Any time a video game developer feels an urge to create a game like, “NFL Head Coach,” he should first flick himself in the balls with a ruler, then play NBA Jam for 10 minutes.
He would then re-realize the most basic, fundamental, yet easily forgotten rule of games — they should be fun to play.
NBA Jam was fun to play.
Being fun to play was, of course, the only thing NBA Jam was. It was intentionally absurd. Guys could jump so high they flew out of the screen. That was awesome. If you made three shots in a row, you were “on fire,” and your shots had flames coming off them. That was awesome. There were no fouls. Again, awesome. If you entered the correct codes, you could assemble a team of Al Gore and George Clinton, which was off-the-charts awesome.
Like all video games from the 90s, there were some funny quirks. For example, Mitch Richmond was a total Zeus in that game. Now, Richmond was a fine player. Won the All-Star game MVP once. Great shooter. But on NBA Jam, he was Scottie Pippen’s equal.
Which brings up the NBA Jam rosters. They would be a trip down memory lane if these were real, 12-man rosters, anyway, but that these were two-man teams makes it extra hilarious to look back at the guys regarded as the two best players on their teams in 1993.
Minnesota — Christian Laettner and Chuck Person.
Dallas — Derek Harper and Jim Jackson.
Houston — Hakeem Olajuwon and Vernon Maxwell.
Chicago — Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant*
*Obviously, this should have been Michael Jordan, but Jordan wasn’t in video games because securing the license to his likeness was too expensive. To my knowledge, the last game in which Jordan appeared as himself was in “Bulls vs. Blazers and the NBA Playoffs”, which was stupendously awful.
Usually the games tried to creatively include Jordan. For example, early in the NBA Live series, a random player nobody knew would show up on the Bulls’ roster. If you were inclined, you could just “create” Jordan yourself, and replace this throwaway player with your created Jordan. Not only was this a pain in the butt, but, because Jordan was a myth, it felt stupid to go in there and ask yourself to rate Jordan’s skills on a 50-100 scale. Nobody wanted to say to their digital MJ, “You’re passing is really only about a 79 and you can’t jump like you used to.”
Point is, can you imagine this happening today? Imagine if you bought NBA Live 2k9, and LeBron wasn’t on the game. You’d be outraged. The game companies and the NBA would do whatever was necessary to get LeBron in the game, because it’s too important as a marketing tool. In the early 90s, nobody understood this.
Another point of intrigue about NBA Jam is that it really wasn’t much different than the other SNES/Sega Geneis sensation, Mortal Kombat. Both were, at their essence, cartoonish fighting games. NBA Jam had no rules (except goaltending), no teamwork and a rapid pace, which made each game seem more like a street fight than a basketball game. And because both games moved so quickly, they functioned well for the kind of tournaments you’d have at a sleepover. The only difference was that in NBA Jam, you did flipping dunks whle consumed by flame and in Mortal Kombat, you ripped out your enemy’s spine.
As all gimmicks do, NBA Jam tried to resell us what was essentially the same game with NBA Jam Tournament Edition*. There were some new features you could turn on and off, like six-point shots, and they updated the rosters. Some people liked this version, but I didn’t think it made the game any better. The brilliance of NBA Jam was its simplicity, which the new features undermined, I thought.
*In early versions of the Tournament Edition, according to Wikipedia, you could enter codes to play as characters from Mortal Kombat. The NBA soon vetoed this, not wanting to be associated with ripping out people’s spines.
More so than with any other form of entertainment, video games have to be evaulated in context. Nobody would argue that NBA Jam is a technically better game than almost anything available today. The graphics are bad and the controls are jerky and there really are no features.
Not many people would even argue that NBA Jam is better than NBA Live 95, which pretty much changed basketball video games for good. But NBA Jam was the first basketball game that was any fun to play.
And that’s the point.