The Friday Five: 5 Things NBA Jam Doesn’t Get Enough Credit For

The Friday Five

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of five things that NBA Jam doesn’t get enough credit for.

Following on from my articles about the things that NBA Live and NBA 2K don’t get enough credit for, this week I’m giving NBA Jam the same treatment. As with NBA 2K, that may seem strange as NBA Jam is still held in high regard and remembered quite fondly. When it comes to games from the 90s, NBA Live’s image has easily suffered more, due to its struggles dating back to the mid 2000s. Although there have been some forgettable NBA Jam games (mainly the ones made by Acclaim), the best titles – including the sequels under different names, like NBA Hangtime – are revered.

And yet, there are times when it feels like NBA Jam doesn’t receive the credit that it deserves. I’ve seen gamers say they don’t get what’s so special about it, either because they prefer sim games, or in some cases, that they’re fonder of NBA Street. It’s been nearly ten years since the last NBA Jam game was released, and I imagine there’s a large contingent of the current basketball gaming demographic that didn’t grow up with it as I and other 90s kids did. Whatever the case may be, NBA Jam should be appreciated for its impact on basketball gaming. In particular, I would suggest that NBA Jam unquestionably deserves credit for these five things.

1. Establishing the Staples of Arcade Basketball Games

Scottie Pippen dunks in NBA Jam (Arcade)

There’s a reason that arcade basketball video games are compared to NBA Jam, and many still consider it the gold standard. Even though it wasn’t the first arcade hoops title – that’d arguably be its spiritual predecessor, Arch Rivals – NBA Jam established the staples that we’ve come to expect of the genre. Just as early first person shooters were often called “Doom Clones”, there are a lot of arcade hoops games that could be referred to as “NBA Jam Clones”. Its core mechanics and features were so well done, so memorable and fun, that they became the template for all of its imitators. As much as anything else, deviating too much from that template made said imitators inferior.

NBA Jam didn’t necessarily invent all of its staples – some of them can be found in Arch Rivals, after all – but it did them the best, and established them as the norm. The approach of three minute quarters with no infractions except shot clock violations and goaltending, established the style of gameplay. The addition of a sprint control, and its use to turn the steal button into a shove button, is ubiquitous in arcade hoops games. The concept of being “On Fire” established the approach of having fun powerups. If it wasn’t for NBA Jam, we very likely wouldn’t have games like NBA Street or NBA Playgrounds. It popularised the genre, and set an example for all of its successors.

2. Gameplay Balance

NBA Jam Tournament Edition features Larry Bird as a secret player

This is something that NBA Jam really doesn’t get enough credit for, especially since its imitators usually do it so poorly. When we talk about NBA Jam, we talk about the crazy dunks, getting On Fire and hitting shots from everywhere, breaking backboards, and having a great time with the up-tempo style. All of that stuff naturally grabs our attention, so it’s easy to overlook that NBA Jam’s offensive-minded gameplay is very well balanced with the ability to play defense. Whether it’s swiping the ball or shoving an opponent to get the steal, or rejecting a shot to the sound of Tim Kitzrow shouting “Get that out of here”, the game has effective counterpunches to the dazzling offense.

To put it in perspective, a lot of the sim games that came out around the same time as the original NBA Jam didn’t let us play defense as effectively. Obviously it wasn’t a realistic portrayal of the sport, but we could nevertheless make plays at both ends of the floor. There was also balance and a sensible approach to player ratings. Players with higher ratings were naturally far more adept in those areas, but mid-tier ratings weren’t useless, and even lower-rated players could be serviceable. Even the famous On Fire powerup is well-implemented. It’s not too difficult to attain, yet not too easy either, grants reasonable bonuses, doesn’t last too long, and can be shut down.

3. Technology & Design Concepts

Arcade Version of NBA Jam

It’s funny to think that NBA Jam tipped off the arcade subgenre of basketball video games, considering that it was originally conceived as a more realistic portrayal of the sport. While that aspect changed, and a couple of other ideas were dropped, Midway’s licensing pitch video shows off the impressive tech that ended up making the game so successful. Just as the Mortal Kombat team had digitised actors for the first MK, the NBA Jam team employed the services of Willie “Air” Morris to capture all of the animations. The idea for camera cuts on dunks was ultimately scrapped, but looking back, I think that was for the best as far as being able to challenge dunk attempts.

Other impressive tech included the way the broadcast-style camera panned back and forth along the court, tracking the ball. The scaling tech also allowed players to grow bigger and smaller as they moved closer to and further away from the camera. This tech that was ahead of its time has allowed the original NBA Jam games to hold up extremely well, whereas other basketball games of the same vintage often do not. The adoption of a less realistic style, a distinctive and balanced powerup in On Fire, and the inclusion of features such as secret players, all stand out as brilliant ideas. And of course, there’s Tim Kitzrow’s commentary, which provided such great atmosphere.

4. The EA Sports NBA Jam Games in General

Shaquille O'Neal dunks in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition

I don’t see nearly enough love for the NBA Jam games developed by EA Sports, and on the whole, they don’t get enough credit. There are a few reasons for that, of course. The 2010 reboot was mired in controversy thanks to the original plans of including a stripped down version of the game in NBA Elite 11, and offering the full version – the one planned for the Wii – as paid DLC. When NBA Elite 11 was cancelled, it became a standalone release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Gamers somehow thought that they were being charged for the same game they would’ve received for free, and on top of the bad press for NBA Elite 11, it soured them on what was a very good game.

Although it was definitely very good, NBA Jam 2010 did replicate a few aspects of the original that were already problematic, or now outdated. Although this was a valid criticism, gamers seemed to chalk it up to EA’s ineptitude rather than a faithful reboot having its drawbacks. NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was much better received, and in my view, it’s not only the best game in the series, but still the best arcade basketball game to date. Even so, it does get overlooked and denied the credit it deserves, in large part because of the EA Sports branding. Look past that though, and you’ll see that EA actually developed and published two titles worthy of the NBA Jam name.

5. Pop Culture Relevance

Tim Kitzrow in NBA Jam (2010)

Sure, no basketball video game has sold more copies than NBA 2K. Current players grew up playing the game, and are eager to find out their Overall Rating every year. NBA 2K has its own eSports league, and its branding is still widespread. Ronnie 2K even gets to embarrass himself in the Celebrity Game at the All-Star Weekend. With all that being said, it hasn’t had quite the same impact on pop culture as NBA Jam. After all, no one talks about buying things with VC, unless it’s derisively. Ronnie has a following and gets to rub shoulders with celebrities, but he’s also roundly mocked. It isn’t as popular with people who don’t follow basketball or the NBA all that closely.

NBA Jam set records of its own when it came to revenue in the arcades. Machines famously filled up with quarters before they could be emptied at the usual intervals. Tim Kitzrow is called upon to make appearances for NBA teams, or narrate videos (he’s also a fantastic guest on podcasts and YouTube shows). Phrases like “He’s On Fire!” and “Boomshakalaka!” have entered our lexicon, in no small part due to Jam’s influence. It was a game that could be enjoyed by people who weren’t too familiar with hoops or the NBA. Put it this way: despite there only being 13 games in 27 years – some of which don’t even use the Jam name! – it’s still memorable and influential.

What are some of the things that you feel NBA Jam doesn’t get enough credit for? Have your say in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.

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November 10, 2020 9:07 am

I was thinking about this recently, but I would really love to see you try and reach out to Mark Turmell for an interview, specifically re: the development of later Midway basketball games [NBA Hangtime & Showtime]

The development of NBA Jam/Jam T.E is an extremely well explored topic, but insights into the making of Midway’s other two basketball coin-ops from the 1990s is less known, and I would think there are equally interesting tidbits that could be offered by him about the making of both Hangtime and Showtime.