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‘NBA Jam’ Is the Game That Almost Made Me a Champion

Midway's arcade classic was a winner at home, too – and I love its competitive appeal to this day.

by Mike Diver
08 April 2015, 10:41am

A couple of weeks ago, I was a contender – a rarity in my life, let me tell you. I've never really been the best at anything. I won a book token in senior school for being pretty good in my graphics class, but otherwise: it's always a case of almost but not quite, of coming in third, of being just behind the other guy(s). "Just" being subjective, of course – there's a reason I never represented my school's "A" team at any sport. Unless field hockey counts but, come on now, it really doesn't.

But for one night in March 2015, I saw glory before me, and I even touched it. Once per year, the Viking-like Jack Clothier of British independent label Alcopop! Records – the same Viking-like Jack Clothier who tried (sadly unsuccessfully) to buy the domain name for UKIP's website back in January – arranges an NBA Jam tournament in London, inviting a scraggly bunch of music industry types and idiots like me to compete for a small but perfectly formed trophy.

I briefly held the award for 2015. It was hard-edged in my hands, but light and forgiving – your standard piece of tat picked up from a small-town shop of no clear purpose, the kind that also stocks fishing tackle and a range of cleaning products you'd never let near your flooring. All the same, it'd have looked awesome up on my bookshelf, an eternal reminder that, just once, I didn't suck at something. I handed it back to Jack. I would never hold it again.

NBA Jam lit up arcades in its year of release, 1993. Midway's stripped-back-to-basics basketball "sim" had precedent for its two-on-two court competition – that formula was pioneered by another Midway title, Arch Rivals (I can just about remember playing it on the NES), which had come out four years earlier – but this presentation of high-speed, slam-dunking sports action was unlike anything else capable of greedily gobbling a kid's pocket money. Reality was largely out, replaced by instant accessibility uncommon in today's sports games, the controls comprised of just three buttons and a stick, and an appealing degree of outright chaos.

Matches would regularly swing back and forth, each team pulling clear before three-point shots started to steer awry for no (obvious) goddam reason, opening up space for a comeback. It was rare to thrash anyone, be that the CPU or your mate who had all the money on him (so you went easy, at least for a few matches). An absolute beginner, with the right team and a load of luck, could see off someone who'd played the game every day for an entire summer holiday. It was the most effortless "pick up and play" title of its time – and it soon enough made a billion dollars, a report in 1994 confirming NBA Jam as the most successful arcade game of all time.

'NBA Jam' arcade gameplay

The impressive turnout at Alcopop!'s 2015 Jam tournament, held at Peckham's Four Quarters gaming bar, makes it clear how fondly people of a certain age bracket – I guess, let's say mid-20s to mid-30s, to be kind – remember the commentator cry of "he's on fire" once the player's player (because you only controlled one of the two on each team, the other handled by AI or a co-op partner) had scored three consecutive hoops, earning himself infinite turbo capability. This turbo power is something that certain coins-pumping players never really understood – which you, as someone who did get it, could exploit.

Mapped to one of the three buttons on the arcade cab, alongside pass and shoot, turbo wasn't just there to provide a shot of speed when sprinting to the other end of the court. Using it in sync with the shoot button would, when close enough to the opponent's hoop, result in one of the game's signature, spectacular jams. It also allowed you to shove the opposition over, when defending – like I said, reality wasn't an issue for Midway, and any match of NBA Jam would be marked by a multitude of "illegal" moves – and was essential for winning the game-starting tip-off.

It was the game's Acclaim-published home ports that really opened it up to the widest audience, and it's through these versions that most of us playing for that petite prize really got our slams going. 1994 saw NBA Jam released for Sega and Nintendo systems, including the monochromatic Game Boy, as well as PC. The 4th of March was dubbed "Jam Day" for the occasion, and the new console conversions, including the "Tournament Edition" update, added bonus content to the already perfected gameplay – Easter eggs aplenty, including secret characters to dunk with; massive heads; and refreshed player rosters covering the NBA's twin conferences. I played in Alcopop!'s 2014 tournament, losing in the second round to the eventual winner, who we'll call Dan, because that's his name. I wasn't prepared to go out at such an embarrassingly early stage this time around, so prior to heading to Peckham, I get practising.

My Mega Drive's still working, but having no functional official three-button controller means that, when I dust the 16bit machine off for some court time ahead of competition play, I have to use something called an asciiPad MD-6. I don't remember buying it, and its SNES-style button layout doesn't make turbo-assisted tactics as natural as they are when the appropriate B button is dead centre in a trio. I soon enough remap the buttons, putting turbo on the shoulder, but it's still not right. I lose a couple of games, playing as my tournament-allocated Orlando Magic, and feel shitty about my prospects. But then: salvation. Combing through the chaos of my old video game clutter, I find a proper Sega six-button pad. Its Z is hanging loose, so it'll never be Street Fighter II-ready again, but for NBA Jam? Perfect. I win two matches, then three, and more. I'm bubbling with optimism by the time I'm called for my first match.

In 1993, Shaquille O'Neal was Orlando Magic's star player, an award-winning rookie turned global celebrity whose cash-generating appeal stretched way beyond professional sports. He also rapped, and acted, after a fashion. He'd go on to make appearances in a host of home video games, too, from the appalling fighter Shaq Fu to Ready to Rumble Boxing: Round 2 (beside, bizarrely, Michael Jackson), and a slew of more lifelike basketball titles from the likes of EA and Sega. But when NBA Jam made the move from the arcades to consoles, Shaq fell from its playable cast (Michael Jordan, who controlled his own image rights rather than leaving them in the hands of the NBA, was also absent). You'd think this would spoil a Magic-user's chances of progressing through any knockout contest. Think again, though, as his teammate Scott Skiles carried over to the Mega Drive/Genesis conversion, and while he's a tiddler next to Jam's super-athletes, he's a three-point machine. I select him as My Guy, and set about winning.

"This is like watching Stoke City against Stoke City," comments one observer, as my first round match – against a very like-minded player (who even brings his own controller to the event) – becomes a duel of the diminutive dynamos, a battle between edge-of-the-D three-point buckets. I edge the feast of long balls 59-57, my opponent going through to round two as the highest-scoring loser. Match two, and Skiles is in his element, repeatedly nailing his shots – courtesy of me releasing the shoot button at the very peak of his not quite "from downtown" leaps. I win by something like 14 points – a thrashing in Jam terms. The quarterfinal is tighter, but it's against someone I've already beaten in a warm-up, and I do so again. Poor Nick Anderson, my AI-controlled teammate, barely gets a look in as Skiles powers to the three-point line, time after time, switching to a simple two-point layup when the defence is proving proficient. And then... then comes the semi, and my year-ago nemesis himself.

'NBA Jam' Mega Drive gameplay – Orlando Magic vs Chicago Bulls

Long story short: I lose. Despite being up by five points at halftime, I lose. Although I'm perfectly placed to make the final for most of the match, I lose. The trophy's gone. My campaign is over. Dan goes on to win the tournament for a consecutive year. I later see a photo of him being held aloft, beer in one hand, plasticky statue of victory in the other. The absolute bastard.

But I've not hurried to return my Mega Drive to the loft – it's still out, plugged into my TV, a copy of NBA Jam T.E. next to it. I might fire it up again at any moment, because Jam's a game that really has stood up to the test of time remarkably well. A simple formula, nailed first time, it's one of the all-time greatest sports-based video games, up there with (for my money) the inimitable Sensible Soccer and Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe as a 16bit-era affair that hasn't lost an ounce of its sparkle in the time between then and now. Sure, my Mega Drive's sat beside a PS4 and Wii U right now, rather than on top of a Mega CD, but when the right game's slotted into it, it's as relevant a console as any contemporary equivalent.

There have been countless NBA Jam reboots and remixes over the last 20-and-more years, an "On Fire" edition of the 2010 instalment representing the latest, but really: the game remains the same, so I'll be sticking to the original for as long as it takes to become a champion. Same time next year, ladies and gents?

Boston vs Cleveland and title Mega Drive screens via

@MikeDiver

Previously:

Slicing Up Eyeballs in 'The Tender Cut', the Video Game Tribute to 'Un Chien Andalou'

The Three-Decade-Old 'Out Run' Is One of 2015's Best New Games

Six Ways in Which 'Pillars of Eternity' is Incredible

Tagged:
Gaming
Orlando Magic
Shaquille O'Neal
Sega
ARCADE GAMES
NBA Jam
alcopop
Retro Gaming
Mike Diver
Mega Drive
The Game That Made Me
Midway
Acclaim