Arch Rivals, developed by Midway, was the first basketball game I loved.
I was never a huge sports game fan growing up - I didn’t care all that much for accurate rules, or natural physics, or all the other things that a die-hard might pick over. No, the reason I loved Arch Rivals was because it let me punch other players.
Video games are always on a ‘faster, better, stronger’ race to top each other’s realism. It was - and still is - refreshing when a game like Arch Rivals goes in a different direction. To hell with stealing, or picking and rolling, or setting up screens - there was nothing more effective - or hilarious - than cold cocking the opponent in the mouth.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that when Midway released the NBA Jam arcade in 1993, I was immediately hooked. I loved the game’s ‘realism meets cartoon’ aesthetic - the sprites resembled their respective NBA players, but their moves were straight out of a comic book. To a young child, professional athletes are a lot like superheroes, with unbelievable physical strength and endurance. The NBA Jam arcade, which made over a billion dollars in quarters, took the superhero angle to its logical conclusion - the athletes literally soared through the air, somersaulting and flipping the whole way.
When NBA Jam was ported to the home consoles, it continued its amazing run. The game I remember, however, was NBA JAM: Tournament Edition for the Super Nintendo - the updated, re-polished update of the original game. It kept everything that made the original so fun to play, and it added its own complexities, increasing the roster and upping the strategic gameplay.
The original NBA Jam had two players per team - the Knicks, for example, allowed you to play as Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. TE, however, added a third man to each roster. The Knicks, for example, gained John Starks, a much-needed, outside shooting threat. That wasn’t all, however - by winning in single player mode, you could unlock other players on the roster, such as Anthony Mason and Derek Harper. You could even enter in codes to unlock secret celebrity characters - Bill Clinton or Will Smith could provide some starting support.
The larger rosters opened up all types of strategies that were non-existent in the original game. You could only play two men at a time, so which two would you put on the court? You basically had two choices.
One, you went for chemistry - you chose a little guy who could shoot and steal the ball, and you chose a big guy who could block and dunk. Two, you went for brute strength - you chose two big guys, you shoved anything that moved, and you scored by dunking on the fast break.
Shoving, by the way, was a fantastic strategy.
With perfect timing, you could chain your shoves together, and steal the ball nearly every time. Shove an opponents enough times, and the shoves would register as ‘injuries’ - all stats dropped, and the opponent would lose stamina and speed. My personal best was 21 injuries against a single character - I would try to score as many injuries as possible, and hopefully, force my opponent to bench their clutch player in the fourth quarter.
So which team was the best? Most of my friends favored the Knicks or Hornets, but when I played NBA Jam: TE, I always chose the San Antonio Spurs, primarily for Dennis Rodman. Why? Because he was a quick, powerful blocker, and even though his 3-point statistic was low, he was a secret sharpshooter- so long as you shot the ball from the upper arc, you would hit nothing but net, every single time. This small glitch meant that Dennis Rodman, of all players, was the strongest character in the game - I could gain a 20 to 30 point lead whenever I squared off against the computer.
Today, it’s fun to scroll through the NBA Jam: TE rosters, and remember the stars of the early to mid 90’s. Remember Muggsy Bogues, the tiniest guy to ever play in the NBA? How about Horace Grant, who’s even wearing his trademark goggles? Or how about Shawn Kemp? (Well… maybe it’s okay to forget some people.)
It’s also notable, however, who was missing from the roster. Michael Jordan was one obvious omission - it’s ironic that the man who popularized flashy dunks was nowhere to be seen. The other missing major star was Shaquille O’Neal, then the center of the Orlando Magic. Although he was present in the arcade, he was nowhere to be found in the home conversions.
From a cultural perspective, NBA Jam was responsible for popularizing court slang. Tim Kitzrow, doing his best Marv Albert impersonation, was the game’s commentator. “Yeessss!!” “He’s heating up!” “He’s on fire!” Kitzrow’s enthusiasm brought live excitement, and his on-court creativity added to the game’s light appeal.
My memories of being ‘on fire’ are some of my fondest gaming moments. The ball would glow, and it emitted smoke trails when you passed it to your teammate. Your accuracy from downtown improved, but more importantly, you had an unlimited turbo bar, and goaltending became legal - either until you scored four baskets, or your opponent broke your lucky streak. I would sit under my opponent’s basket waiting for him to shoot, and when he did, I would just snatch the ball from midair.
In 2010, EA Games revived the NBA Jam franchise, which had been dormant since 2002. Featuring updated rosters, beautifully rendered graphics, and Kitzrow, who returned as the color commentator, the revamped NBA Jam was the perfect remake - both old and new, blended into a single package.
Check it out when you get the chance - it’s a wonderful game to pick up and play, and there’s a vicarious, visceral satisfaction to dunking, helicopter style, from the top of the key.