NBA Jam, Then and Now

By  |  Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, but EA Sports has announced that it will revive NBA Jam, the classic two-on-two basketball game from the mid-1990s, as a Wii exclusive. Very little is known about the game, but as I pondered the possibilities, it struck me how the hallmarks of NBA Jam are no longer anything special. They’re either taken for granted or relics of a bygone gaming era. Is it really possible to re-capture the magic of NBA Jam when so much has changed? You be the judge:

Voice Acting: Part of NBA Jam’s novelty was its color commentary. Voices in video games were still rare in the mid-1990s, especially on home consoles, and part of NBA Jam’s charm was just how lo-fi everything sounded. It’s hard to envision “boomshakalaka!” in crystal clear audio.

Cheat Codes and Easter Eggs: Back in the day, cheat codes had a mythical status — the 30 lives code in Contra, the blood code in Mortal Kombat for Sega Genesis — and NBA Jam was chock full of them. My favorites? Big Head Mode and the unlockable character of George Clinton, a.k.a. P-Funk. Nowadays, cheats are earned and unlocked through in-game accomplishments, if they’re in the game at all.

Saved Games: The ability to record your stats on a game cartridge came into fashion during the 16-bit era, but plenty of cartridges still lacked this feature. Nonetheless, I won’t lament the ubiquity of saved games now.

Licensing: According to this fascinating ESPN interview with NBA Jam creator Mark Turmell, Midway had to plead with the NBA to license actual basketball players, teams and logos because the league was wary about associating with arcades. Back then, it was rare to see a game with both players and teams, but a sports game wouldn’t be caught dead without both now.

Sports Fantasy: The genius of NBA Jam is the way it stripped down and pumped up basketball’s bare essentials, but I think it also came along at the right time, when a realistic depiction of sports wasn’t entirely possible yet. Can NBA Jam still capture the hearts of people who’ve become spoiled by NBA Live and NBA 2K?

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