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Wayback Wednesday: Jordan vs Bird: One on One Retrospective

Jordan vs Bird Title Screen

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some 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. This week, I’m taking a look back at the PC version of Jordan vs Bird: One on One by Electronic Arts.

In my retrospective of Lakers vs Celtics last year, I took a look back at one of the most famous forerunners to EA Sports’ NBA Live series. Although it was the first game in the NBA Playoffs series, and the oldest game in EA’s lineage of five-on-five titles, Lakers vs Celtics was not the developer’s first foray onto the virtual hardwood. That distinction belongs to the 1983 Apple II release commonly referred to as One on One, and alternatively as One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird, or Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One. Featuring Julius Erving and Larry Bird going head to head in a one-on-one match-up, it was one of Electronic Arts’ early successes.

The game would pave the way for a 1988 release titled Jordan vs Bird: One on One. This time, Larry Bird was pitted against Dr. J’s heir apparent, Michael Jordan. Not only did it build on the success of its predecessor by featuring more modes of play, it also enjoyed a wider release, coming out on the PC, Nintendo Entertainment System, SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, Commodore 64, and Game Boy. We’ll be focusing on the PC version for MS-DOS today, so let’s take a look back…way back…

As with Dr. J vs Larry Bird, the main draw of Jordan vs Bird is the ability to take part in one-on-one games between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Although far surpassed as far as gameplay and graphics are concerned, the depth and level of detail is actually quite impressive for the era. MJ sports his trademark black calf sleeve – red strip and all – along with a red forearm band. The animations are very good for a basketball game released in 1988, and there are even slight differences with the way that Jordan and Bird play, with His Airness being a better dunker and Larry Legend being far more proficient from three-point range.

Jordan vs Bird: One on One

Apart from a couple of options regarding win conditions, multiplayer, and the preset keyboard configurations, it’s fairly straightforward one-on-one basketball. The game is primitive, but still playable. There’s no steal button in the PC version however, and diagonal movement with the keyboard is assigned to four additional keys, rather than allowing the user to simply hold left or right along with up or down. It makes things a little cumbersome, especially as the two controller configurations use the number pad and WASD keys, in order to allow two players to use the keyboard if need be. As such, most gamers would probably find it preferable to use a joystick or gamepad.

While the one-on-one game was certainly serviceable, the most innovative elements of Jordan vs Bird lay in its mini-games: the Slam Dunk and Three-Point Contests. With Jordan coming off a duel with Dominique Wilkins for his second consecutive Slam Dunk crown, and Bird being the reigning three-time three-point champion, it made sense to replicate those events in a video game starring the two All-Stars. The only drawback was that without any other players in the game, Jordan and Bird were only able to square off against themselves. All competitors in the Three-Point Contest used Bird, while all players controlled Jordan in the Slam Dunk Contest.

That limitation aside, both events are represented quite well. The Three-Point Contest isn’t too different from its incarnations in later games, featuring the rules of the real contest as they were in 1988. However, unlike later virtual representations of the shootout, the user had to manually run to the next rack upon completing the previous one, and Bird would not automatically snap into position upon getting there. It’s too easy to lose valuable seconds trying to line him up in order to actually pick up a ball from the rack and keep shooting. There’s admittedly a challenge in it, an additional element of gameplay to master, but I’m glad that later games automated that part.

Jordan vs Bird: Three-Point Contest

Jordan vs Bird’s Slam Dunk Contest was far more straightforward and allowed for significantly less creativity than the modes that came along in later games, but it’s still both fun and challenging in its own way. Before an attempt, the player must pick one of ten dunks to attempt: Kiss the Rim, Twister, Air Jordan, Two-Handed Hammer, Dr. J Jam, Windmill, Back Slam, Statue of Liberty, Skim the Rim, and Toss Slam. Each dunk was one that we’d seen MJ or someone else perform in a contest at that point. After selecting a dunk, the goal was to approach the rim at the appropriate angle and hold the Shoot button down, releasing it at the right time to complete the attempt.

It’s an effective approach and the animations are quite good, with MJ even stumbling and falling over on the landing if you mess up the timing. The challenge comes from mastering the timing and takeoff angles for all of the dunks, and finding the sweet spot that will result in the judges awarding you the best scores out of ten. As it stands, the judging does feel a bit random, and the judges are difficult to impress. Practice modes for both the Slam Dunk and Three-Point Contests certainly help here, and by pressing T in the Slam Dunk Warm-Up mode, you’ll actually see a demonstration of where you should be trying to take off from for your chosen dunk.

There’s also a “Follow the Leader” mode for the Slam Dunk Contest, in which the first player chooses a dunk to perform, and the rest of the field has to try to perform it as well. Mastery of release timing is crucial here, since you’ll need to perform it better than everyone else and get the highest score, assuming all other competitors succeed in their attempts. With a couple of different takes on the Slam Dunk Contest, a Three-Point Contest, practice modes, and one-on-one games to 11, 15, or 21, along with variable difficulty settings and multiplayer capabilities, Jordan vs Bird featured a respectable amount of replay value for a late 80s basketball video game.

Jordan vs Bird: Slam Dunk Contest

Given the overall depth and quality of Jordan vs Bird, it’s surprising that a 1992 issue of Mega magazine listed it as the seventh worst game released on the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis. I can only speak for the PC version, but that assessment seems rather harsh. These days of course, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t aged particularly well, though arguably no worse than a lot of basketball games of the same vintage. With that being said, it is lacking in content and replay value compared to titles that came along just a few years later, and the mini-games admittedly hold up a lot better than the one-on-one gameplay. It’s definitely a fine game for the time it was released, though.

I think it would be fair to call Jordan vs Bird a classic. Remember, classic does not always mean that something was the pinnacle of its type or genre, or an unsurpassed mark of excellence. A classic video game, for example, need only be great for its time, and historically significant. In terms of basketball video games, I believe that Jordan vs Bird qualifies on both counts. From licensing real players and representing them with differing abilities, to mini-games and life-like animations, it was another early pioneer in developing the virtual basketball experience. If you can track it down, it’s still worth revisiting for the Slam Dunk Contest alone.

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