On the eve of Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals, pitting the Golden State Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers, I can’t help but be in a basketball state of mind. Yesterday I reviewed Looney Tunes B-Ball, which is one of my dear childhood favorites. It clearly drew inspiration from this next game. NBA Jam dominated quarters in the arcades and later living rooms across the nation in the mid ’90s. It was basketball like never seen before. Prior to NBA Jam, many basketball games were serious and more simulation-based. Sure, you had games that came before it such as Arch Rivals and Midway’s very own Basketbrawl. But it was NBA Jam (also developed by Midway) that really broke the ceiling, appealing to even non-basketball fans with its wild acrobatic dunks and frenetic gameplay. Once in a blue moon, a game comes along and becomes more than a game. It transcends the hobby, becoming a beast and fusing its way into pop culture. In the history of video games, only a small handful of games can truly claim that. NBA Jam is one of those select few that etched itself into our hearts. It is still fondly revered to this day. So put on your squeaky sneakers and tiny John Stockton shorts [wait, WHAT?? -Ed.]… because it’s time to jam.
SATURDAY NIGHTS WITH THE BOYS
Growing up I was lucky enough to have a local best friend as well as a tight-knit band of brothers and sisters who lived about two hours away. The birth of this connection all started during the Vietnam War. It was there that our dads met on the battlefield. They were blessed enough to survive. Their bond continued post-war. They each went on to marry, have a family and kept in touch. Our countless family friend sleepovers during the late 1980s to mid 1990s were legendary. Staying up until 2 AM, the adults would be downstairs laughing up a storm, dancing the night away, singing bad karaoke songs and reminiscing about the good old days. Not to mention the occasional war story retold for the 90th time. Meanwhile, upstairs, a group of young boys and girls were busy hanging out, chilling, filming crappy home movies, and of course, playing video games galore. It was the greatest time of my childhood. So many epic sleepovers and events that took place whenever my “Gaming Crew” got together. They’re a big part of what made my childhood such a special time in my life.
My gaming crew and I played hundreds of games together back in the good old days. But of all the titles we played, there were three we constantly came back to. The first was Super Bomberman. It was our first foray into 4 player party gaming bliss. Dropping bombs like mad men, cavorting around the various maps and praying that the flames will miss you by at least a pixel was incredibly addicting. Add to that the natural chemistry our group shared and WOW. It was video gaming magic.
The second game my group loved to play on Saturday nights was Street Fighter II Turbo. In our group the top dog was a guy we all affectionately nicknamed as Sushi-X. He earned this nickname thanks to his lavish love of EGM and all things Street Fighter II, just like the Sushi-X persona from EGM fame. One glance at our disfigured thumbs would clue you in at just how many bloody hours we spent dragon punching one another. Like a guitar player’s calluses, we were proud of our battle scars. There was nothing better than all 11 of us huddled around the Sony monitor, determined to finally down Sushi-X, the tough bastard. Many tried but few ever did.
Before we get to the third game my crew was madly obsessed about [I’m pretty sure they already know what that third game is -Ed.], let’s continue this stroll down memory lane. THE YEAR WAS 1993. Fighting games were all the rage. Everywhere you went it was all about Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat. Fighting games dominated the arcade scene. They graced gaming magazine covers month after month and every kid on the playground was buzzing about them. What could stop this roaring freight train? Or at least steal some of the thunder? That’s when NBA Jam swooped in and took a gaming nation by storm. The unique and outrageous arcade style of 2 on 2 basketball immediately caught on like gangbusters. In a nutshell, 1993 was conquered by fighting games and NBA Jam.
NBA Jam became a monster in its own right, captivating the imagination of a gaming nation so much that some people were forced to beg the question, is NBA Jam better than even Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II? Walk into any arcade hall back in 1993 and you would hear the eclectic medley of “HADOKEN!” “FINISH HIM!” and “HEATING UP! HE’S ON FIRE!!!” Man, those were the good old days right there. Coupled with the 16-bit war, it was a hell of a time to be a robust 10 year old boy growing up in suburban America. In March 1994, NBA Jam hit home consoles to much fanfare. My brother and I bought the SNES version on launch day. What made NBA Jam so compelling? What made it such an amazing phenomenon? I came up with six reasons why. Fittingly so, in the form of NBA JAM, acrostic style.
SIX REASONS WHY NBA JAM RULES
N = No Holds Barred
B = Boy on Fire
A = Aerial Assault
J = “JAMS IT IN!”
A = Al Gore, ‘Nuff Said
M = Multiplayer Madness!
1. NO HOLDS BARRED
The very first thing that strikes you about NBA Jam is the simplistic 2 on 2 tornado tag team style of play. After that you quickly realize there are no rules. No fouls, no out of bounds, hell, you can even push the opposition as if you’re in the WWF. This made for a unique, frenetic and exciting experience.
2. BOY ON FIRE
Sometimes an athlete gets locked into the zone. You catch fire on your best days, and this is the case here almost literally. There was nothing better (or worse, depending on which side of the coin you’re on) than hearing those infamous words, “HE’S ON FIRE!” To enable this, nail three consecutive shots with the same player without letting your opponent score. Your shot percentage shoots way through the roof once you’re on fire. This lasts until the opposition scores or you score several times in a row. It is essentially a built-in temporary cheat code!
Literally scorching hot! I love how the net is temporarily singed. Best of all, besides your three point shot being nearly automatic (even if you’re not a good 3 point shooter), your turbo meter never runs out. This means you can shove to your heart’s content without discretion. I love the sweet sound of the ball scorching its way through the hoop. It’s beautiful. MAKE IT RAIN, BABY!
3. AERIAL ASSAULT
You can’t talk NBA Jam without mentioning the crazy slam dunks. It would be like talking about the Civil War sans Abraham Lincoln. Or discussing all-time movie monster icons sans Godzilla. In other words, it just wouldn’t be right. Here at NBA Jam, there are no limits to what these athletes can do. They flip, twist and launch themselves 20 feet in the air to throw it down with the best of them. Everything’s larger than life here!
Favorite dunk? I like the one where you soar in the air spinning like a mad top before you come crashing down with a thunderous one-handed jam. But the best part of dunking occurs in the 4th quarter. With the right power dunk, you can actually shatter the glass!
It’s pandemonium up in here, folks! Sir Charles has shattered the soul of Texas — Houston, we have a problem! Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is step dancing all over Barkley’s face! Mad Max Vernon Maxwell’s flesh is being pierced and mutilated by the shards of glass — WOULD SOMEBODY PLEASE STOP THE DAMN MATCH! It looks like a 10 car pileup on I-10 here folks, and I don’t like it a damn bit! Bodies are strewn everywhere. For the LOVE OF GOD, these are human bodies! As God is my witness, he is broken in half!
Shattering the glass is such a rare occurrence in real life basketball that anyone who does it becomes a small part of basketball lore. From Darvin Ham to Shaquille O’Neal, few things in sports match the sheer spectacle of a grown man ripping down the rim as thousands of glass pieces engulf him and anyone nearby in a shower of broken glass. NBA Jam replicates that!
4. “JAMS IT IN!”
NBA Jam is known for many things: wild slam dunks, being on fire and basketball brutality. But that list would be incomplete without giving proper credit to the game’s wacky announcer. Being in an arcade hall filled with fervent screams of “HE’S ON FIRE!!” and “BOOM SHAKA LAKA!!” is something arcade goers of the early-mid ’90s will never forget. Some of the zany catchphrases have gone on to become rooted in American pop culture. NBA Jam transcended video gaming itself, something in which very few games could claim.
5. AL GORE, ‘NUFF SAID
Full of easter eggs and fun oddities, NBA Jam has more secrets than a congressman. I mean, for goodness sake, you could play as the chief-of-state himself, Bill Clinton. Or the vice president, Al “Brings The” Gore. At the time this was rather unheard of and made for some interesting water cooler discourse among the boys. The developers of NBA Jam were wise; they knew having a logjam of secrets meant extra and prolonged publicity. It helped fuel the fire and made NBA Jam even bigger and stronger. Indeed, it was a brilliant strategy. The proof was right there in the pudding. Because in 1993 *AND* 1994, everyone was NBA JAMMING.
6. MULTIPLAYER MADNESS!
I spent countless quarters on this game when it ruled the arcade scene in 1993. It was only a matter of time before it would come home to the 16-bit Super Nintendo. Sure enough, when it did in March 1994, my brother and I rushed out to buy a copy and we never looked back. My gaming crew and I spent countless hours buried in this game, basking in the glow of highly addictive 4 player jam sessions. Between Super Bomberman, Street Fighter II Turbo and NBA Jam, we spent countless Saturday nights in ’93 and ’94 bombing, dragon punching and slam dunking on one another. Nearly 25 years later, I still look back to those good old days every now and again, recalling the special moments those epic and classic games produced for us. There was nothing better than spending a Saturday night with your boys playing 4 player NBA Jam, with the winners playing on and the losers rotating out. We played this amazing port until the cows came home. What an idyllic time to be a 10 year old boy growing up in suburban America. It truly was a special period in my life that I’ll always remember and carry with me.
RAISING THE BAR
Back in the day, 1991 to be precise, my friends and I were obsessed with collecting and trading cards from the Marvel ’91 series. I couldn’t get enough of the cool pink bars on the back of the cards. You can see where someone fits in the pantheon of the Marvel universe at a quick glance. NBA Jam used a similar system, evoking fond Marvel memories of days gone by. Here’s a look at the 26 other NBA teams below.
Although I love the rating system in general, I did find some of the ratings a bit suspect. Reggie Miller’s 3 point rating should be MUCH higher. Also, I have no idea why Nick Anderson’s 3 point rating is zilch, as that season he shot 35% from distance. Interestingly enough, in the sequel, he was rated a perfect 9 out of 9 from downtown.
Yup, sadly NBA Jam uses a password system rather than a battery backed save. Thankfully, that was rectified in the “sequel” which appeared less than a year later… not to mention NBA Jam T.E. featured some new tricks (literally) that made it more than just a minor upgrade.
NBA Jam was such a smash success in the arcades and later at home that a sequel was bound to happen. Some see NBA Jam T.E. (Tournament Edition) as a minor upgrade but others see it as a legitimate follow-up and THE definitive NBA Jam title. I fall in the latter camp. Here are some differences highlighted below.
Akklaim or Acclaim? Yeah, you weren’t the only kid who was confused by that growing up back in the ’90s! Anyway, after a nifty little intro we come to the options menu. This is where you can customize the game to be as crazy or as “normal” as you want. This includes hot spots, power-up icons and juice mode. The higher the juice, the faster the speed. x4 is blazing fast — I personally like it on OFF. But it’s there to be tweaked with if the urge ever strikes. More on hot spots and power-up icons in a bit.
Remember how the first game only gave you two players on each team? NBA Jam T.E. starts you off with three, but a secret code expands the roster to give each team 4-5 players. That’s what I’m talking about! At the title screen press start, Y, up, down, B, left, A, right, down, start. Then enter JAM as your initials.
Golden State Warriors start you off with Tom Gugliotta, Latrell Sprewell and Rony Seikaly (damn, my spellcheck just went bonkers). The expanded roster adds in Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin, two of the better NBA players in the early ’90s who were part of the vaunted RUN TMC (Tim, Mitch, Chris). Wow, talk about two major additions! Not only that but the ratings have also been expanded. Instead of four measly categories the players are now rated in eight! Multiplied by two is kind of the theme here.
Dennis Scott, 3 point extraordinaire, is the fourth man on the Orlando Magic squad. Sadly, no SHAQ to be found here (same with Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and a few others). The Magic is my go-to team. Nowhere else will you find three bombers like Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott!
Hersey Hawkins of the Charlotte Hornets used to freak me out / pump me up as a kid. He was the only character in the game that when you pick him, his eyes light up white like a demigod. It was the only reason I used the Hornets on occasion, to freak out my brother and friends. Hersey’s white eyes remain a mystery to this day. Perhaps mankind is never meant to know… and yes, that is Dell Curry there, the father of NBA superstar Steph Curry.
Enabling hot spots in the options menu causes pinball-like markers to randomly appear on the court. Score on said marker and be rewarded with the number of points appropriately marked. They range from 4-8 points and can really change the tide of a battle.
Power-up icons if enabled randomly pop up during play. This one is the D icon, which stands for Dunk. Grab this and you can dunk from anywhere on the court, even beyond half court. Made you feel like E.T.
Outrageously fun, you gotta turn on the hot spots and power-up icons. This is the only way to experience NBA Jam T.E., baby!
Other power-up icons include:
- 3 = better 3 point accuracy
- B = bomb that knocks out everyone else
- F = automatically on fire
- P = increased power
- S = increased speed
- T = infinite turbo
All temporary, of course.
And in typical NBA Jam fashion, you knew NBA Jam T.E. was going to crank up the number of hidden selectable characters. The first game had a dozen secret characters, including Al Gore and Bill Clinton. The sequel more than tripled that, with over 35 extra secret characters. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of my favorite TV sitcom shows back in 1995, so when my friends and I heard the rumors that you could play as Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff… well, a picture is worth a thousand words…
I mean, sure, president Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles of England were all in play… but THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR? Get the hell outta here! Well…
Yup, NBA Jam T.E. went there. I was a huge Will Smith fan back in ’95. I thought he was going to be the next megastar of Hollywood (and he proved that with films such as Independence Day and Men In Black). So to be able to play as him on NBA Jam T.E. was a thrill and a half! We used to joke about how Robert Horry of the Houston Rockets was a Will Smith lookalike. Well now, we can use the real McCoy!
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
NBA Jam made a killing with the critics. EGM appointed it “Game of the Month” honors by awarding it with scores of 9, 9, 9 and 9. GameFan gave it ratings of 83, 90, 94 and 94%. Super Play rated it 87%. NBA Jam T.E. fared even better. EGM gave it an 8 and 9 while Super Play rated it 90%. In Nintendo Power’s 100th issue, they ranked NBA Jam as the 28th best game of all time. Interestingly enough, they decided to go with the original instead despite admitting that the sequel “refined” certain aspects of the first game. Personally, to me that makes zero sense. If a game refined pretty much everything to its prequel, then give me that sequel any day of the week. But I digress. You can’t go wrong with either title.
NBA Jam slammed its way into our consciousness nearly 25 years ago and to this very day it still resonates deeply and fondly in our hearts. It took the simple sport of basketball and made it even simpler by stripping it down to 2 on 2. Add to that no rules and wild exaggerated slam dunks. Above all else, it tapped into something many video games would kill to have: it was simply a total blast to play. With three buddies in tow, it’s super competitive, highly addictive and downright magical. Although the game features greater than life abilities, I still enjoy executing the basic fundamental plays. For instance, going for the slam dunk only to throw a mid-air pass to my teammate for the wide open 14 foot baseline jumper. It’s immensely satisfying to trounce someone with a sound strategic play in a world that promotes the complete exact opposite. And that’s also what makes NBA Jam (and its sequel) so layered. You can play it as crazy as you wish or as basic and sound as you want. Or, the best of both worlds, which no other game at the time presented the player with. To me that’s always been a very underrated aspect of what makes NBA Jam so timeless and classic. Yeah everyone talks about the crazy plays and what have you, but at the end of the day it’s still a basketball game that allows you to win by simply making the simple fundamental plays, if you choose to do so.
Graphically, both NBA Jam and NBA Jam T.E. look great, but I give the slight edge to T.E. for looking just that little bit more refined. I love the music in both games. Composer Jon Hey did a tremendous job with some catchy tunes. Of course, you can’t talk NBA Jam without mentioning its zany announcer, Tim Kitzrow. His voiceovers made the faithful leap to the Super Nintendo in brilliant fashion. NBA Jam T.E. is the definitive Jam on the SNES simply because it plays faster, there are more players (and hidden characters), more options (the hot spots and power-up icons help spice things up) and oh yeah, MORE MEGS! NBA Jam T.E. is boosted up to 24 MEGS while the original is just 16 MEGS. But in all seriousness, like I said earlier, you can’t go wrong with either game, but make no bones about it — NBA Jam T.E. is the better of the two. Having said that, NBA Jam captured the imagination of a nation and reinvented the way sports video gaming was presented and perceived, cementing itself in gaming lore for all eternity.
NBA Jam overall score: 9.0
NBA Jam T.E. overall score: 9.5