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 College Slam.
College Slam is a 1996 title that a lot of basketball gamers may not remember, if indeed they’ve ever heard of it. I personally wasn’t aware of it until years later, since as is the case with all college basketball video games, it wasn’t available in PAL regions. Essentially an NCAA version of NBA Jam, it was developed by Iguana Entertainment and published by Acclaim, the companies who brought NBA Jam to home consoles and PC. Unlike NBA Jam, it wasn’t released in arcades, and never achieved the same level of popularity, largely due to its more limited release.
In many ways, College Slam is a re-skin of NBA Jam with NCAA licensing, but that is selling the game a little short. It did introduce a few new features that set it apart from its NBA licensed predecessor, and make it an interesting game to revisit. If the 2003 release from Acclaim is the forgotten NBA Jam, then College Slam is surely the forgotten spin-off. It’s another game worth remembering however, so let’s take a look back…way back…
If you’re familiar with NBA Jam, then College Slam is not going to hold too many surprises as far as its core gameplay. The game features two-on-two arcade style basketball, with high flying dunks and the ability to become On Fire. The power-ups and hotspots that were added in NBA Jam Tournament Edition are present, and are once again automatically disabled during tournament play. Its graphics are identical to NBA Jam and NBA Jam TE, and Tim Kitzrow is on the call, though phrases such as “Boomshakalaka!” and “Monster Jam!” are replaced by “Mega Dunk!” For the most part, it plays the same as NBA Jam, only with 44 NCAA teams instead of NBA clubs.
A few adjustments were made to account for it being an NCAA title, though. Instead of four three minute quarters, games consist of two six minute halves. By default, the shot clock is set to 35 seconds instead of the NBA’s 24 ticks. The three-point line was unchanged from the distance of the NBA’s arc, but given the long threes that tend to be hoisted in arcade titles, that’s a rather minor detail. Because the likenesses and names of college players cannot be licensed, each of the 44 teams – which included a majority of the Division I schools – featured fictional players who were named after their position. Their ratings were also somewhat balanced and generic.
Of course, it didn’t have to remain that way. College Slam included the ability to edit both the names and ratings of all the players in the game. Names were restricted to seven letters, and each player had a ratings cap, so it wasn’t possible to max out their ratings at nine in each category. Faces and heights could not be edited however, so if you were looking to add real college players to the game in place of the generic ones, you’d have to make do replacing the players with the most appropriate ratings caps. It was still a great feature though, and as with other NCAA licensed games, it’s better than being stuck with generic placeholders.
Unlike NBA Jam, College Slam allowed teams with the ball to call a timeout when the game was paused. This allowed substitutions to be made during each half, which was crucial as the game featured the same injury level mechanic as NBA Jam TE. As such, the CPU would also call timeout, and sub in new players accordingly. Without the quarter breaks featured in NBA Jam, it was a necessary addition that prevented gameplay from becoming sluggish as players took damage from all the shoving. Little details like that also prevented the game from feeling like too much of a lazy re-skin of NBA Jam, but apart from that, gameplay was admittedly largely the same.
To that end, College Slam can end up feeling a bit repetitive with AI that can be very cheap, very much like NBA Jam and NBA Jam Tournament Edition. It’s still a lot of fun and holds up quite well, but as I’ve said in other retrospective articles, old school arcade basketball games do show their age somewhat with rubber band AI, and very basic tactics that can be repeated over and over again. College Slam also seems to have a weird bug as the CPU’s speed when using turbo is much faster than the boost granted to the user. It’s virtually impossible to catch up to them when they trigger it, so you better be quick about dropping back or getting the steal.
Commendably, Iguana didn’t just stick with the basic tournament ladder used in NBA Jam. In addition to head-to-head exhibition play, gamers could choose from a Season Match-Up mode that determined the tournament brackets, a Semi-Finals mode that began with the Final Four, and Tournament Time, which featured the Sweet Sixteen. Obviously, it wasn’t as deep as the modes in EA Sports’ March Madness series, or the College Hoops series by Visual Concepts, but it was more than what gamers had come to expect from arcade basketball games of the era. Again, it demonstrates that Iguana wanted to do a little more than just re-skin NBA Jam with the NCAA license.
With all that being said, the game doesn’t have quite the same appeal as NBA Jam. Even with the ability to edit the generic players, it’s not as exciting as being able to take control of all the stars and well-known players of the NBA. The game’s limited availability – a result of NCAA licensed games being exclusive to North America – also hurt its popularity, and obviously contributed to its relative obscurity compared to the notoriety of NBA Jam. Gamers who prefer NCAA basketball to the NBA might find it more exciting, though it should be noted that the University of Tennessee, the University of Notre Dame, and Mississippi State University are all absent.
Finally, there are a few secret teams, though they’re nothing like NBA Jam’s selection of celebrities and legends. All in all, despite sharing its mechanics, it’s a slightly more serious take on arcade hoops than NBA Jam, which is an interesting twist. The music and presentation also stand out as being very reminiscent of college basketball, further differentiating it from the NBA titles. Looking back, it’s another game that I wish had been readily available worldwide. It may not have had the widespread appeal of NBA Jam, and I personally prefer a Monster Jam to a Mega Dunk, but it’s fair to say that both games were, in their own way, on fire.