Nintendo Nostalgic: ‘NBA Jam’ Remains Basketball’s Most Outrageous Video Game
When it comes to sports, we like our basketballs on fire, long-range threes to drop when we’re heating up and the players to violently shove each other to the ground in order to get a steal. Since we’re not getting that in real life (OK, maybe the latter), we love our Nintendo sports games to handle it. And there is none better at it than NBA Jam.
Because sometimes you need to see unlikely feats like full-court shots at the buzzer, an impossible feat for the arms of most any human being, to remind you that we could always go a little higher than usual;. And if there’s one thing that we like, it’s video games when we’re higher than usual.
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In this Nintendo Nostalgic, we look back on the greatest arcade basketball game ever made, the one that made the words “He’s on fire!” a household phrase instead of the just that time your father shot your brother with a Roman candle on the Fourth.
Developed by Midway in 1993, NBA Jam was the big arcade release of the year. Its premise was simple: choose a duo from any 1993/94 NBA team, put them on court, and bring them to glory in two-on-two duels with opposing teams.
With the smaller line-ups, there wasn’t much room for realism, but there didn’t need to be. Jam’s gameplay was all about fun, demanding you beat your opponents with outrageous 12-foot dunks, ludicrous three-pointers and other insane tricks. And if none of those worked, you could just shove ‘em off the court. Anything goes!
The controls were smooth and the shooting felt right. Against a good player, games ebbed and flowed just like real basketball.
Add the real-life rosters, allowing you to play as Pippen, Charles Barkley, and even a rookie Shaq, and it was a hoop dream come true.
Being largely confined to noisy arcade halls, NBA Jam didn’t really need to be a big audio experience. On the most part it’s pretty average, with its crowd and other incidental noises sounding pretty rough compared to today’s standards.
However, none of these mattered anyway, because the commentary was the big sell. With every incredulous act of skill you pulled off, you had a commentator sound-biting their astonishment. The more ridiculous you got, the more ridiculous they got -- and it pushed the game’s fun factor through the roof, especially in two-player.
If a game wants to be larger-than-life, then it needs to look larger-than-life. And NBA Jam definitely checks that box.
Aside from the vivid court graphics, Jam’s digitized player sprites are defined enough to tell the stars apart, and goofy enough to keep the humor flowing. Shoving a rival as they go flying across the court, limbs flailing, never stops being funny. And it’s not even among the game’s best visual moments.
Those are saved for the slam dunks you inflict on your opponent as you bear down on the basket. Watch in awe as your player flings himself into the sky like a rocket, ball blazing, before slamming that ball home. Nothing in this game looks or feels better.
No game is complete without Easter eggs, and NBA Jam was famous for them. Aside from its notorious big-head mode, there was a whole bunch of hidden celebrities to unlock and unleash. The Tournament Edition version of the game featured NBA mascots among its cameos, and if you knew the right codes, you could even play as Will Smith or Bill Clinton! You know, just before his fall from grace. Ah, the early '90s... such an innocent time.
Innocent or otherwise, NBA Jam is still damn good fun and a genuine arcade classic.