Welcome to Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! This is a feature where we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content.
With this being May the 4th, the iconic Star Wars franchise is what a lot of people around the world are talking about and celebrating today. It’s a little difficult to tie that into basketball – though Chewbacca’s size would probably make him pretty dominant in the paint – so I decided to take a look back at this day in NBA history for inspiration. In doing so, I was reminded of Charles Barkley’s 56 point, 14 rebound game on May 4th 1994, which helped his Phoenix Suns to eliminate then-rookie Chris Webber’s Golden State Warriors 3-0 in the first round of the Playoffs.
When it comes to elusive figures in basketball video games, the first player that we tend to think of is Michael Jordan. As I’ve discussed in a couple of previous articles, MJ was missing from the various NBA sim games during his second run with the Chicago Bulls, and aside from some rare, specially produced arcade cabinets, he’s never been featured in NBA Jam. However, while Charles Barkley did appear in NBA Live towards the end of his career, he was similarly absent – or replaced by a Roster Player – in a number of releases.
It’s one of those things from basketball gaming history that’s interesting to revisit, because it just doesn’t happen with today’s stars and modern releases. With that said, let’s take a look back…way back…
Like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley did appear in the NBA Playoffs series, which, for those who are unaware, is EA’s forerunner to NBA Live. He naturally didn’t appear in the games in which his Philadelphia 76ers were not included – specifically, Lakers versus Celtics, and Bulls vs. Blazers – but could be found on the Sixers’ roster in Bulls vs. Lakers, and on the Phoenix Suns in NBA Showdown, the immediate predecessor to NBA Live 95. He was also included in the Sega-exclusive Team USA Basketball, a spinoff game featuring the entire Dream Team and other squads from the 1992 Olympic Games.
Barkley also made an appearance in the first version of the original NBA Jam, including the home console releases. He’s available alongside fellow Suns All-Star Kevin Johnson, with a maxed out dunking ability, average three-point ability, and good speed, but a terrible defensive rating. While Sir Charles wasn’t usually heralded for his defense – outside of his efforts on the boards, at any rate – I would say that NBA Jam certainly underrated him in that respect. So much so, I probably could have included him in my Friday Five column on insulting ratings in basketball games.
However, Barkley would be removed from subsequent versions of NBA Jam, and was replaced by Dan Majerle. Thunder Dan had a stronger defensive rating and good dunking ability, but oddly enough, he was slower and a worse three-point shooter than Barkley had been. Sir Charles would also not appear in the follow-up release, NBA Jam Tournament Edition, and he was similarly absent from the first game in EA Sports’ newly rebranded NBA Live series. In NBA Jam TE, Danny Manning appeared on the Suns instead, while in NBA Live 95, A.C. Green was their starting power forward. Karl Malone took Barkley’s starting spot on the West All-Stars.
In 1993, Charles Barkley also lent his name and likeness to a game developed by Accolade, titled Barkley Shut Up and Jam. Its gameplay is similar to NBA Jam, featuring two-on-two full court basketball with no fouls, but without the outlandish dunks. Thematically, it’s also similar to Michael Jordan in Flight, in that Charles Barkley is the only real player in the game, and the roster is filled out by fictional streetball players that either team up or square off with him, in games played on both indoor and outdoor courts across the USA. I’d like to talk about it in more detail at some point, but for now, I’ll sum it up as a mediocre NBA Jam clone.
Incidentally, while a sequel was made, Sir Charles amusingly is not playable in Barkley Shut up and Jam 2. He merely appears on the cover of the 1995 release, and also provided digitised voice samples in which he reacts positively or mockingly to the action. From memory, it was around this time that Barkley gained control over his own likeness rights – the same situation that kept Michael Jordan out of several NBA video games – and I believe that his deal with Accolade might have also kept him out of other releases, as well as forcing his removal from the original NBA Jam.
Aside from an unlock code in the SNES version of NBA Live 96, Barkley would remain absent from NBA video games through NBA Live 97, in which he was represented by a Roster Player. Like the Roster Player who stood in for Michael Jordan, Not!Charles Barkley was similar in appearance to the real Round Mound of the Rebound, with Barkley-like ratings and “you’re not fooling anyone” bio data. Karl Malone continued to fill in for Barkley in the starting lineup of the West All-Stars, with life imitating art in the actual 1997 NBA All-Star Game, which Barkley was forced to sit out due to an injury.
Come NBA Live 98, Charles Barkley finally made his official return to basketball video games, with a screenshot on the back of the PC version’s box spotlighting his inclusion. He would also be available in NBA Live 99 and NBA Live 2000, the final two years of his NBA career. In NBA Live 2000, he also joined the roster of Legends, appearing on the 80s All-Stars and in the Legends Pool. Barkley remained available as a Legend in NBA Live 2001, but EA Sports were not able to secure his likeness rights for NBA Live 2002 and beyond, and he hasn’t made an official appearance in the NBA Live series since.
I’ve often heard that Charles Barkley doesn’t care at all for video games, hence his reluctance to appear in them as a Legend following his retirement. I have to admit that I’ve never been able to find a source that definitively backs up that assertion, yet it remains one of those things that older basketball gamers just “know”. I’d actually be interested to confirm his stance with a reputable source, though as it stands, I am inclined to believe that there’s at least some truth to the suggestion. It’s often a generational thing with older players, and if nothing else, the money on offer probably just hasn’t been good enough.
That’s why it was such a big deal when he actually signed on to appear as a member of the original Dream Team in NBA 2K13. It seemed that the money was right, and it would also appear that Jay Z really is that persuasive. Perhaps the concept of settling the debate of the 1992 Dream Team vs. 2012 Team USA on the virtual hardwood also appealed to him. Unfortunately, Barkley wasn’t added to the 1985 Philadelphia 76ers squad, but having his assets in the game at least gave our modding community a leg up. Even as a once-off, it was still pretty special to actually get Sir Charles in the game.
It’s funny to look back on now. For years, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were both elusive figures in basketball video games. Barkley returned to the virtual hardwood as his career was winding down, while Jordan returned a year after his second retirement, and then appeared as an active player as a member of the Washington Wizards. In recent years, it’s been His Airness who has been consistently represented in hoops titles, post-retirement. Hopefully at some point in the future, the price will be right for Barkley, and we’ll finally get a game where we can replay the 1993 NBA Finals out of the box. In the meantime…well, at least we have our mods.