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 another look back at one of my favourite arcade basketball games, NBA Jam Tournament Edition.
When you talk about titles that older basketball gamers are nostalgic for, NBA Jam will invariably be one of the most popular games to come up. It basically set the standard for what came to be known as arcade basketball games, with its over-the-top, high-flying dunks, relaxed approach to the rules of the sport, and simple gameplay. The original NBA Jam was a hit in arcades and with its home ports, appealing to basketball enthusiasts and more casual fans alike. It’s since spawned sequels, spiritual successors, and more than a couple of imitators with varying degrees of quality.
The original game is considered a classic and for good reason, but personally, I’ve always preferred its sequel, NBA Jam Tournament Edition. It’s a game I looked back at in the second ever Wayback Wednesday feature, around this time two years ago. Back then, I provided a few off-the-cuff thoughts on the game over some footage I’d been sitting on for a few years. I enjoyed doing that and it was a fun way to start getting into creating some video content, but I’ve always wanted to revisit NBA Jam Tournament Edition with a more fleshed out retrospective. That’s what I’m doing today, so let’s take a look back…way back…
As I noted in my previous feature, I primarily played the PC version of NBA Jam Tournament Edition. I did rent and eventually buy the Super Nintendo version as well, but on the whole, I spent a lot more time playing the game on PC. Comparing the two versions, it’s hard to say which is better. The PC port is arguably buggier, as there are some issues with clipping and collision detection, phantom blocks and deflections, and quirky animations for really tall players such as Shawn Bradley and Rik Smits. It’s also missing the Practice mode present in the SNES release. It does have CD quality audio though, crisper graphics, and updated rosters and logos.
Other than that however, the two versions are basically the same. It’s the same fun arcade basketball experience as the original NBA Jam, but I would have to agree with the game’s tagline: in NBA Jam Tournament Edition, Midway pumped up the jam. In many respects, the gameplay was basically the same as the original Jam: two-on-two with three minute quarters, no fouls, enjoyably ridiculous dunks, and the ability to become “On Fire” after making three consecutive baskets without the opponent scoring. There were improvements and additions here and there that made NBA Jam TE superior in my view, enhancing an already great formula with more good ideas.
First of all, there was the addition of a third player for each squad, with further players that could be unlocked upon defeating all 27 NBA teams. More players meant different lineup combinations, and more favourites to choose from. There was also a need to substitute players during the games, as knocking players to the floor now increased their injury level. The more injured a player became, the slower they ran and the worse they performed, so you needed to keep your players fresh for the fourth quarter. Player ratings were now represented as numbers rather than bars, which was clearer and made it much easier to quickly compare attributes.
There were also other new features like the ability to change the length of the shot clock, powerups such as the ability to dunk from anywhere or immediately catch and stay on fire longer, and randomly appearing hot spots that made baskets count for extra points. These modifiers could be turned on and off, and were disabled across the board when “Tournament Mode” was enabled. Personally, I preferred to play without those modifiers, but they could be a fun way to change things up every now and again. With updated and expanded rosters, some new mechanics, and the same basic gameplay, NBA Jam Tournament Edition improved admirably upon its predecessor.
Of course, it wasn’t all good news. It was no longer possible to shatter the backboard, though the rim can get temporarily bent out of shape in the SNES version. There also wasn’t any drastic change to the artificial intelligence. Much like the original game, NBA Jam Tournament Edition features “rubber band AI” that can be brutally cheap, even without the Computer Assistance setting enabled. In fact, that setting is only in the game so that the user can pull the same cheap tricks as the AI, as it will always be able to do so. The gameplay can become a little repetitive, though once you finished the tournament there was definitely replay value as a multiplayer game.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t any replay value in terms of the single player experience, though. That came in the form of the secret characters, which began showing up at random when you kept playing with the same initials after defeating all 27 NBA teams and unlockingthe expanded rosters. I remember how surprised I was when I entered my initials and played a game against the CPU after completing the tournament, only to see a secret character show up on the other team. You can also play with those mascots, producers, celebrities, and other secret characters yourself, through the use of codes entered on the user initials screen.
Secret characters have become a staple of the NBA Jam games, and they represent an aspect of gaming that has become a relic of the era. Although lists of characters and codes to unlock them were published, the information wasn’t as readily available as it is today. Indeed, their presence in the games also came as something of a surprise at first. They’re somewhat comparable to the fatalities in the original Mortal Kombat, not coincidentally another game from Midway. You were genuinely surprised when you first saw them, and you couldn’t wait to tell your friends when you discovered the secret. To that end, they also became the subject of many myths and rumours.
Could you unlock Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, or Charles Barkley? No, but there were rare arcade cabinets that included MJ, and Barkley was in Version 1.0 of the original NBA Jam. That didn’t stop us speculating though, and we probably all knew a kid who made up some story about how to unlock them, and insisted it was true. There is actually an element of truth as far as Shaq is concerned, too. As The Cutting Room Floor has revealed, there’s leftover data for him that’s almost fully intact. Speaking of info from TCRF, most of the secret characters also have identical ratings, with Mark Turmell and Jay Moon being the lone exceptions.
I also have to mention the various cheats that were available in both the PC and SNES versions of NBA Jam Tournament Edition. A lot of them matched the boosts granted by the powerups, only they lasted for an entire game. All these years later, I still remember the “dunk from anywhere” cheat on SNES: Left, Right, A, B, B, A. As is often the case with cheating, they made single player gameplay boring after a while, but I remember my friends and I often used them against each other. We did have an agreement in place, though; if one of us failed to correctly punch in any codes, we’d start the game again so that we’d be on an even playing field.
It’s interesting to look back at the rosters in NBA Jam Tournament Edition, especially the PC version. Because it came along later, it swaps a few players around to reflect trades that had occurred since previous releases. Other players were dropped entirely, and replaced by someone else. New logos were added, but uniform colours generally remained unchanged. As such, the PC version includes an All-Star squad featuring players from the 1994 All-Star Game, a Rookies squad and uniform colours from the 1995 season, and a couple of transactions that occurred prior to the 1996 campaign, along with updated logos. In that regard, its content essentially spans three seasons.
A lot of the ratings are also quite puzzling. I didn’t think much of it back in the day, but in terms of representing player abilities, there are several ratings that are just flat out wrong, even accounting for the arcade approach. Players like Dino Radja and Juwan Howard have high three-point ratings in the PC version of NBA Jam TE, despite not being outside threats. In fact, there are quite a few players who have higher three-point ratings than other players who were much more adept at knocking down threes. Several other ratings are inconsistent with abilities and statistical performance, such as blocking. Robert Horry has a Clutch rating of only four!
While we’re on the subject of ratings, it’s also worth noting once again that Yinka Dare’s attributes were nerfed to almost insulting levels. Despite those low ratings, he can still be surprisingly effective. Going back to information revealed by TCRF, some players also have ratings of ten in certain categories, though the maximum rating shown in game is nine. As with the original NBA Jam, players with dunk ratings of zero can actually dunk, contrary to information shown on an in-game tips screen. Some of the ratings oddities were probably due to an effort to balance out the game and make it more fun, and ultimately, I’d say they didn’t ruin the experience.
Taking another look at differences between the platforms, the CD format allowed the PC version to feature real highlight videos at halftime and after the game. They were only short clips and the appeal quickly wore off, but at the time they were a novelty. Practice mode in the SNES version wasn’t anything special, though it could be fun to mess around in. The PC port also featured additional commentary from Tim Kitzrow, including calling out the players’ names when they went up for a dunk or layup. An NBA themed screensaver came bundled with the PC version, but I’ve never been able to install it, as it asks for a license key that I can’t seem to find anywhere.
Although there have been several fine games in the NBA Jam lineage, including the original, NBA Hangtime, and even EA Sports’ On Fire Edition, I do have a lot of nostalgia for NBA Jam TE. Along with NBA Live, my cousin and I used to play it religiously every school holidays, not only beating but playing with every team. We kept records of our stats, going so far as to note how many somersault dunks were performed! We even spent time mapping out which dunks could be performed with each rating, and whereabouts on the floor they could be triggered. Unfortunately I no longer have that spreadsheet, otherwise I’d definitely put it up in our Wiki.
Putting my nostalgia aside and trying to be objective as possible, I don’t think that I could fairly say that NBA Jam Tournament Edition is the best arcade basketball game. At the very least, though, it’s up there as one of the best. Whether you want to call it a sequel, a special edition, or maybe an updated re-release, it’s a worthy successor to the groundbreaking original game. With its rubber band AI and lone tournament mode, there are some aspects that haven’t aged as well, but I still enjoy breaking it out from time to time to play through a tournament, and see all those secret characters. I know many prefer the original, but for me, it’s all about NBA Jam Tournament Edition.