Games time forgot: NBA Jam Tournament Edition

HE’S HEATING UP…

In keeping with this month’s Destructoid Boot Camp, it’s time to highlight a virtual recreation of athletic prowess — and given that the only non-Mario sports game I know of is NBA Jam, that’s what we’re doing.

HE’S ON FIRE!

As is the case with an increasing number of these here forgotten games, I truly hope you have played this game, if only so you’ll know what I mean when I say that NBA Jam Tournament Edition is one of the best fantasy-sports games ever made. Not only is it a simple, entertaining game in its own right, but its catchphrases, design choices, and metric asston of hidden characters make it a much more endearing and enduring title than it really has any right to be.

BOOOOOOM SHAK-A-LAKA!

Story:

Hell no.

Gameplay:

While by no means the first sports game to partner the real rules of basketball with absurdly over-the-top, fantastic powers and moves, NBA Jam did it best. It perfectly blends legitimate basketball techniques (the give and go is always useful) with fourth-wall-breaking turbo powers, spectacular dunks, and the ability to catch “on fire.”

Consider, for example, the fact that I can still, even today, attend high school or college basketball games and hear one or two people shout “HE’S HEATING UP” when the same player sinks a couple of balls in a row, and “HE’S ON FIRE” when he does it a third time. While the phrase “HE’S ON FIRE” doesn’t necessarily have the ability to become as widely used and enjoyed as something like “C-C-C-COMBO BREAKERRRRRR” amongst the Interweb community (rarely does anyone ever do one good thing in an online forum, much less three good things in a row), it’s still instantly recognizable.

At the risk of robbing Chad of a future Memory Card moment, one of my most pleasurable gaming memories from my childhood consisted of the first time I ever shattered a backboard in NBA Jam. I didn’t even know it was possible to shatter the thing, and — though board-shattering is determined almost entirely by luck — I felt like the biggest badass on the planet for doing it (especially considering I was playing as John Stockton at the time). The Marv Albert-esque announcer’s cry of “BOOOOM SHAK-A-LAKA” made it that much better.

The game’s fantastic aspects just made the overall experience incredibly rewarding: pleasure didn’t just come from passing to your teammate eighteen times before finally charging forward and slam dunking it, but in the little, videogame-centric changes which added a sense of legitimate, unbridled fun to the proceedings. The way your shoes glowed red or yellow when you activated turbo. The way cameras flashed in the audience when you jumped fifty feet in the air to slam-dunk it. The way you could mericlessly shove anyone, friend or foe, without getting a penalty:

There was just enough “real” basketball stuff like the shot clock or goaltending to satisfy those players who wanted to play a semi-legitimate game of virtual hoops, but the over-the-top stuff really made NBA Jam a classic in the eyes of many gamers — myself included.

Now, one might ask why I chose NBA Jam Tournament Edition over regular ol’ NBA Jam. My reason for this is a simple one: bonus characters. Midway, for reasons I shall never understand, actually went through the trouble of including all of the following real personalities as unlockable players in NBA Jam TE:

Bill Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Al Gore

Prince Charles

Heavy D

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

The Phoenix Suns Gorilla

The Charlotte Hornet

Jazzy Jeff

All three Beastie Boys

That’s right — any player, with the right cheat codes, could create a Fresh Prince/Real Prince duo and play them against Bill Clinton and Adam Yauch. Witness the following Clintons/Bulls match, and dream of a time where sports games had the good graces not to take themselves seriously:

Why you’re probably not playing it:

Insert your own angry, anti-Madden comment here, but we’ve seen a definite move away from fantasy-realistic sports titles like Jam toward more naturalistic fare. NBA Jam still stands rooted firmly in the collective gamer memory, but as that and nothing more: basketball games, as of late, have been much more realistic and, therefore, boring. NBA Showtime was decent, but one can’t help but play it and long for the days of Jam.

I’m tempted to play the angry retro gamer card and say that 3D cannot possibly recreate the over-the-top joys of NBA Jam‘s two-dimensional mayhem, but that’s a load of crap: NFL Blitz did the same thing with football, and it worked beautifully. I can see no reason why we shouldn’t be getting Slam Dunkz or Three Pointerz or Something Basketball-Related Ending in the Letter Z coming to an arcade or console near us: what’s the holdup, Midway? And don’t act like NBA Ballers is the natural iteration of the Jam series. Ballers sucks.

Anthony Burch