NBA Jam (Genesis) review
"Most of us get wrapped up in our nostalgia and daydream about it to our own detriment. The programmers of NBA Jam took notes on their sporting fantasies and produced an immensely addicting game. I suspect they, too, had nerf hoops slung over closed closet doors and weren't good enough for the real thing. And felt the magic of being able to dunk--first when you jumped, then on your tiptoes--in that brief time when puberty was still wonderfully novel, when you swore that your own imaginary basketb..."
Most of us get wrapped up in our nostalgia and daydream about it to our own detriment. The programmers of NBA Jam took notes on their sporting fantasies and produced an immensely addicting game. I suspect they, too, had nerf hoops slung over closed closet doors and weren't good enough for the real thing. And felt the magic of being able to dunk--first when you jumped, then on your tiptoes--in that brief time when puberty was still wonderfully novel, when you swore that your own imaginary basketball league would stay with you longer than Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street or those other kiddie shows. Had a plastic ball that got too easy to shoot and the Nerf one that the wind seemed to affect indoors. Games that lurched from twenty-point blowouts to nail-biters with a flurry of three-pointers, lane violations, and role reversals as unrealistic as favorite sci-fi movies. With occasional games static at a ten point lead you wished your favorite real-life team could maintain, for the close feel. Star players that scored forty percent of the team's points. And a league where teams averaged to winning sixty percent of their games.
NBA Jam captures this magic with everything except letting you name your own teams or players, although you can contribute to your all-time record by inputting your initials. It's a two-on-two fest with blaring music and four three-minute quarters that go even faster in real time, except for the drawn-out slow-motion dunks. You can take a favorite team through a league schedule, trying to beat all twenty-seven NBA teams, with mirror matches not allowed. Three-pointers are also easy if your player's open. Everyone has a big head, and even the shortest people can slam standing up. Best off, there are no fouls. Elbowing is a science here, and defense isn't up to much. Stand in front of your man, jump when he jumps, and hope he doesn't embarrass you.
But usually he will. He'll get right into the throw-downs, which get a bit old after the all-night sessions this game can sucker you into. Even the wimpiest dunkers have a few moves. I'm a Jazz fan--played with Stockton. I just picked them at random when I was eight, and imagine my surprise when ten years later I saw the NBA all-time assist leader sneak in among the big guys and fight for rebounds! Quadruple that when I saw his 720 twister dunk on NBA Jam--still astonishing even knowing that's what NBA Jam was notorious for, or that more expert dunkers got to rip flame from their butts as they cartwheeled in to break the backboard. Missed dunks are impressive, too, as they bounce up off the screen, and ordinary open jumpers or lay-ups become hook shots and finger rolls.
Despite his newfound talents, you've probably guessed John Stockton won't be living up to his assist mark in this game--and trying to set up the pick and roll will fail miserably, too, unless it involves Karl Malone slugging both defenders. It's enough to make Jerry Sloan go apoplectic on the sidelines--too bad we can't see that.
You'll figure out the basic 'shake' move of NBA Jam soon enough--move one way, fake the other, and push the Turbo button. The Turbo button is like hot sauce--adds a little zip to everything. It lets you punch your opponent more ruthlessly on defense or run faster. Until your turbo bar is used up, and it regenerates quickly, too. Passing is useful, too, mainly when you've picked up your dribble trying to fake the other guy out. Pass it right back and you've got a clear path to the hoop. You can also pass to the arrow on the side of the screen for a fast break, but your computer ally certainly can take his time. His best feature is that you can force him to pass you the ball.
But the computer uses its turbo button, too, which can make for frustrating defense. It doesn't have quite the moves, but it has an innate understanding of where the ball will come down after it bounces ten feet off the rim so you can't see it(shadows don't help.) And playing good defense can be unsatisfying. If you jump before the computer, he manages to head-fake and drive the lane. He often scoops his own blocked shots right back up. It's possible to force a shot clock violation, but you have to forgo violence and place your players so the computer can't let by. Sadly field goal percentages are not tracked like other stats, but both sides score on around 75% of their possessions. Which creates the same sort of tension, long-term, as if both teams shot 25%.
Except for the end of the game. You see, NBA Jam has a built-in equalizer. The computer plays down to your level, and if you build a lead, it likes to cheat...a bit. The leaders miss a dunk, get mugged in the back court, or brick a short layup without perfect form. As a result many of my first twenty games went down to the wire.
And what a live wire. First, good three-point shooters always make half court shots with the ball in the air at the buzzer. I was on both ends of this. Two pointers tend to swish, too. So time management becomes insanely important, and the rules are so vague that the computer struggles with this, too. In my early days, I was beating up on the Milwaukee Bucks before the game's standard equalization tactics. It was forty-all, only for me to pull ahead with the standard fake move and dunk--with ten whole seconds left. They pushed the ball down, and as I cringed in anticipation of the tying dunk, the buzzer sounded--with Brad Lohaus one foot above the rim. That'll teach YOU to hot-dog, pal.
Not that I didn't get burnt other times. I had my own adjustment Save states played the part of the invisible referee I used in my games when the team I didn't like scored too often. I figured how to score with very little time left, or slug the guy receiving the inbounds pass, so nobody got a bomb off. Sometimes I had to try twice. It kept the excitement when I came to expect the games would be close.
But eventually I got skilled enough that I'd hit three baskets in a row, prompting 'He's on fire!' which allowed Karl Malone to chuck threes until the opponents scored a basket(sometimes I'd goaltend to keep Karl en fuego--not sure if this was a bug or another cheating method the programmers left open.) I could play 'prevent defense' up ten, milking the shot clock and winning(slow-down tactics don't last enough to feel slow.) Turbo-punching my opponents became second nature(sadly, I figured this out after the Detroit game, when I could've reenacted Malone giving Isaiah Thomas getting what he deserved--and still does for helping ruin the CBA,) and I even grabbed a rebound or two, which isn't easy when the computer's players know where the ball over the top of the screen will drop and you can't even see its shadow. The arrows leading offscreen even helped me pass to an absurdly insouciant John Stockton, who sometimes even took a shot before running around in circles and letting opponents catch up--or get in rebounding position. By the end my late-game dunks got 'THE NAIL IN THE COFFIN!' from the announcer who could really have been nothing else than corny.
And such nice people I met along the way! Just eight years later, many of my opponents were 1)retired, with Malone, who was supposed to retire soon in '94, still playing, 2)coaches, or fired from that position, or 3)over-hyped and forgotten(Harold Minor drove me nuts when he and the Heat didn't stink it up against me.) Why, I'd almost even forgot Jeff Hornacek didn't always play for Utah--this is the sort of laugh all aging sports games give, but if they're not fun, you are better off reading a sports almanac. With all NBA Jam has, though, you'll want to ruin your eyesight on a screen and not a book. Heck, even the demo when you're not playing is interesting--it pits a couple of teams in a two-minute scrimmage before cycling through top player stats(winning percentage, streaks, and wins.)
In fact, the only thing this game doesn't have is...MICHAEL JORDAN. But that suits this Chicago-based Jazz fan JUST fine. I'm still bitter about '97-'98. I was jealous when the Bulls three-peated, I'd seen enough of Jordan's mug on enough billboards. NBA Jam also doesn't have the third man(David Benoit) in this version, which is cool with me, 'cause he chucked up those three-point bricks that helped Utah fold against Houston, who went on to win the whole thing, that one year. Oh, there's no Shaq either--lawyers musta nixed it 'cause something this silly might of cut into the profits from his rap records you know.
The only player that doesn't come out well in all this is Charles Barkley, otherwise a natural for the role of gratuitous brutalization. But he's wearing white shorts with yellow piping! That's wrong for him, fashion wise, and wrong for the Suns(purple/black/orange.) To make matters worse, his turbo bar is yellow-on-white, making it very hard to read. It just looks wimpy. A few other teams commit similar atrocities, which make it hard if you play as them or try to determine whoich opponent's 'turbo' is at what. Then there's the matter of Dikembe Mutombo and Dale Ellis being the same height. Which gets confusing when the guy you thought was Mutombo starts shooting wide-open threes. The way-too-short or tall characters are great, but what's wrong with a few heights in the middle?
The closest I ever got to computerizing my imaginary leagues wound up with all the boring parts of the real thing. It was a BASIC program that spilled points on the various teams, randomly, with regard to skill. It saved career scoring, won-loss records, and playoff progress. It printed automatically at the end of the season. And near the twilight of my league, I could concentrate on making cool names although my star players did seem to stay around for thirty years. Sadly the beeping noises when a game hit overtime didn't quite match up with the funky shuffle during game interludes and even the announcer's 'BOOM SHOCKALOCKA BOOM' which takes much longer to get old than you'd expect--but it shows how, generally, the league I was so proud of matches up with NBA Jam.
I remember marveling at the arcade version('It's even better than the slam dunk competition'--this was back when it was still worth watching,) and while the pyrotechnics were amazing, the concept of exciting, quick play seems to have lasted--and the caricatures of real players, the big stars and the 'who-dat,' or the people who seem to be playing with the wrong team, still give laughs. NBA Jam still satisfactorily compresses the excitement of the old NBA(you know, back when teams sometimes scored a hundred points a game) into a ten-minute juke-fest. These days I can't go thumping around at night in my room(neighbor below) or the living room. I probably won't be able to afford anything with a basement until my bones are too creaky to move about. The nerf ball I worried about shredding will fall prey to my cat, before he gets old and lazy, at which time I'll probably have my share of age-related aches too. I would feel silly using a powerful computer for a simple basketball league program and pedantic for trying to infuse any long-term stat tracking now, and clever new names come more slowly, with more embarrassment. But NBA Jam will still be there for a quick go round.
Community review by aschultz (February 03, 2004)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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