Genre: Sports Developer: Iguana Ent. Publisher: Acclaim Players: 1-4 Released: 1995
There are some games that just won’t die. You know, the ones that resurface constantly in the form of sequels, spinoffs, remakes, special editions, and ports of all the above until the franchise finally reaches a state we here at Sega-16 like to call “overexposure.” NBA Jam is a shining example of this Tribble-esque proliferation. The original arcade release turned heads of both sports fans and those who’d never shot a free throw with its wildly fast gameplay and crazy, superhuman stunts. Predictably, there was high demand for a home version, and Midway answered those demands several times over. In fact, the Genesis and its two add-ons are home to no less than six variations of the formula. The original, NBA Jam, hit both the Genesis and the Sega CD; the enhanced remake NBA Jam Tournament Edition popped up on the Genesis and the 32X. The souped-up spiritual sequel NBA Hangtime and roster remix College Slam again found audiences on the stock Genesis.
If you’ve played any of the ports released for the stock Genesis, you know the execution leaves something to be desired. Blast processing only goes so far, folks. Choppy frame rates, crippled animations, and a lack of smooth scaling characterized the original Jam and TE, as well as Hangtime to a lesser extent. The added muscle of the 32X would be welcome here, but after seeing half a dozen lackluster ports on the Little Mushroom that Could, we’ve all grown a bit cynical when we hear about a game that supposedly improves on the original’s flaws. (Instead of simply adding more colors to the title screen.) Still, wouldn’t it be great – hypothetically speaking, of course – if the 32X version of NBA Jam TE was better than the Genesis version?
Dream no longer. 32X owners finally have a port to be proud of.
Steve Snake once said that the game pushed the limits of the 32X hardware, and while I find that hard to believe in light of Virtua Fighter 32X and Virtua Racing, it’s obvious that the 32X is indeed lending its might. Scaling is finally put to use with character sprites, for instance. On a more fundamental level, the matches run like a dream. No ka-chunk-ka-chunk frame rates, even with flame effects and all four players onscreen at once. Hallelujah!
Veterans can probably recite Tournament Edition’s added features along with the demo mode boasting, but for the uninitiated let me summarize – it’s even more wacky than the original. Now there are power ups that temporarily boost your player’s statistics and ‘hotspots’ on the court that can give you extra points when you make a basket. You can also enable ‘tournament mode’ and squelch all cheats and gimmicks, or go into practice mode in order to hone your skills without a pesky defense. More NBA players to choose from, too, but that particular perk isn’t quite as important now that most of the athletes have disappeared from the modern game.
Some things, though, never change. The narrator still throws out his signature quips after especially spectacular “jams” – somehow I feel obliged to put that in quotes – and you can still go “on fire” if you score three baskets in a row. Fouls are a non-issue just like before; feel free to blatantly slam the other guy to the hardwood as often as you like. Indeed, all the ref does is watch the clock and call goaltending (a strange exception in a generally lawless match). Gravity is as fickle as usual, pulling you earthward when you jump to block a shot but raising no objection to fifty-foot high helicopter dunks.
And I still do a shameless Chicken Dance of Victory every time I win.
Why? Because the concept is fun, plain and simple. Because it’s not about basketball, it’s about running around like a maniac, punching people who irritate you, and screaming gibberish like “boom-shakka-lakka” every time you ram an orange ball through a metal hoop ten feet off the ground. Because at the root of it all you have a game that lets you act out your crazy childhood dreams of hyper slam dunks and winning the game with a Hail Mary shot from the other end of the court. These are the reasons that NBA Jam was so popular, and it’s the reason that many today continue to swear by it as the best (as in, most enjoyable) hoops game around.
No games are perfect, but they can get really close, as we see here. Stepping back for a moment and taking in the whole picture, I see that the sound is surprisingly muffled, for one thing, and the color palette is unsuitably dark for a game that’s such an extreme caricature. Oh, yeah, and there’s no Michael Jordan. Hard to believe, but true. These are small complaints that are generally lost in the multitude of things the game does right.
In fact, the 32X port of NBA Jam TE was one of the best packages of the classic formula to surface in the 16-bit era, and certainly one of the top two for the Genesis and company. Is it worth getting a 32X in order to play? I’d hesitate to go that far, since there were so many other good ports on hardware you probably already own. But if you’ve got the Black Fungus already (God bless you, child), then you should seriously consider drafting some friends and jamming the night away.