90s Week: NBA Jam

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.

Money from the corner.

Money from the corner.

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.


14 thoughts on “90s Week: NBA Jam

  1. Yeah! I remember that game! Hours and hours of my life waisted on it. I didnt know that George Clinton was a president for a cheat mode?

  2. This really has nothing to do with this post, but I am a big Mitch Richmond fan, so I figured I’d talk about him here. First, he made it to the NBA having played college ball at K-State, back in the Rolando Blackman days. In fact, in 1988, K-State was the 4 seed in the NCAA’s behind Mitch Richmond. They of course got molly-whopped by the 6th seed Kansas Jayhawks. As the “M” in Run TMC for the Warriors, he was also rookie of the year, and was MVP in the All-Star Game. He fell ass-backwards into a championship with the Lakers, survived Don Nelson’s coaching, and was traded for Billy Owens, the third overall pick in 1991NBA Draft; a draft that featured such dominating players as Luc Longley and Rick Fox. Anyway, I love the guy. I think he had one of the best jump shots in the NBA. And NBA Jam was great.

  3. I will make the same argument for Tecmo: Super Bowl for Nintendo. The graphics may suck, but the gameplay is awesome. My best friend and I have never played a more fun (or competitive) game than that one on Nintendo.

  4. 16 years later NBA jam still has the same appeal it had when it came out. Video games these days are so complicated but the “jam” is about as bare bones as it gets. My top five list of super nintendo games: 1) NHL 95 2) Sunset Riders (amazing wild west shoot ’em up game) 3) Turtles In Time (or TIT if you prefer to shorten it) 4) Mortal Combat 5) NBA Jam/NBA Live 95

  5. James,

    For clarification, are you saying that NHL ’95 is superior to NHL ’94? Because if you are, then you’re a horribly misguided boy.

    The Cub

  6. I always used to be either the Bulls (and would make a conscious effort to ensure that Pippen scored every single poin) or the Charlotte Hornets b/c if you looked at Mourning and Larry Johnson’s stats, they were exactly similar for speed and dunks, and each of their deficiency’s (threes for Mourning, defense for Johnson) were complemented by the other players strengths.

    Specialty players (this is off the top of my head, so I could be wrong):
    Bill Clinton = ARK + Left trigger, Right trigger, select and A
    Al Gore = NET + Left trigger, Right trigger, select, and Y
    Rivette – RJR (or was it RVT?) + same as Clinton

  7. I can’t believe you remember the codes. I may have to pull out the Sega and give this a shot.

  8. Wow Tully, what a compliment. “Mike” thinks your “website have great content!” I am absolutely positive that “Mike” made that comment with complete sincerity, and it was only a coincidence that “$150 An Hour” was hyperlinked below his name.

  9. What, you’re say you don’t want to make $150 an hour? In these trying economic times, this guy appear to have great opportunity (!).

  10. Actually, Barry Bonds hasn’t been in a video game for a while. So the whole MJ thing isn’t as ridiculous today as you make it to be.

  11. i need clarification: are you saying that nba jam’s special code featured al gore’s partner as funkmaster extraordinaire GEORGE clinton (pictured, dr. funkenstein in the flesh), or former president BILL clinton?

  12. Well, both, actually. You could play as George Clinton (known in the game as “P Funk”) or you could play as Bill Clinton (known in the game as “Bill Clinton”). Plus several other secret characters I’ve forgotten about. I know the game’s desiger/creator/something, Mark Turmell, was one of them.

  13. nice. i like the over-their-heads-irony of putting george clinton as al gore’s basketball partner into a kids video game. i wouldn’t have gotten that one until college, and even then didn’t really appreciate “dr. funkenstein” for quite a while. mark turmell was a genius.

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