Apparently first released back in 1994, NBA Jam T.E. (For Sega Mega Drive) holds the illustrious honour of being possibly the only ‘team sports’ game that I’ve ever really enjoyed. As I’ve often mentioned, one of the great things about gaming is the breadth of the medium, so whilst it’s not my preferred “Heftgröße” (as our German speaking cousins would say) I know that there are gamers out there who revel in ‘Fifa’ and ‘Madden’ as much as I do in ‘Bioshock’ and BotW.
I think my aversion to the ‘sports sim’ lie in my firm preference for gaming to be on the far-fetched side of escapism – sure it might be escapist to lose yourself in playing… erm… midfield (yeah, I know nothing about football) for … WestHam?… but it’s an experience based very much on the real world rather than a fantastic setting. NBA Jam T.E. was a game that first blurred for me the lines between these two ideas to form something that was both partially realistic (a real sport, roster, teams etc.) and fantastical (crazy flaming somersaults). This mix is likely the reason for the success of games like ‘Rocket League’, and my own infatuation with ‘SSX 3’ on PS2. The success of NBA Jam T.E. in winning me over extended to a surge of interest in basketball outside of the game which was no small feat given that I grew up in Birmingham in the UK, so my access to the sport was mainly through Sunday morning NBA highlights on channel 4 and the occasional trips to the NIA to watch the Birmingham Bullets.
Whilst not ground-breaking, the game takes a simple two-on-two format with players able to select from 28 NBA teams and (era appropriate) rosters of three for each team. The simple pairing format of the teams means that, unlike many team sport titles, the player typically remains in control of only one of the pairing being able to ‘order’ their counterpart to pass or shoot when they have possession, but not being in direct control of their movement. It’s a play-style that works well given the arcade pace and feel of the title, but does tend to reduce the positional play to hoping that your teammate does the right thing to line up for a pass to capitalise on any advantageous position you may have gained. It’s a game that also takes only a partial interest in the rules of the sport with the inclusion of shot clocks and goal tending, but entirely allowing violent shoving of players. The latter is not only permitted without penalty, but seemingly encouraged as the resulting injuries can significantly disadvantage a team. As a child, my preferred tactic was to injure my opponents as quickly as possible knowing that they only had one ‘spare’ player to sub in and that ‘taking out’ a star player might mean I could breeze to victory…. yeah, apparently I was ‘that’ kind of kid. Although fast-paced-fun is the main characteristic of the gameplay, it is worth paying attention to the stats of each of your players to understand their various strengths and how to most effectively use them in a game; I can’t call it deeply tactical, but keeping track of which of your pairing has the 3-point advantage will save many moments of frustration as the ball bounces harmlessly from the rim.
I’d guess that most people’s overriding memory of the title is the inclusion of the far fetched hyper dunks. Running toward the hoop, boost held, and hitting the shot button will launch the pixilated-player high into the air, the clatter and flashes of cameras from the crowd capturing some ludicrous aerial mastery as they bring the ball down decisively in to the net… or with a comical ‘Twaaannnggg” as it catches the hoop and is catapulted away. The hyper-dunks themselves don’t add anything in terms of ‘gameplay’, but are the rewarding visual spectacle for performing well in stealing, intercepting, and maintaining control during the rest of the game. Scoring three times in a row puts a player on a ‘hot-streak’, with unlimited boost and a literal flaming ball when they’re in possession complete with a net that burns away and satisfying smoke ring with each subsequent basket.
Visually it’s neat and functional; the sprite based characters aren’t bound by the rules of perceptive (which can look a little odd), but the court is sufficiently small in terms of width for that not to look too strange. The roster screen features 16-bit style ‘digitised’ photographs of each of the players which is a nice touch, but it does lack the sharper in-game character sprites that featured in the arcade version. The other problem with this type of presentation is that it can be difficult to work out if the player you are controlling is lined up (across the court) with another player for the all important shove or steal, but it is a minor annoyance at worst.
The score overlay after each point combined with the commentator’s enthusiastic outbursts are a fair effort (considering the limitation of the early 90’s) of recreating the TV coverage experience. Strangely I never really tired of the commentator despite their limited phrasebook. Considering that the ‘SEGA’ at the beginning of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ took up 1/8 of the cartridge space, NBA Jam T.E. must have had a sizeable storage capacity as this disembodied voice has a handful of phrases for different gameplay events, but most notably the “Boomshakalaka” and “Oh My!” that accompanied the dunks. This hefty soundboard didn’t stop the creators putting a few grainy FMV videos of NBA plays over the closing credits which would have taken up a good chunk of their available storage space. The cartridge was also one of the first that I owned (the first possibly being Sonic 3) that had a save feature; the Sega system didn’t have that many cartridges with a save option (compared to the SNES, or even NES) and I remember not being able to use it for some time because I didn’t have the patience as a kid to read the box insert that explained how to activate the feature.
Not content with putting together a fun arcade style experience, the creators also added some bonus features that extended gameplay and cement it as a good option for some light couch gaming. Juice mode upped the speed of the players to frantic proportions; powerup icons game players time limited special abilities (including the highly desirable “can dunk from anywhere on the court”); whilst ‘hotspots’ would appear on court to give bonus points if you managed to sink the ball from them. Upon completion the game would also unlock the extended rosters giving each team an additional player, often completely changing the dynamic and strengths of a team along with upping the difficulty as my fabled ‘injury’ tactics were no longer as effective. Finally it was also a game that excelled in secrets including game changing cheats, for example teleport passes, to the extensive roster of secret players including some team mascots and celebrities such as (then president) Bill Clinton or Will Smith.
It’s not a game I can say anything overly profound about, but it is one that sits comfortably in the chair of ‘doing well what it is supposed to‘ and excelling at being an enjoyable experience. It broadened my horizons by adding a different type of game to my repertoire and sparking interest in the sport outside of the gaming world (my wife was fairly confused the other day when I began watching videos of early 90’s dunk contests). It must be a title that gamers look back on fondly based purely on the recent release ‘NBA Playground’ which is (in all but name) a new NBA Jam title.
…Any fond memories of NBA Jam? Let me know in the comments!