed like mining gold, people weren’t terribly enamored with the boringly basic style of games like Bulls vs. Blazers and the NBA Playoffs. Midway boss Mark Turmell talked his way into the NBA room; however, and was able to get an official license that was willing to ditch fundamentals and X’s and O’s for the sake of making a flashy, up-and-down romp that no gamer would ever grow tired of playing.
Was this the thing that appealed to you the most about the game, Maurice, or was there another dimension that really helped it take off? Also, give me some good game play stories about personal experiences. Which combinations did you enjoy the most, whether it be L.J. and ‘Zo or Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin? Why could the Bulls never beat the Pistons in the final seconds of a game? (Hint: Turmell was a die-hard Pistons fan) What about the “creepypasta” legend that it was haunted by the ghost of Drazen Petrovic? And most importantly, who in the blue hell was Mike Iuzzolino?

Maurice: I’m sorry, but you just said “Mark Turmell” and my body responded with a burst of adrenaline from nostalgia! Poor Petrovic! Maybe we can think of the Marv Albert-wannabe announcer remembering his name as the equivalent of Ryu’s red fireball glitch in the S.F. games.

We’re beyond the 25th year of the Madden franchise, which is a testament to its success while bearing the NFL license. I agree that the EA did not really get going with the NBA license until a few sequels after Bulls vs. Blazers when the company launched NBA Live ’95  in 1994; the longevity of that franchise is a testament to the NBA’s popularity at the apex of the Jordan era. Nevertheless, I do not think that Midway was looking to match the success as seen in Madden, but rather Tecmo Bowl. Yeah, sports fans and gamers alike all remember that game, where Bo Jackson was considered a deity. Minimal play selection and rapid pacing made the football game appealing.

Thus, Midway enhanced the formula they established with Arch Rivals by retaining the elimination of free throws, fouls, and a ton of other rules (though the ball physically will not go out of bounds, it must be in-bounded after a shot is made), shortening the game to four three minute quarters, and adding a turbo button—my favorite feature. I adored that mechanic, sprinting up and down the court shovin’ and dunkin’. That’s all anyone ever wanted to do—windmills, helicopters, and somersaults toward the hoop, hoping that I would shatter the backboard like when Shaq first entered the association. Similar to how fatalities work in M.K. with some working from different ranges on the screen, I’m sure that players can trigger different dunks based upon approaches to the key. I never became good enough to trigger the dunk of my preference, but I made sure to make enough to catch ON FIRE! Only then did I try to rain in the threes, savoring that quaint animation of the net being scorched into nothing every time the ball goes through. NBA Jam turned the game of basketball into a stream of ESPN highlights long before the AND1 Mixtape Tour and Allen Iverson dribble commercials became popular.

In terms of the actual players in the game, I struggled to find a team to stick with through the different versions of the game. Anyone who says they didn’t like Jordan’s Bulls is a Jazz, Suns, Pistons, or Pacers fan or they are a liar. But as already stated, Jordan isn’t in the game, so Bulls/Jordan fans had to settle for Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Compared to the other options, that’s not bad, but it also is not as spectacular as Jordan/Pippen. Here is where things get tricky, because I played both the Genesis and Sega CD versions of the game and preferred the latter’s combination of B.J Armstrong and Pippen over Grant/Pippen. Contrast that with Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer for the Pistons on the Genesis against Terry Mills and Joe Dumars on Sega CD. To give one more example, my Spurs featured David Robinson and Sean Elliot on the Genesis—totally legit. The Sega CD version of the game replaced Elliot with Chuck Person who was rookie of the year and then meh. The portables paired Robinson with Dale Ellis, and finally, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition included Dennis Rodman as a third option that would have been cool if defense was of great importance in an arcade-style game.

Yeah, the rosters get real messy between the Arcade, SNES/Genesis, Sega CD, Game Boy and Game Gear versions of the game. So I’ll just list my remaining teams not named “Bulls” or “Spurs” and their players for simplicity rather than break down all of them:

Nuggets: Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis—Genesis; dunk on everyone, nobody dunks on you because Mutombo is like a golem at the rim.

Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon and Kenny Smith—Genesis (NBA Jam: TE); NBA Jam: TE gives us a third option, and I enjoyed being able to shoot threes from time to time Kenny “The Jet,” who is  now known as a co-anchor for Inside the NBA on TNT. Of course, with Hakeem the Dream, more dunking.

Blazers: Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter OR Cliff Robinson—version didn’t matter, this team is STACKED; do what you want, however you want. Defense, speed, power, hops. This squad has it all.

Knicks: Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley OR John Starks—like the Blazers, STACKED. Modern Knicks’ fans have a right to be upset about the current product compared to what they once had.

Jazz: Malone and Stockton—first names are not even necessary. This duo is so fierce that it never changed through any iteration of the franchise. The addition of David Benoit in TE was perfunctory because nobody except maybe his family ever played with him.

NBA Jam rim shatter
OH MY!!!!

Andrew: How glaringly important was it, looking back, that the league allowed licensing of this game so that the players’ likenesses could be emulated (outside of select few who had separate partnerships like Jordan and Charles Barkley’s Shut Up and Jam game)? It didn’t matter how cartoon-y the big heads looked on the court, because in the “player select” box, if I wanted Dan Majerle, I got THUNDER DAN MAJERLE! There were games where one major player was available in games (Jordan, Bo Jackson, Wayne Gretzky… wait a minute!), but to be able to choose from two of the best players from all the NBA franchises was the basketball gamer’s equivalent of finding a blank check. It was open season after that, and I would be safe to say sports gaming changed forever thanks to NBA Jam. Now, instead of random players and stunt men doing motion captures, we now have this.

Once the nostalgia wears off, I am clearly out of my element when the discussion dives into game specs and other features compared to a gaming savant like yourself (I would also recommend reading Maurice’s pieces at Geeks Under Grace if you want to check out more of his awesome stuff). My strength in knowledge concerning NBA Jam, despite my many hours playing it with friends as a kid, comes from the league itself and the players who play in it. At the time the game finally hit home consoles, the NBA, as previously noted, seemed to be at a point where the level of play had reached its peak and 1994 was the beginning of a daunting descent both on and off the court.

However, 1994 (and, more specifically, 1995) was the aftermath of the league’s prime years when the page slowly turned on the transcendent nature of the original Dream Team and David Stern desperately tried to mold new stars to follow in Jordan’s footsteps. That task was so difficult that Jordan’s triumphant return to the top of the basketball throne became a double-edged sword: it continued the popular story of Jordan’s irrefutable dominance while exposing every other newcomer as either a wannabe or a cheap imitation. That era of decadence was on its way as the 1998 lockout neared and the Bulls’ dynasty that had shrouded the league’s many emerging warts was suddenly gone. However, at the time that this game came out, the league was beginning its transition phase from old to new but still had that touch of innocence and retro to the games that makes me still long for the days of Malone, Hakeem the Dream, ‘Zo and Mourning, and a young, magical Shaq.

Every video game by nature is a time capsule, an electronically etched artifact that speaks to our times, whether they are recollected as obsolete, ahead of its time, or just right. It feels to me like, as you wrote about the game being a harbinger of the highlight-adorned, short-attention-span society of sports fans, NBA Jam was all of those things rolled into one. Sure, it’s fun to laugh at Christian Laettner’s pretty-boy mug or the now-way-outdated short shorts and wonder what all the hype was about. And yes, it does become a bit concerning that the players only knew five or six signature moves, two of which usually involved dunks that you see today in a practice session at an AAU game. But it was those same limitations both era-wise and technology-wise that makes the game so endearing and, in its own way, quite timeless as a game. In that case of 1994 being the moment the tide broke in terms of entertainment, NBA Jam could not have come at a more perfect time for me as a lifelong fan, and as I look back 20 years later, I am even more grateful.

Maurice: By no means was NBA Jam a flash in the pan! God willing this site will still be around and we’ll be back to write on NFL Blitz in about four years, a game also produced by Midway which follows a similar formula of outrageous avatars and lax rules. Our very own Greg Phillips often talks about the EXTREME nature of the 90’s, and Midway was on top of things in that sense, because there’s another game similar to NBA Jam that only the hardest of the hardcore sports fans and gamers will remember.

college-slam-usaBut before College Slam, we were graced with an arcade-perfect port of NBA Jam on Sega CD, a console that is often neglected in console wars discussion but remembered with zeal when discussing Sega’s downfall after the Dreamcast. While the music in NBA Jam is more MIDI than studio-produced, if you click on that link above and watch the opening minute, there is no way that anyone can deny the quality that digital production maintains through the years. Being a CD-based game, there were loading times which were cleverly hidden behind the coaches’ tips screens that Andrew mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, they were also hidden behind the logos after the startup and one cannot hit start to skip through them quickly. Being CD-quality also means that the quality of the sound samples are retained, so everything from the announcer to the bounce of the basketball leap from the speakers. In addition to sound, another aspect of  CD-based games being cutting edge technology (but that developers failed to fully embrace until the PSX) is that they contain the data capacity for FMV (full-motion video) which cartridge-based games lacked. This means that gamers could enjoy the videos from the  NBA Jam halftime report. Sure they were short and limited in their number, but they were awesome for their time!

Credit to the contributors at giphy.com for the animated pictures.