NBA Jam

nba jam

NBA Jam‘ is an arcade game first developed by Midway in 1993 by programmer and game designer Mark Turmell.  The game featured 2-on-2 basketball and is one of the first sports games to offer NBA-licensed teams and players, and their real digitized likenesses. Midway had previously released such sports games as ‘Arch Rivals’ in 1989 (another 2-on-2 basketball game, on which NBA Jam’s gameplay is based), ‘High Impact’ in 1990, and ‘Super High Impact’ in 1991, but ‘NBA Jam’ was the company’s first major hit.

The game became exceptionally popular, and generated a significant amount of money for arcades after its release, creating revenue of $1 billion in quarters. Its success gave rise to a new genre of sports games which were based around fast, action-packed gameplay and exaggerated realism, a formula which Midway would also later apply to the sports of football (‘NFL Blitz’), and hockey (‘2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge’).

A key feature of NBA Jam is the exaggerated nature of the play – players jump many times above their own height, making slam dunks that defy both human capabilities and the laws of physics. There are no fouls, free throws, or violations except goaltending and 24-second violations. The player is able to freely shove or elbow his opponent out of the way. Additionally, the game has an ‘on fire’ feature, where if one player makes three baskets in a row, he becomes ‘on fire’ and has unlimited turbo and has increased shooting precision. The ‘on fire’ mode continues until the other team scores, or until the player who is on fire scores 4 additional consecutive baskets while ‘on fire.’

The game is filled with easter eggs, special features and players activated by initials or button/joystick combinations. For example, pressing A five times and right five times on any Sega Genesis controller would activate ‘Super Clean Floors.’ This feature would cause characters to fall if they ran too fast or changed direction too quickly. Hidden players ranged from US President Bill Clinton to Hugo the Charlotte Hornets mascot. Early versions of the sequel, ‘NBA Jam Tournament Edition,’ included characters from Mortal Kombat, but the NBA, uneasy over the controversies surrounding violent video games, forced Midway to remove them in later updates. On the arcade machine, there is also a hidden ‘tank’ game that allows you to run around a 3D wireframe field (it was accessed by turning off the machine and rebooting it while holding up on player one and down on player two, and depressing all buttons on both players).

The original arcade version features team rosters from the 1992-93 NBA season and the console versions use rosters from the 1993-94 NBA season. More up-to-date rosters were available in subsequent ports released for the Sega CD, Game Boy, and Game Gear in 1994. Midway did not secure the license to use Michael Jordan’s name or likeness (as Jordan himself owns the rights to his name and likeness, and not the NBA), and as such he was not available as a player for the Chicago Bulls or any other team (a limited edition version of the game with an additional team composed of Gary Payton and Michael Jordan was developed primarily for Jordan and Payton’s personal use). Another notable absence from the home versions is Shaquille O’Neal, who was in the arcade version as a member of the Orlando Magic. New Jersey Nets guard Dražen Petrović and Boston Celtics forward Reggie Lewis, both of whom died after the release of the arcade version, were also removed from the home versions.

The game was devised after Midway’s previous arcade release ‘Total Carnage’ failed to meet sales expectations. Lead designer and programmer Turmell wanted to develop a game with a wider appeal and decided to mix the digitized graphics of some of Midway’s previous titles to create an update to ‘Arch Rivals.’ Midway was able to procure a license from the NBA, paying royalties of $100 for each unit sold. In Midway’s original pitch video to the NBA, they stated that they planned on including various additional features. These included different camera angles, tips from coaches, instant replays and a first-person view on fast breaks. None of these features were included in the final game. The graphics for the NBA players were created from digitized video footage of several amateur basketball players, including future NBA player Stephen Howard. These players were available as secret characters in certain versions of the game. In 2008, Turmell confirmed a long held suspicion that the game had a bias against the Chicago Bulls. According to Turmell, a Detroit Pistons fan, the game was programmed such that the Bulls would miss last-second shots in close games against the Pistons.

In the ‘Tournament Edition’ players were assigned more attributes, including clutch and fatigue levels. In addition, the game also introduced features such as a ‘Tournament’ mode that turned off computer assistance and on-court hot spots that allowed for additional points or special slam dunks. This version was ported to the SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, Game Gear, and PlayStation. Acclaim published the console versions and later ended up winning the exclusive rights to use the ‘NBA Jam’ name. Acclaim used the name on ‘NBA Jam Extreme’ in 1996, a 3D version which featured Marv Albert doing commentary. The game was a flop in comparison to Midway’s version released that same year, rechristened ‘NBA Hangtime,’ which added a create-a-player option to refined ‘NBA Jam’ gameplay. An update called ‘NBA Maximum Hangtime’ was subsequently released.

In 1995, Acclaim released a collegiate version of ‘NBA Jam’ for home consoles entitled ‘College Slam.’ Although the game was created to capitalize on the popularity of March Madness it did not enjoy the popularity of the earlier ‘NBA Jam’ games. However, the idea was not quite dead as Midway passed it to their other sports games. This included the hockey games ‘2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge’ and ‘Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey.’ Midway produced successors to the series with 3-D graphics, ‘NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC’ and ‘NBA Hoopz.’ Acclaim continued to keep the ‘NBA Jam’ name alive with its console games, although the games were only mildly popular. After making the switch to develop console games exclusively, Midway used Jam’s idea on several other sports, with ‘NFL Blitz,’ ‘NHL Hitz,’ ‘MLB Slugfest,’ and ‘RedCard 20-03.’ Many of Jam’s influences remained in their games including the ‘NBA Ballers’ series.

In 2010, EA Sports released a new version of ‘NBA Jam’ for the Wii. The game was later ported to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Mark Turmell was hired to work on this new version in conjunction with EA Vancouver. Following the game’s critical and commercial success, a follow-up, ‘NBA Jam: On Fire Edition’ was released in 2011 on PSN and XBLA.

In popular sports culture, the phrases ‘He’s heating up,’ ‘He’s on fire,’ and ‘Boomshakalaka!’ are identified with ‘NBA Jam.’ In the game these catch-phrases describe when a player hit two or three shots in a row. When a player is ‘on fire,’ the ball literally catches fire and singes the net. Voiced by Tim Kitzrow, the announcer is reminiscent of Marv Albert and has contributed numerous memorable lines to the basketball lexicon. ‘NBA Jam’ also incorporated a slogan from Spike Lee’s alter-ego in his 1986 film ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ Mars Blackmon, who was also featured in a Nike basketball shoe television commercial at the time. The ‘NBA Jam’ commentator asked, ‘Is it the shoes?’ after a player performed spectacularly.

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