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“On fire!”: a look back at the halcyon days of 90’s basketball video games

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Boom-shak-a-laka!

Celtics Crossover Gaming v 76ers Gaming Club Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Growing up in the 90’s I spent my days playing on home computer game consoles, at the numerous arcade halls, and the all-night parties where you would be dropped off by parents and go out with friends to enjoy a lock-in onslaught of video games, sweets, and sodas. The knuckles would be bruised and the hands fatigued. That tactile emotive response of bashing and mashing button combos and ripping joysticks was a thrill unmatched to this day.

Memphis Grizzlies Season Ticket Holders Party

In this golden age of gaming, the paramount games of importance were the fighting games, the first Mortal Kombat (Midway Games, 1992) and of course, the supreme classic Street Fighter II (Capcom, 1991). It was a shock however to note one of the bestselling arcade games of that era was “NBA Jam” which arrived at the peak of global NBA growth with much fan fare and hype, that old school 1992 Dream Team magazine and TV news headline type of hype.

Original Olympic Dream Team 1991 Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/ NBAE/ Getty Images

NBA Jam (Midway Games, 1993) and NBA Showdown 1994 (EA Sports, 1993) where some of my earliest basketball video game memories. Sure, I played “Dr. J vs. Larry Bird” also known as “One-on-One” years earlier, but that game was a sprite-driven 1983 computer basketball game written by Eric Hammond for the Apple II, ported to the C64. An early foray, but simplistic and not that much fun at all.

Copies of the author’s original games as dated from last week hidden away in a closet someplace.

NBA Showdown was a deep dive simulator of 5-on-5 NBA play. Micro managing substitutions and managing health status bars was just as important as having a decent scorer on your team. However, the Genesis/Mega Drive was able to handle the frame rate required to make an appealing NBA sim, one which you could challenge your friends with and live the dream of making it in the league.

That was all great until the 16-bit NBA Jam was released. The high octane and flat out end-to-end hustle-o-rama type of game won over NBA and non-NBA fans alike. The sheer intensity of gameplay, animation, and the comedic commentary were a joy to play. The music of the Genesis/Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612 FM chip as well as the SN76489 PSG chip were refreshing, and the attitude of the game was something akin to an episode of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Sure, NBA Jam wasn’t a fully licensed product. The uniforms were generic and it had that 2-on-2 street ball game play by design, but it was extremely playable. It had the halftime stats and everyone loved it when a player was “on fire.” If you defensively weren’t making superhuman blocks at the precise moment or deftly making a sublime lunge and steal at that critical moment, you might as well not play. It paid to pick a team with quickness, shooting, and defensive prowess.

Shaquille O’Neal would sadly never be featured in the original version game because of licensing issues and drama surrounding his own Shaq Fu game released for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System a year later in 1994. Shaq Fu (Delphine Games, 1994) was needless to say a disastrous flop and regularly makes it to the the top ten in the “worst video games” of all time lists.

We also need to refer to several other horrible console games in the basketball “real life sim” genre including Barkley Shut Up and Jam, Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, and Slam City with Scottie Pippen. These will forever serve as a series of repetitive gaming tropes never to be repeated in computer game history lore in the following decades and for that, we are all grateful.