Games time forgot: Jordan vs Bird: One on One

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I’m going to be completely honest: I don’t actually know if this game is any good. I played the hell out of it when I was a child — it was the second videogame I ever got — and I enjoyed it then, but (A) back then I also thought the Widget game was really awesome, and (B) I can’t get a working NOT rom to test the game out with my older, more cynical eyes.

You’ll forgive me, then, if my description of Jordan vs Bird: One on One is a little heavier on the nostalgia/lighter on objective critique than usual.

Still, as one of the first ever basketball games to hit the NES, Jordan vs Bird is worthy of discussion no matter how important it was to my personal upbringing.

Hit the jump for the rundown.


Michael Jordan and Larry Bird are really, really bored and decide to compete against each other in roughly every variation of half-court basketball known to man. Whether we’re talking a straight game of hoops, three-pointer and dunk contests, or HORSE, Bird and Jordan are ready to slam and jam to prove their worth.


God, I remember the music so vividly. I wasted hours upon hours of my childhood with my dad, playing this game in what was to later become my room. As the NES/Super Mario Bros combination was the first thing my parents ever got me, I think they assumed it’d be a cute little diversion from which I could eventually springboard into real hobbies, like sports. My dad’s purchase of Jordan vs Bird: One on One was probably meant to facilitate this end by bridging the world of the virtual and the real.

And make no mistake; at the time, this was as realistic a basketball game you could get on an NES. Driven by the star power of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, One on One was the basketball game to own. Any other b-ball videogames, regardless of how much better they might have been, obviously didn’t represent the real sport of basketball as well as a videogame with two of its greatest athletes could.

The game certainly attempted to be realistic; before the time of monster jams and “he’s heating up,” Jordan vs Bird actually tried its darndest to recreate one-on-one b-ball as well as possible. I’m referring here to the multitude of penalties either player could be slapped with at any given time: from charging to double-dribbling to travelling, I heard the virtual blow of an angry referee’s whistle more than a few times. That said, I never understood the logic behind such penalty calls. How the hell could I be travelling? There’s no dribble button, for God’s sake! I’m at least halfway sure the programmers made the penalty rules more or less random — about half the time I tried to cover Jordan, ithe game would accuse me of charging for no reason whatsoever.

Technical weirdness aside, the game was surprisingly substantial for its time. In essence, all I really needed from the game came from the promise of its title: I want Jordan, I want Bird, and I want to play them against each other. That’s all. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, to find that I could engage on three-pointer and dunk contests on my own, or with a competitor (AI or human-controlled).

These extra events were flawed in their own ways, of course . No matter how well I performed a huge dunk as Michael Jordan, the table of digital judges never seemed to think I did it perfectly; hitting the dunk button a thousand of a second before or after the programmers arbitrarily decided I was supposed to often led to some scores in the 6-7 range. In all my time playing the game, I never scored a perfect dunk. Ever.

Ultimately, though, I had so much fun with Jordan vs Bird that I my parents’ plan backfired; rather than wanting to drop the NES controller and experience “real” basketball, I remained perfectly content with the virtual version of the sport. I no longer needed real physical activity, because the videogames were so much more fun.

I’m still pretty much like that.

Why you’re probably not playing it:

Did you hear what I said about the penalties and stuff? Just watching the above embedded video makes me surprised that I wasn’t more irritated with the game back when I played it. A b-ball game should be about playing b-ball, not stopping and starting the game every two seconds just because my pixel touched your pixel.

Jordan vs Bird is really just an early stage in the evolution of the basketball game; nothing more, nothing less. You can see their attempts to make a completely faithful adaptation of the sport, along with their numerous compromises to make it slightly more entertaining and playable. It was great when I was four or five, but I can’t honestly tell whether it would still hold up today; as I said, I can’t NOT emulate it to check.

If you’re really interested in the game purely for its historical value, check it out. If you’re looking for a legitimately entertaining basketball title, give it a pass and go play NBA Jam instead. As for me, I’m perfectly content to just listen to the game’s music and think back to a time when things were simpler and happier and dumber.

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Anthony Burch
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