Retrospective: NBA Jam

Here at Silicon Sasquatch, we feel that old games deserve some love too. From time to time, we want to look back at games that have made a big impact — especially when a new version of an old favorite is scheduled to be released. It is in that context that we present to you another Retrospective article, this time on arcade and 16-bit classic NBA Jam.

It's no secret that I am a sports guy. Many times, though, sports games are commodities: The franchises develop a lineage (à la Madden NFL) while the details on individual entries from each year are often forgotten.

NBA Jam is different. It may not be the first arcade sports game, or even the first arcade basketball game, but it was one of the first blockbuster arcade games, and it's one that still resounds in the gaming community to this day. It's also one of the few sports games that holds just as much nostalgia for nerds as it does for jocks. Most importantly, it's still fun — and a new one is on the way.

Developed by Midway, the original NBA Jam was a skunkworks project that eventually earned more than $1 billion in revenue in the arcades. Home ports for the Super NES and Genesis followed, as did sequels, spin-offs (like NBA Hangtime and NBA Showtime) and games inspired by the series (EA's last-gen NBA Street titles, for one).

The version of NBA Jam on home consoles is what I'm most familiar with. My childhood best friends had copies of the Sega Genesis version of the game, and many an afternoon was whiled away throwing down dunks and trying to get on fire. The game's simplified interpretation of NBA rules, pared-down 2 on 2 gameplay, and flashy emphasis on big slam dunks and close games were really attractive and addictive, even to elementary school kids.

One of the real highlights of that time was trying to find all the cheat codes and secret characters in the game. Remember, this was a time before the Internet — and video game magazines were not something your average 3rd or 4th grader read on a regular basis. Codes passed like rumors through the schoolyard, and it's only now that I realize who that P-Funk guy was they put into the game. Of course, the tag team of Bill Clinton and Al Gore was also something special.

The amazing thing is that, even now, the game holds up. Fellow Sasquatch editor Nick and I have put some time into the NBA Jam cabinet at Ground Kontrol, and playing a full 4-player matchup is still great fun. It's simple enough to learn and strategize that within one quarter of a game I was able to help Nick drop 3-pointers and dunk on fools. We've even discussed heading down there just for NBA Jam.

That's part of the reason why I'm so excited for EA Sports' renewal of NBA Jam due out this fall: the gameplay still holds up. As much as I love the old sprites and using the classic lineups from 1993, I believe that an update featuring better graphics and today's stars will help capture a younger generation. Regardless, the old version will live on in arcades and emulators, so if EA royally screws it up, we'll always have Midway's classic.