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 Space Jam video game.
Happy 58th Birthday to my all-time favourite player, Michael Jordan! You know, it kind of blows my mind that I’m now older than MJ was when he won his final title with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Appropriately enough, that was 23 years ago; a fact that’s also difficult to wrap my head around! In any case, I figured that since it is His Airness’ birthday today, it only makes sense to cover something related to him. The problem is that I’ve already covered The Jordan Challenge (from several angles, too), as well as Michael Jordan in Flight, his history in games, and his comeback in 1995.
What else is there? Well, how about the Space Jam video game? Yes, there was a lot of merchandise related to Space Jam when it came out, and like so many movies in the 90s, there was a video game tie-in for PC, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn. I didn’t actually play it back in the day, but I’ve since added it to my collection. We got a real jam going down, so let’s take it into overtime…I mean, let’s take a look back…way back…
I suppose before I talk about the video game, I should touch on Space Jam itself. As I’m sure you’re aware, Space Jam teams Michael Jordan up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes cast. The premise is that aliens are going to enslave the tunes if they defeat them in a game of basketball, and to ensure that they do, they magically steal the basketball abilities of Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Shawn Bradley, and Muggsy Bogues. Bugs Bunny and the gang call on MJ – at the time retired from the NBA and playing baseball – to help them win, and get the players’ skills back. MJ’s adventures lead him to return to the Chicago Bulls.
It’s a silly, wacky riff on MJ’s first retirement, baseball career, and comeback…and I still love it! Over the years, it’s become fashionable to bash Space Jam, especially as some fans and critics didn’t care for it. It’s by no means a cinematic masterpiece, but it wasn’t trying to be. It was a kid’s film that made light-hearted fun of MJ’s baseball career and his decision to return to basketball, while bringing the Looney Tunes back to the big screen. Most people around my age enjoyed it for what it was, especially those of us who were big basketball fans. It has some good jokes (Bugs’ “Mickey Mouse organisation” jab still holds up) and overall, Space Jam was harmless fun.
With that being said, how do you take a movie like Space Jam and turn it into a video game? Well, obviously there’s a game of basketball involved: the showdown between the Tune Squad featuring Michael Jordan, and the Monstars. To that end, does that mean the Space Jam video game is basically comprised of just one match? Well, yes and no. Play Game is just one game; the one from the film. Interestingly, you can play as either the Tune Squad or the Monstars in that mode. There’s also the Intergalactic Tournament, where the object is to win five games. In tournament play, Player 1 is always the Tune Squad, whereas Player 2 can play co-op, or control the Monstars.
In Play Game, you’re able to select which characters you want to take to the court with. If you’re playing as the Tune Squad, that includes Michael Jordan himself. As in Michael Jordan in Flight, you can actually choose not to play with him, but I don’t know why you’d do that; especially given that Space Jam was the only video game he officially appeared in during that era! Each player has a rating out of three basketballs in Speed, Shooting, and Rebounds, with MJ being the only “perfect” player. You can make substitutions between quarters, theoretically for strategic purposes. Realistically though, you’ll likely only ever swap characters in and out for the sake of variety.
Intergalactic Tournament changes things up. You pick a captain, and two teammates for each game. Michael Jordan isn’t available this time, which is more of a challenge, but also lessens the appeal. After each game, the two teammates from the Tune Squad are dropped, and you must choose new ones. As such, it’s best not to start out with all the best characters, or else you’ll be at a disadvantage later. The Monstars keep the same players throughout the Tournament, reflecting how they never substituted during the movie whereas the Tune Squad did. The Intergalactic Tournament adds some replay value, but even so, you can finish the game within a couple of hours.
Let’s talk about the actual basketball video game experience in Space Jam. It’s not spectacular or revolutionary, but it’s actually solid. The game was developed by Sculptured Software, the company behind the game known as NCAA Basketball, World League Basketball, and Super Dunk Shot. Gameplay is very NBA Jam-like, though Space Jam includes both 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 action. The controls are basic, with a sprint button, a shoot button that jumps for rebounds and blocks on defense, a pass button that also steals (or shoves with sprint), and a switch button. Separate pass and switch buttons are a pet peeve of mine, but as usual, you do get used to it.
Ironically, most of the dunks aren’t as cartoonish as the ones in NBA Jam. It’s not as well-balanced as NBA Jam either, as it’s harder to block and rebound. That’s far from uncommon, as most NBA Jam clones over the years have neglected defense. Space Jam is no exception here, making it a wild shootout where both teams can easily score over 100. Amusingly, the scoreboard isn’t equipped to handle this as it only displays two digits, so scores roll past zero again after 99 (though the total is correctly tallied). These aesthetics match the film, in which the Tune Squad wins 78-77. It just doesn’t account for the frequently inflated scores, even on the default three minute quarters.
Apart from quirks like that, it’s actually not bad. I’ve played much worse basketball games, both arcade and sim. It’s not brilliant, but it’s enjoyable. It also had some very good animations that capture the Looney Tunes style, from their antics on the player select screen to how they play on the court. Space Jam the video game looks a lot like Space Jam the movie, and the animations don’t get in the way of fluid gameplay. It’s a competent basketball video game to say the very least, and captures the spirit of Space Jam quite well. It doesn’t measure up to the original NBA Jam games by Midway, but it’s comparable to Looney Tunes B-Ball, also developed by Sculptured Software.
Each character also has one special move to discover. For example, MJ can stretch his arm out, as he did at the climax of Space Jam to score the gamewinning bucket. There aren’t any power-up mechanics in the style of NBA Jam’s Fire, though there are skill boosts (more on those in a moment). There’s also a commentator, and while he’s fairly repetitive, he does have some unique lines for each character. Some of them feature quality puns, such as referring to Daffy and Foghorn Leghorn as “shooting fowls” (get it?!?). He’s no Tim Kitzrow, but it contributes to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, if you do want to turn the commentary off, you have to disable all sound effects.
Speaking of options, there aren’t a plethora of them, but enough to customise the game. In addition to switching sound effects and music on and off, there are also settings for difficulty (Easy, Medium, and Hard), quarter lengths (1-5 minutes), and whether or not you want goaltending to be called. As I alluded to before, you can choose either 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 for Play Game, but the Intergalactic Tournament is always 3-on-3. There’s also a cheats menu, accessed by holding all of the shoulder buttons and selecting Game Options. It allows you to change the sizes of all the characters, modify the gravity, and choose one of eight different courts to play on.
Various mini-games also help to pad out the gameplay, and set it apart from your average arcade basketball title. There are a couple of plot-based mini-games, such as retrieving items from MJ’s house before the game tips off, and collecting bottles of “Michael’s Secret Stuff” at halftime, both of which mirror scenes from the movie. In between quarters, there are optional mini-games to earn boosts: Shoot Out (a drill with Yosemite Sam to boost shooting), Hall of Hijinx (a target-based game with Lola Bunny to boost rebounding), and Space Race (a race through an obstacle course to boost speed). These mini-games can be disabled in the Game Options if you prefer.
If you’re playing head-to-head with another player, you’ll both take part in the mini-games, though you won’t get the Tune Squad games if no one is controlling them. One player will try to complete the objectives for the Looney Tunes, while the other player will be attempting to impede their efforts. All things considered, the game’s depth and replay value is probably in the two player experience, and perhaps where the most fun can be had. The mini-games are something different though, and add some semblance of the movie’s plot. As I noted however, you can finish the whole game in less than two hours. By 1996, that wasn’t enough to justify paying recommend retail price.
Undoubtedly, the lack of depth heavily contributed to the game’s low scores and negative reputation. I do disagree with GameSpot’s review, which stated that it “fails miserably in every category”, because there’s merit to the gameplay and the graphics are very good for the era. However, there’s no denying that there isn’t very much to the game, and the gameplay admittedly isn’t remarkably innovative, nor the best that the genre has seen. It’s not horrible, but it wasn’t worth the same price as an NBA Jam or NBA Live game from that era. I understand the low scores, but the harsh reviews do somewhat undersell the game’s competence, and the fun that can be had with it.
In that regard, one might say it’s another way that Space Jam the video game is a lot like Space Jam the movie: hardly brilliant, but still enjoyable. Just as I find Chuck Jones’ appraisal of the film to be snobby (though his work on Looney Tunes did give him the right to feel that way), I’d suggest that reviews of the Space Jam video game didn’t give enough credit where it was due. I will agree that there wasn’t enough to it, though. Frankly, that was always going to be a drawback when basing a basketball video game on a film in which only one game of hoops was played. One might argue it was a cheap cash grab, but it’s far superior to many cash grab movie tie-in games.
If nothing else, between Chaos in the Windy City in 1994 and his return as a Legend in NBA Live 2000, Space Jam was the only video game to officially feature Michael Jordan. That alone makes it historically significant. Playing it all these years later, I don’t feel like I missed out on too much, especially as it can be completed so quickly. Nevertheless, I view it in a similar light to the film: enjoyable for what it is. The film holds up better because you do expect more out of a video game, but it’s a bit better than most reviews would lead you to believe. It was a fun addition to my collection, and remains an interesting part of Michael Jordan’s history on the virtual hardwood.