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Wayback Wednesday: The Original NBA Jam

NBA Jam Arcade 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 original NBA Jam with an overdue retrospective.

It occurred to me that although I’ve been running these Wayback Wednesday features since 2015, I’ve yet to cover the original NBA Jam, released by Midway in 1993. I’ve talked a lot about its sequel, NBA Jam Tournament Edition, and even covered its spiritual predecessor, Arch Rivals, but I haven’t profiled the famous game that tipped off an iconic series (and indeed, an entire subgenre of basketball gaming). That’s partly because NBA Jam TE is one of my all-time favourite games, but it’s about time that I fill in the gaps and talk about the original.

As an undisputed classic, it’s difficult to say anything about NBA Jam that someone else hasn’t already said. However, it’s too fun, too amazing, and simply too important in the history of basketball gaming for me not to discuss it in a Wayback Wednesday feature. It brought us Fire, shattered backboards, and the legendary commentary of Tim Kitzrow…it’s NBA Jam! Let’s take a look back…way back…

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t know what NBA Jam is all about, but for the sake of a comprehensive retrospective, let’s recap. NBA Jam’s gameplay is comprised of two-on-two basketball, played at a fast pace and with superhuman high-flying dunks. There are no fouls, and the ball can’t go out of bounds. The only rules enforced are the twenty-four second shot clock and goaltending, and the latter can be avoided with Jam’s most famous mechanic: On Fire. Catching fire is achieved by making three baskets without letting your opponent score; a player On Fire literally scorches the nets with more accurate shots, has unlimited turbo, and can goaltend.

Hakeem Olajuwon On Fire

This fun but obviously wild and wacky take on basketball was originally released in arcades, which is how the subgenre of hoops gaming it pioneered came to be known as “arcade”. The funny thing is that NBA Jam, the brainchild of Mark Turmell, was originally pitched as a more realistic basketball game. If you go back and watch the license pitch video that Midway put together for the NBA’s consideration, the word “realism” is mentioned along with “simulation”, and the dunks are far more subdued than in the final product. Interestingly, it also mentions cuts to different camera angles on dunks and a first person view, features that didn’t make the finished game.

Michael Jordan didn’t make the finished product either (and Charles Barkley would later be removed), but apart from that, a lot of what we can see in the pitch video did come to fruition. The scaling technology that allows players to get bigger or smaller as they move closer to or further away from the camera, was a signature part of NBA Jam’s aesthetic. Play-by-play commentary was provided by Tim Kitzrow, whose excited cries of “Boomshakalaka!” and “He’s On Fire!” are not only fondly recalled by basketball gamers who grew up with NBA Jam, but became part of pop culture. The NBA granted Midway use of their license, and the iconic series was born.

Something that NBA Jam doesn’t get enough credit for is how much of a technical marvel it was. The aforementioned scaling tech was very smooth, and effective in creating a three-dimensional feel in a 2D environment. Just as Ed Boon and the Mortal Kombat developers made use of digitised actors, the NBA Jam team utilised the talents of Willie “Air” Morris in their motion capture. The quality of the graphics and animations therefore stood out at the time, and still hold up well today. Although the home ports aren’t quite as visually impressive, they’re still great versions in their own right. The arcade version, meanwhile, made record profits for Midway.

Scottie Pippen dunks in NBA Jam (Arcade)

It’s not surprising, as turning the game into a fast-paced, stylised take on basketball was absolutely the right call. It made Jam stand out from other NBA licensed titles, and pioneered a style of gameplay that was enjoyable for hardcore hoop heads and casual fans alike. Not only was it easy to pick up and play, but it’s also stood the test of time. While a lot of the sim-oriented titles from the early days of basketball gaming haven’t aged that well, the original NBA Jam is still fun to play, even today. It took what worked in Arch Rivals and delivered a better experience, while turning up the excitement and fun with insane dunks. On top of everything else, it was just cool.

Taking the colloquialism of someone being on fire and making a gameplay mechanic out of it was the perfect hook, and ultimately gave NBA Jam its identity. Not only is it a great visual seeing players dribbling a flaming basketball and burning up the nets, it’s also a great power-up. You have to play well at both ends on three consecutive plays to earn it, and it also goes away after making four baskets, or when an opponent scores. It’s well-balanced, and apart from the sometimes brutal comeback logic that the AI can employ, that describes NBA Jam’s gameplay in general. The balance, the responsive controls, and the simple yet challenging gameplay, are why it holds up.

As with subsequent games in the series, the NBA players in the original Jam all have their own ratings, though they’re represented by bars rather than numbers. In an era where a lot of basketball games didn’t have visible ratings or feature much in the way of discernible player differentiation – even in sim titles – NBA Jam stood out. Sure, there are some questionable ratings here and there, but in a game where you can soar into the ceiling before dunking, or dribble a burning basketball without injury, you can accept some breaks from reality. It’s interesting to look back and note some of the oddities, but it hardly ruins the fun of the game, then or now.

Shawn Kemp dribbles the basketball

The goal of the single player or co-op game was to defeat all 27 NBA teams, and be crowned champion. Progress is stored by entering your initials, mirror matches are allowed, and there are no eliminations. If you lose a game, you only need try again. Even after you beat all the teams, NBA Jam still has a lot of value as a two player game. The pace of the gameplay and the three minute quarters are ideal for quick, exciting showdowns, and as I mentioned, it can be enjoyed by hardcore basketball enthusiasts and more casual fans alike. You generally had to really like basketball to get into the sim games, but everyone could enjoy NBA Jam.

I’ve mentioned that I prefer NBA Jam Tournament Edition to the original game, and there are a few reasons for that. Tournament Edition expanded upon the experience, adding a few wrinkles that made it more interesting. For a start, TE adds more players and allows substitutions; the original’s two man rosters for every team can get a little boring. TE also added the mechanic of injuries, which introduced a new challenge and made substitutions tactical. The ratings were represented numerically, which felt a bit more precise than the bars in the original, and there were some new power-ups. Mind you, you can’t shatter the backboard in TE, so the point goes to the original there!

While I prefer NBA Jam TE for its additions and enhancements, the original game is still exceptional and just as playable today. It also set the tone for many aspects that became staples of the series, such as its secret players and power-up codes. Secret players included everyone from creator Mark Turmell to then-President Bill Clinton. The roster of secret players would grow in NBA Jam TE, though despite all of the urban legends, it never included Michael Jordan. As Mark Turmell would later recall, there were a few special versions of the arcade version of NBA Jam that included MJ and Gary Payton, but His Airness was never unlockable in the home releases.

Shaq brings the BOOMSHAKALAKA!

Other noteworthy tidbits about NBA Jam have come out over the years. In addition to complete listings of all the unlockable players and other cheat codes, Mark Turmell has admitted that as an avid fan of the Pistons, his dislike of the Chicago Bulls led him to program their players to falter in the clutch when they faced Detroit. He’s also mentioned how popular it was with NBA players, noting that Shaquille O’Neal bought two arcade machines: one for his home, and one that would get taken out on the road so that he and his Orlando Magic teammates could play it. Although Shaq could be found in the arcade version, he was removed from the home ports and NBA Jam TE.

I know I’ve already mentioned it, but I have to emphasise the impact of Tim Kitzrow’s commentary. Everything about NBA Jam’s atmosphere and aesthetic got you pumped up to play, but the commentary made those moments on the virtual hardwood all the more memorable. There’s a reason that NBA teams still call on Tim Kitzrow to come and be part of special events. His voice, delivery, and enthusiasm capture the thrill and excitement of witnessing something special in basketball. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim for the NLSC Podcast back in April, and his enthusiasm for NBA Jam is evident to this day. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I encourage you to do so!

NBA Jam has had many imitators of varying quality, but few can touch the brilliance of the original game, all these years later. A few subpar Jam games were released by Acclaim after they acquired the rights from Midway, but EA Sports released a couple of great NBA Jam games earlier this decade: the 2010 reboot and its sequel, On Fire Edition. The best releases stayed true to the original, including Midway’s own NBA Hangtime. Mark Turmell and his team had a winning formula, which is why it was imitated by a handful of knockoffs in the 90s, and later more successfully by NBA Street and NBA Playgrounds. Those titles all owe their existence to NBA Jam.

Charles Barkley in NBA Jam (Arcade)

That’s why when some younger gamers say they don’t see what the big deal is when it comes to NBA Jam, or say that they much prefer NBA Street, I have to point out that without NBA Jam, there may not be an arcade basketball genre. At the very least, it’s the game that established the template that other successful arcade hoops titles have followed, and pioneered many of the staples that they all use in some way. It all began in 1993 with the first game, and while some of their ambitious ideas from the license pitch video didn’t come to fruition, Mark Turmell and the rest of the crew at Midway created an all-time classic that, after all these years, is still on fire. Boomshakalaka!

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Detlef
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Detlef

still hopeful that you get around to doing a retrospective on NBA Hangtime in the near future!