Nick & Choose 30: NBA Jam

Published Dec. 1, 2010

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Can’t Buy a Bucket
Nostalgia is no slam dunk.

I think it was Street Fighter II. Or maybe it was Mortal Kombat I was playing when my father first snuck up behind my usual perch on the couch to say, “You’re not going to play those things when you’re older.” He instead preferred that I “read challenging books.”

My dad thinks of video games as a waste of time. This stance has always struck me as ironic, as it comes from a man who brags about once being able to spend all day at the movies for a nickel.

The fact is, my generation was the first to be born into the era of video games as an influential pop product, an effect only accelerated by games moving out of the arcade and into the home. We’re a generation of cartridge blowers, of Genesis defenders. Ask any guy between the ages of 30-39 about the Contra code and get ready for an immediate recitation of directions and letters, an involuntary response as natural as blinking or breathing. While my father may have been awed by the deeds of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, I marveled at the unstoppable force that was Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl.

One of my childhood’s most iconic games was 1993’s NBA Jam. The premise was simple: a two-on-two battle between professional basketball stars. The gameplay was outlandish, with players performing acrobatic dunks from outrageous distances. Secret characters, like Bill Clinton, could be unlocked, and a comic voiceover peppered the action with taglines like “He’s heating up” and “Boomshakalaka!” which have become part of the sport’s actual lexicon. Riding the popularity of the NBA’s heyday and featuring life-like player models—an innovation at the time—NBA Jam made over $1 billion in quarters.

Released earlier this month for Xbox 360 and PS3—it came out in October for Wii—NBA Jam‘s sentimental hold on my peer group can be seen in a Gchat conversation I had with Improper sports editor Rich Levine.

Rich: We on for Jam tonight?
Me: just bought it

Yes, products like NBA Jam are a direct call to our adolescent selves. As Rich explains, it’s all about nostalgia. “I can suddenly get back to my teens,” he said.

Nostalgia was also the first word from my friend John, a man who owns every system from the Neo Geo to the Virtual Boy, and an NBA Jam Tournament Edition T-shirt. Explaining NBA Jam‘s appeal, he said, “It’s one of those games that anyone can pick up and play.”

And we did, at which point we were almost immediately reminded of perhaps the game’s greatest strength—infighting. NBA Jam has few rules, little strategy and only one guiding principle: Victory is never assured. As such, it’s easy to feel cheated, and half your time is spent complaining. As the rounds progressed, the swearing increased, insults were lobbed and farts were directed at faces. I suppose the adult equivalent would be arguing politics.

Solo play throws the game’s biggest negative into relief—its lack of depth. Amazingly, the core content hasn’t changed at all in 17 years, and different modes like 21 and Backboard Smash aren’t worth more than a glance. In nostalgic terms, they’re the needless CGI aliens added to reissued editions of Star Wars. Online play, however, is a welcome addition, evoking the near-forgotten social pressure of arcade play without the anxiety of having to ask your parents for more quarters.

After our final contest, Rich concluded that he liked the game, but it didn’t quite bring him all the way back. “That’s probably my fault,” he said. “Got too old.” John, on the other hand, has since contacted me repeatedly, looking for a rematch.

My enthusiasm splits the difference. Were NBA Jam a downloadable title with a corresponding price point (as its producers originally intended), I’d say it’s an essential purchase for anyone who once longed for a pair of Reebok Pumps. However, its current $50 price is a prohibitive toll for memory lane.

But, with disc in hand—and much to my father’s consternation—I’ll continue to play, perched on my own couch, on a TV that sits between my armchair and bookcase. My Xbox next to Anna Karenina. The games stacked next to my copy of Moby Dick. Fittingly, my current station in life at a point somewhere in between.

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