By the time I'd entered high school in 1993, I'd been an enthusiastic arcade-goer for almost a decade, but something about the way the scene was changing slowly started turning me off to the experience. Oh, I was still actively visiting my local arcades--I just didn't feel compelled to frequent them as often as I had in the past.
At the time, I never gave much thought as to why that was. It might have been that there was a sudden dearth of originality as companies sought to carve out their own slice of existing markets, which led to a state of homogeneity wherein every new arrival sought comfort in the established genres of fighting, realistic racing, and sports simulation. Hell--even games that started life in completely different genres, like the wrestling-themed Saturday Night Slam Masters and the platformer Karnov, were seeing their direct sequels turned into one-on-one fighting games (similar to how today's action, horror and even strategy series spawn sequels that look more like Call of Duty clones)!
Or maybe it was that console technology had advanced to the point where systems like the SNES and the Sega Genesis could adequately, if not faithfully, reproduce the arcade games that were currently popular. I was becoming more and more introverted (not to mention cheap) as adolescence started taking hold, anyway, so I wasn't averse to the idea of sacrificing the social aspect of arcade-going if it meant that my friends and I could play all of the newest arcade games from the comfort of my our own homes.
While my ultimate loss of interest in arcade gaming likely resulted from a combination of all of the aforementioned, I'm convinced that the latter suggestion played the biggest role in our breakup--more so when I reminisce about my time with NBA Jam, which I played almost exclusively on the SNES. Save for a few abbreviated arcade sessions, played mainly against CPU opponents, it was more so in those familiar bedrooms, living rooms and dens where my friends and I got together for some high-flying, rim-rocking arcade-style basketball!
NBA Jam came into my life at the perfect time. Before then, I had never much cared for the NBA or professional sports in general (or anything related to them, including officially licensed video games), since I'd rather compete in sports than watch them on TV (I was a regular member of my grammar school's baseball, soccer, bowling and track teams), but the circumstances of my entry into high school dictated that I start paying close attention to professional basketball specifically. See--one of the conditions of enrollment was that students had to join at least one of the school's sports teams. Naturally, I expressed interest in joining either the baseball or soccer teams, but I was told that there were no positions available; the teams as constructed in the previous year would remain locked in, since neither featured a graduating player, and there would be no tryouts due to the coaches' favoritism.
My only real choice, then, was to join the basketball team even though I knew very little about the sport outside of "dribble ball" and "throw ball through hoop."
Not that I felt particularly good about it, being the prideful athlete that I was, but it was probably for the best that I spent that entire year riding the pine, since I had no idea what I was doing and couldn't grasp the intricacies of the sport's thousands of rules. During a game, for instance, one of the referees blew his whistle and made a rotating-hands motion, as did most of my teammates; I had absolutely no clue what that gesture was supposed to mean and figured that maybe it was a signal that John Travolta was about to check into the game. Really--trying to understand the plays that our coach, Tom, was drawing up on his clipboard during practice was like attempting to decipher Ikea assembly instructions.
In order to gain an understanding for what was going on during those games, I started watching the NBA. I happened to become a viewer in the winter months of 1994, when our local team, the New York Knicks, was making a serious run at the NBA championship. I learned a lot about the sport as I watched Knicks games on a daily basis, certainly, but I also wound up becoming emotionally attacked to the team, which long-term brought me nothing but undue heartache and needless stress (sleepless nights as I worried about the outcome of imminent playoff games, mainly). More notably, I'd become a fan of the sport, which made the idea of owning NBA Jam--the type of game I was previously apt to dismiss in favor of alternative titles like Arch Rivals, which wasn't anchored by an official license--an enticing prospect.
It would have been a tragedy had things worked out otherwise, since playing NBA Jam resulted in some of the most blissfully fun multiplayer experiences my friends and I ever shared. Each one of us bought our own copy, and we readily broke it out wherever we went. I was apt to play as the Knicks, since I was very familiar with the tendencies of Patrick Ewing and John Starks; otherwise, I'd gravitate toward teams that ranked high in 3-point shooting, even if I didn't recognize the players. After all--by my math, three was greater than two. Thanks, American educational system!
NBA Jam was a superior basketball game even at a basic level, but its trademarked gimmicks helped push it into the legendarily addictive category. That is, we couldn't get enough of its ridiculous dunk animations or its ingenious "on-fire mode," triggered whenever a player made three shots in a row; during this period, the player would be granted infinite Turbo speed, improved accuracy, and the prerogative to legally goaltend jump shots. In reality, though, I think we were more eager to use our on-fire potency to burn away the nets and epically shatter the backboards!
It certainly wasn't the mundane licensed sports sim my former oblivious self might have assumed it to be. No--NBA Jam was as alternative as it got; it was rich with serious competitive spirit, sure, but it also had a knack for providing us hilarious moments, like when, for instance, like when one of us would get the buttons crossed up and randomly throw up a wild half- or three-quarters-court fling-shot, prompting the others to mockingly shout "Hail Mary!" Nothing was funnier to us than how monumentally pissed my friend Dominick would get when one of those shots would actually go in at the 4th-quarter buzzer, causing his team to lose the game by one point.
He was a special breed, that guy.
I made sure to play NBA Jam exclusively against friends, because the CPU players were obnoxious with their propensity for making scores of consecutive jump shots--even when doing so contradicted their low "3 PTRS" rating--and instantly thwarting the build-up phase to my on-fire status. If I hoped to win a game against a CPU team, I'd have to struggle to keep my lead at least three points as the 4th quarter drew to a close, lest it was certaint that I'd be beaten at the buzzer by one of those wild cross-court shots that we human players, of course, could rarely sink.
The vernacular of NBA Jam invaded every aspect of our culture. Randomly shouting "He's on fire!" or "Boom Shakalaka!" was almost a requisite (the game's commentator, or at least his voice, was as iconic a symbol to us as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat's), as was attempting to replicate the game's crazy dunks any time we were in the school's gym.
Well, really, we couldn't actually come close to doing anything of the sort, since none of us could jump that high (I could leap high enough to make finger-contact with the rim, but that was about it). Though, we were so determined to replicate the game's dunks that we improvised: One day, we arrived early to our gym class and dragged out the springboard that was hidden underneath the pull-out bleachers; we placed it near the free-throw line, our plan being to launch ourselves from a distance and gain the hang-time necessary to mimic the NBA Jam player's spinning, rotating, and leg-splitting motions. What we found out, though, was that you lose the ability to control your movement when sprung into the air in such a manner; results, therein, included losing control of the ball while in midair (particularly when simultaneously startled by someone yelling "Spasm!" while you were in mid-flight), desperately grabbing onto the rim to recover from errant leaps, massive whiffs, and people violently splatting on the court's rubbery surface.
And, somehow, we were the Honor Roll students.
Oh, I found out personally how potentially hazardous uncontrolled dunk-attempts could be: In one instance, I tried to forcefully throw the basketball down ("With authority!", as NBA commentators would be apt to shout) and wound up banging my hand against that cheap tin rim so hard that I lacerated two layers of skin on the palm of my hand; I was left with a semicircular wound, the skin sliced in a way to where I could now peel down the chalky layers of dead flesh and view the bloody one resting beneath them. I decided not to visit the school nurse, since admitting pain was for sissies, and spent the rest of the day holding a piece of abrasive brown paper towel, as taken from one of the bathrooms, against my palm in order to dull the pain and absorb the continually seeping blood.
Well, there was one thing I knew I'd never try again. I wouldn't have gotten the chance, anyway, since coach Tom caught wind up our activity and stormed into the gym demanding that we put the springboards away and never touch them again. He probably saved a few lives that day.
NBA Jam's popularity endured for a few additional years thanks in part to the release of its improved sequel, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. I knew that its developer, Iguana Entertainment, wasn't purporting to offer anything wildly new, but I bought the game because I was intrigued by its new additions, which included three selectable players per team, player substitutions, and a greatly expanded roster of wacky guest characters--among them NBA legends, former presidents, celebrities, musicians, and mascots, all of whom were typically overpowered and fun to use for that reason. If anything, Tournament Edition gave me a reason to look forward to the arrival of my next issue of Nintendo Power, which would reveal more guest characters each month.
We appreciated the newly afforded ability to mix and match players, which added a bit of variety to our contests, but we agreed that NBA Jam was a great multiplayer game even without these added luxuries. And we would have continued playing it for years in following had we not lost contact with each other following graduation. It was sadly inevitable, then, that I'd have to leave NBA Jam behind, since games from its class tended to lose much of their appeal when I could no longer play them with my pals--when it was no longer possible to augment the experience with our personalized banter. Since then, no game has been able to evoke those same feelings of jubilancy.
I'll forever miss that 90s era of gaming for the friendships I enjoyed and the craziness that resulted from our game-focused get-togethers. NBA Jam was indeed emblematic of our untamed spirit.
Hopefully we'll all meet again in the future.