E3's a ton of fun, but it's all all about what's new and upcoming. Let's take a break and reminisce on some retro gaming goodness. Of course, you can also feel free to check out all my E3 coverage, too.
After recently locating my old SNES cartridge of NBA Jam (1993-arcades, 1994-SNES), it was pretty obvious that I'd need to try it out. I've never been a huge sports fan, but I have very fond memories of this game's outrageous take on basketball action.
My earliest memories of this game actually are from Aurelio's Pizza, a great pizza joint in the south suburbs of Chicago. They have a small arcade area that used to have a rotating selection of classic cabinets including Mortal Kombat; Donkey Kong, Jr.; Cruisin' USA; and, of course, NBA Jam. These days, it's mainly a selection of impossible-to-win machines with cheap prizes, but in the early 1990s, arcades still held an important place in the gaming landscape.
When the game was ported to home consoles one year later in 1994, I managed to get my hands on a copy, and I remember feeling like I'd really brought that arcade magic home. It was well-known that developer Midway had programmed lots of secrets and easter eggs in the game, but having only occasionally access to the game gave them an almost mystical quality--the stuff of playground legend. At home, though, it was possible to trade codes and secrets with your friends to actually access many of the game's hidden treasures--including Slick Willy himself, former president Bill Clinton.
Aside from the secret characters, limiting the standard teams to two star players allowed the developers to use realistic photos of each player, a revolutionary change of pace for gamers used to tiny, digitized faces employed by other sports games of the time. Much like Donkey Kong Country's use of pre-rendered CGI graphics turned into sprites, it a distinctly "ahead of its time" feel.
Immediately upon starting a match (of course, playing as the Chicago Bulls), I was reminded just how tight and fun the controls are even today. Sure, basketball games like NBA 2K14 might have the most amazing ball physics and advanced analog control; but, for my money, it doesn't get much better than moment-to-moment action of NBA Jam. Players move quickly and responsively, and the simple (but elegant) controls make it easy to jump in but reward those who learn the nuances of timing jump shots, throwing elbows, and stealing a ball from an unsuspecting opponent.
Most exciting of all, NBA Jam offers the unique ability to get into "on fire" mode by getting three consecutive shots in a row without the opposing players scoring any baskets. Doing so increases your ability to make a shot and literally lights the net on fire. This mechanic still feels like such a signature element of the game because it adds an extra layer of depth to the competition: sure, it's great to win a game, but getting "on fire" streaks adds an element of style and challenge. It's the perfect way to show your friend that you're truly dominating the court. Just like the "crown" system in the recent Super Mario 3D World on Wii U, it doesn't necessarily add anything to the outcome (okay, it affects the game a little more directly), but it's a simple way to put bragging rights directly in the game.
While passing, stealing, dribbling and jump shots were all well and good, NBA Jam really set it sights on exploring the artistry of the dunk. Not content to let simple layups and basic slam dunks rule the day, Midway created a whole host of completely ridiculous (and gravity-defying) slam dunk styles that included helicopters, flips, huge leaps, and even glass-shattering effects that kept matches interesting for nearly everyone playing (or even those merely watching). These would be randomized, so there was always an incentive to keep trying for more dunks to see just how crazy things would get the next time you got a clear path to the hoop.
To keep the action fast and furious, the game smartly balanced the four-quarter system employed by the NBA, but kept each quarter to three minutes. This gave each match enough time for competitors to have a gain and lose a few leads, but it was short enough that it never felt like an overwhelming commitment. Of course this was a carryover from the arcade, but it still felt like the right amount of time even for an at-home affair.
For me, playing old games like this evokes a special kind of nostalgia but also serves as a reference point for gaming's past. Yes, graphics have moved on in so many ways, but it's amazing to be reminded of just how much talented game designers were advancing the medium within the limitations of much simpler consoles. Retro-styled games have had a major renaissance over the past years, especially among the indie scene, but there's nothing quite like going back to play actual old games on the original hardware.
Be sure to share your memories of NBA Jam in the comments section below!