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 Barkley Shut Up and Jam (officially titled Barkley Shut Up and Jam!).
Whenever someone or something is successful, you can be certain that a bunch of imitators will spring up. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but from the standpoint of a consumer, it usually leaves us with a marketplace full of knock-off products that don’t match the original in quality. This phenomenon occurs quite often in video gaming, whenever a revolutionary title bursts onto the scene. In basketball gaming, few titles have had the same impact as NBA Jam, and the game that defined the subgenre of arcade hoops has inspired many imitators over the years.
These NBA Jam-style games have varied in quality. None have matched the games that inspired them, but a few have been solid in their own right. Others fell well short of replicating the fun arcade basketball action that NBA Jam pioneered. Since today is Charles Barkley’s 56th Birthday, I’m profiling an NBA Jam clone that he endorsed: the more aggressively titled Barkley Shut Up and Jam! It’s a game that you may be familiar with if you grew up in the 90s, but does it hold up as the original NBA Jam games do? Let’s take a look back…way back…
Developed by Accolade and released for both the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis in 1994, Barkley Shut Up and Jam utilises a familiar approach to its arcade-oriented gameplay. It’s two-on-two basketball from a horizontal, broadcast-style camera angle, with exaggerated dunks and fast, simplified gameplay. There are minimal rules, and the ball can’t go out of bounds. However, the game differs from NBA Jam in that it features a streetball setting, with unnamed squads from various US cities. Charles Barkley is the only real player, with the rest of the roster comprising of fictional streetballers. In that respect, it’s quite similar in concept to Michael Jordan in Flight.
The influence of the streetball setting has also resulted in a rougher style of gameplay. All steals are performed by knocking down your opponent, contrary to NBA Jam which allows you to pick pockets with swipes, or take the ball with a shove. Although the players soar high above the rim for many of their slams and there are somersault dunks, there are a lot of basic jams and overall, dunking isn’t quite as spectacular as in NBA Jam. The pace is extremely fast though – even for an arcade game – resulting in quick trips up the floor and very high scores. Notably, both halves begin with a jump ball, with the team that wins the tip beginning the next quarter with the ball.
Exhibition play involves picking a captain for your squad, along with a teammate. In single player mode, the CPU will choose two opponents, and then you’ll pick a venue to play at. Phoenix is the only inside venue, with all the other cities (which include Chicago, Brooklyn, Miami, Oakland, and Houston) featuring street courts. Games can be played with quarters that are one, three, or five minutes in length, or you can opt to play to either 21 or 50. You can also play a best of five or best of seven series, or play through a barnstorming streetball tournament in which you take on squads from all of the cities. Tournament progress can be saved using a password system.
Each of the players has their own strengths and weaknesses, with ratings represented by a number of bars in the categories of Two-Pointers, Three-Pointers, Dunks, Steals, Rebounding, and Speed. Once again, this is very similar to Michael Jordan in Flight, and just as MJ is far and away the best player in that game, Charles Barkley has the best ratings here. Keeping with the streetball theme, the players are known by their delightfully 90s nicknames, such as Funky D and T Bone. Barkley himself is simply referred to as Sir Charles. Amusingly, the squad from Brooklyn wears black jerseys, a coincidence that seems prophetic in light of the Nets’ move and rebranding in 2012.
That’s the gist of Barkley Shut Up and Jam, but how does it play, and where does it rank among NBA Jam clones? Well, it’s definitely one of the better games that aped the NBA Jam style, being relatively solid for the time and still quite playable in 2019. However, it’s definitely inferior to Midway’s game, and doesn’t hold up as well. One of the main problems is that it doesn’t feel as fluid or responsive. You can’t always jump or attempt a steal when you want to, and it’s too easy to find yourself out of position when you do. Obviously there should be an element of risk/reward here, but the timing feels off and the CPU seems to be able to recover much faster.
It may seem odd to critique defense in an arcade basketball game, since they’re about all the crazy dunks, threes from everywhere, and mechanics like On Fire. However, what we often forget is that NBA Jam had great balance with defense that is able to counteract the high-powered offense, and this is something that Barkley Shut Up and Jam lacks. Steals are effective – a little too effective for the CPU, in fact – but blocks are virtually impossible to get. Jumping for rebounds is also a bad idea, as chasing down the loose ball after a miss is the safest way to collect boards. As such, the best defense is to simply outgun your opponent, which accounts for the inflated scores.
Having all steals come from knocking down opponents is another factor here, as it often means that there isn’t a defender anywhere near the ballhandler. While there are player ratings, pretty much all players can score with ease, even from beyond half court. CPU opponents are incredibly cheap, while CPU teammates have lousy AI and are often no help defensively. It’s impossible to fake a shot or make a midair pass, so you’re locked into an attempt once you begin it. Each player begins with a turbo meter of six basketballs that replenishes slowly compared to NBA Jam’s sprint mechanic, but it doesn’t really balance the gameplay as much as likely intended.
None of this prevents the game from being playable or even enjoyable, but as I said, it doesn’t hold up as well as NBA Jam. It’s tried to be its own game in certain aspects; a noble goal, but it also means that it’s ignored the principles and concepts that made NBA Jam so great and successful. Even for the time, there’s limited replay value in the tournament mode. There’s something a bit drab about the aesthetic, too. Barkley Shut Up and Jam has decent graphics for its era, and some of the animations do look quite good, but others are very clunky. Overall, the visuals just aren’t as vibrant or appealing compared to NBA Jam. The music goes for a chill vibe, but I find it dull.
On top of everything else, the lack of the NBA license limits the game’s appeal. It’s the same problem that Michael Jordan in Flight had: it’s fun to play with the title star, but the fictional characters are no substitute for a deep roster of real NBA players. A sequel was released exclusively for the Genesis in 1995, though Charles Barkley was no longer playable and only appeared to offer advice, further diminishing the appeal. There were a few basketball games in the 90s that took this approach, and it’s fair to say that the overall quality of those titles soon put an end to the idea. Without the NBA license, there was usually little to make up for mediocre modes and gameplay.
Barkley Shut Up and Jam is another quirky hoops title from the 90s, a decent NBA Jam clone that definitely should’ve taken more cues from the game that inspired it. Unfortunately, Charles Barkley’s endorsement of the game kept him from appearing in any of the NBA licensed games at that time, even forcing his removal from later revisions of NBA Jam. I remember quite a few kids either renting or owning it back in the day and there is a certain amount of nostalgia here, but ultimately, I’d say it’s an attempt to cash in on NBA Jam’s success that came up short. It’s decent, but more of an example of a problematic licensed game than a true virtual hardwood classic.