The apex of my experience in an arcade was around the mid-1990s, back when arcades were still a thing and still superior to any home console. A trip to the arcade coincided with a trip to the mall, so a few dollars for me kept me out of trouble while my parents shopped. It wasn’t the classic era of arcades when the boom featured some of the most iconic games ever, such as Pac-Man, or more technological achievements like Dragon’s Lair. No, easily the biggest games to hit around that time were Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Granted, those games were still huge hits, albeit Mortal Kombat had much more graphic content, but they were still the kings of the arcade. Until 1993 when arcades received my favorite arcade game of all-time: NBA Jam.
Ironically, NBA Jam wasn’t really an original idea, as the 2-on-2 arcade style of play was done a few years before in Arch Rivals. But instead of generic names and abilities, the players in NBA Jam were from actual NBA franchises and were actual NBA players. The action was amplified even more to feature arcade-style dunks and gameplay. No fouls, no free throws, just dazzle, dunks, and flaming basketballs. The original would spawn a (much superior) sequel that featured more players per team for better matchups, more attributes for each player, more cheat codes, and briefly featured Mortal Kombat fighters as hidden players. The game was then frequently updated with newer graphics and rosters, but never strongly deviated from the original concept, which proved so popular that games from other sports were created, such as the popular football version, NFL Blitz, the not-so-popular NHL version, 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge, and the not quite suited for the genre baseball version, MLB Slugfest (home consoles only).
But what specifically led to the success of this sports based juggernaut? Part of the draw was the use of actual NBA teams and players. The aforementioned Arch Rivals had a handful of a made up players who possessed different looks and attributes, but they were all original creations for the game, same for the teams. The first NBA licensed game was Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs in 1989, so licensed games were still pretty new by the time NBA Jam surfaced. The NBA even had reservations in making NBA Jam the first licensed coin-operated game as they didn’t want the league associated with some of the “seedy” places that featured arcade cabinets (like THAT was their biggest worry). Picking your favorite NBA team/player and pitting them against another team in a high-flying, loud, and spectacular contest of basketball was an exhilarating experience for only a few quarters. NBA Jam proved to be such a hit that it is the highest-grossing sports arcade game ever and the fifth highest grossing arcade game ever. It made over a billion dollars during its initial arcade run, which was three times as much as Jurassic Park made in theaters.
NBA Jam also perfected the arcade style of gameplay that was replicated with the future iterations, which was also still pretty novel for a sports game in the early 1990s. Sports games mimicked the simulation-style of gameplay that was technically the only version possible until then. The straight-laced Double Dribble won over fans when it reached the NES in 1987 for being a competent version of an actual basketball game. The Madden series was around though still in its infancy, same with EA’s NHL series. NBA Jam took a distinct direction away from the simulation style of play into something more suited for arcades. Games were quick, loud, ostentatious, and moderately cheap. Players competed using their initials and birthday as their unique player identifier and were challenged to climb the cabinet’s leaderboard or take on all challengers. Just like other competition heavy arcade games like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam provided a battleground for arcade supremacy.
Though introduced in the original game, the strategy of selection was increased exponentially with the follow-up, NBA Jam Tournament Edition. Teams then featured three players each (with more available after beating all 27 teams), so not only was there a decision process in selecting a team, but also with matching up against an opponent using a particular combination of players. Naturally there are teams that are better than others (no one is picking the Mavericks), same with SF II and MK that have better fighters, but the sequel allowed for more dynamic matchups. In the original, if your opponent selected a team that didn’t suit your players, there was no solution. With NBA Jam T.E., halftime allowed for a change to trot out a better strategy to combat your opponents or even to switch up your own strategy. A high-flying exhibition in the first half might change to a three-point duel in the second half. With more player attributes and more players per team, the follow-up took the original formula and made it even better.
Since 1993 there have been around a dozen games that use the 2-on-2 arcade style of basketball, from ones with NBA Jam in the title to slight deviations of it. While the newer versions provide a new coat of paint, new teams and rosters, plus new modes or cheats, they never really quite capture the gravitational pull that I experience every time I see an NBA Jam arcade machine (granted I prefer NBA Jam T.E. for the expanded rosters). If Newton had developed an equation for gravity as it relates to arcade games, there is just something unique about NBA Jam that pulls me towards it like free-floating space garbage more than any other arcade game.
NBA Jam was one of the first games I had for the Sega Genesis when it was available on home consoles, but inevitably I find that I always return to the comforting bosom of the arcade version. The graphics are cleaner, the sounds are more electric, the entire presentation is much more goosebump-inducing than a reductive 16-bit version, even if it is from the comfort of our own home (and I don’t need to have a pocket full of quarters). Hearing “boomshakalaka” or “he’s on fire!” induces much more nostalgic feelings when on an arcade cabinet.
Even in a gallery of other nostalgic classics from my time in arcades like X-Men, The Simpsons, Mortal Kombat, or even the oft-remembered Slugfest pinball game that fed out actual baseball cards, NBA Jam still reigns supreme. I don’t even need a complete game to capture that same feeling, just playing one quarter brings me back to the pure joy and obsession I felt from that first time I played.
“Making you a better geek, one post at a time!”