Side note, of all the games in the NBA Jam series, these were the editor’s favorites:
Brad: NBA Jam Tournament Edition (Genesis)
Stryker: NBA Jam (Genesis)
Brad: Like just about any decade, there are a lot of things from the 90s that we look back on and say “What the hell were we thinking?” Don’t get me wrong, there was crap back then that we knew was crap all along and never really caught on – like Joey Lawrence’s solo album. I’m talking about stuff that was legitimately popular, like Blossom, the show that gave us Joey Lawrence in the first place. That show got decent ratings for a few years. What the hell?
Or Zubaz pants. Hard to imagine now, but those things were one of the hottest fashions of the early 90s. Why? Well, it’s important to remember that in a lot of ways, the early 90s were really, really, awful. A recent ad playing locally featured a woman wearing a pair or Zubaz as part of some retro-themed event, with her crying out “What are these things?” in the kind of panicked tone that made it sound like she was being put into some kind of horrible torture device that, even though you don’t know exactly WHAT it’s going to do yet, you can already tell is going to be really bad. And in a sense, I suppose she was, although I’m not sure the Geneva Convention recognizes “irreversible social stigma” as torture.
The list of regrettable 90s crazes goes on: Blues Traveler, Backstreet Boys, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, WCW, clean-cut corporate dudes wearing suits and glasses and sporting long ponytails, AoL, MTV sports… I mean seriously, what the hell were we thinking back then?
Well, after spending a lot of time with NBA Jam and its sequels, I think it’s safe to add them to the “What the hell?” list. Immensely popular at the time of its release, it was believed that NBA Jam would change all sports games as we knew them. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why. NBA Jam seems like the end result of somebody holding a convention for bad game designers to get together and exchange ideas. Actually, considering that it was published by Acclaim, that’s not such a far-fetched idea – they referred to these events as “company meetings”.
At the foundation of the NBA Jam series lie several questionable design choices. The complete lack of defense makes the game high scoring, but also reduces the entire affair to watching teams take turns running down the court and dunking on each other. This stalemate is generally broken when one team miraculously stops their opponent a few times, and one player is able to score 3 baskets in a row, causing him to be “on fire”. This makes him almost unstoppable on offense and good enough on defense to keep the streak going until you rack up a big lead. Not that it will help – as soon as the score starts to get a bit uneven, the computer assistance will kick in, boosting the trailing team’s abilities dramatically, and allowing them to make a quick comeback. Here’s the most important thing you need to know about NBA Jam: If you’re ever losing by more than 5 points, start going for three pointers. From anywhere. You’ll make them.
In this way, the best strategy for playing an NBA Jam game is to basically ignore the first 3 quarters of the game, then, if you’re losing, just shoot a bunch of threes to get the game close, and then try to get “on fire” near the end of the game, so your opponent doesn’t have enough time to stage a huge computer-assisted comeback of their own. It’s all the drama of the real NBA, minus the game’s best players! Oh right, about that…
Partly due to bad timing, and partly due to licensing issues, the roster in the NBA Jam games, particularly the first one, has some glaring omissions. The game came out too late to have Larry Bird or Magic Johnson in there, and Shaq, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley were all off making their own terrible video games. Keep in mind that 4 of those guys were included in the starting lineup for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, and the other guy is Shaq (side note – it really is weird that it happened to work out the 5 most noteworthy missing players all happen to play different positions). The absence of these guys is a little bit of a letdown, especially in a game that puts such a heavy emphasis on individual performance and star players. Not to mention that it turns the Utah Jazz into the most dominant team in the game, which is just crazy.
If not for the Bulls, Lakers, Celtics, and Suns, these guys might have won at least one of NBA championship.
Stryker: The argument in favor of the NBA Jam games has always been that it’s fun to play a fast-paced, exaggerated, arcade-style game of basketball. Fair enough, but it’s not like the other basketball games available at the time were hardcore simulations. Bulls vs. Blazers was just as capable of giving you unrealistically high scores and plenty of dunks. The difference seems to be than in NBA Jam, the players could jump way over the net while doing it. Oh, and you could make the ball start on fire. I guess that’s something.
If those features sound like a worthwhile trade-off for putting up with grainy digitized graphics, annoying sound clips (apparently both were a prerequisite for all Acclaim games from this era), rubberband AI, and none of the league’s best players (we couldn’t even get a Tecmo-style SG Bulls?) then by all means, check out the NBA Jam series. Or better yet, do some research on time travel and figure out a way to go back to 1993 – trust me, you are going to love it. Brad might even let you borrow his Zubaz.