To say NBA Jam: Tournament Edition was a hit with pop culture would be a gross understatement. With iconic one-liners like “Boom-Shakalaka!” and “Monster Jam!” Tim Kitzrow became one of the most recognized voice actors in video game history. Using the Multi-tap, you could play with and against up to three friends, and could unlock players from Mortal Kombat, the White House, and even Bel-Air. The game played beautifully and had the right pizzazz which drew the casual gamer. TE was one of the most popular games of the 16-bit era, and remains for many the standard among arcade sports games.
For a sports fan, it’s fun to see how a game portrays the league it represents. In T.E., the NBA’s stock of talent has been winnowed down to two players each and a substitute. Player ratings are listed in eight categories so you have plenty of options at a winning combination. The more dominant players have green-lettered numbers while the those with major weaknesses have a few in red. Do you fancy a power defender, a sticky-fingered thief, or a long-range bomber? Much is made of the “clutch” attribute, but we all know that when a game goes down to the wire, “my guy sucks at clutch” won’t cut it.
While the players on the team selection screen are very recognizable, when on the court there are no distinctions aside from race, a few hairstyles and short/normal differentiation of height. You might think height wouldn’t be a big deal in a high-paced arcade game, but being a “short” player has frustrating disadvantages! Aside from the tendency of having low blocking and power attributes, the little guys have a tough time slapping the ball off the rim or even executing a free goal-tend when on fire. While I understand the thinking behind making some players shorter, I avoid playing with the twerps at all costs.
There are several game modes in T.E. In Head to Head, you can choose to not record your initials and be assigned a random team to play, or record your initials and play each team roughly from worst to best. After accomplishing that feat you are given expanded rosters which feature all players from the Rookies team, and each team you play is randomly assigned and features one of the team creators, who are impervious to injury. Practice mode is rather useless, since all necessary skills are only developed against an opponent, except for shooting (releasing the ball at the right time affects the success rate).
You can turn “tournament mode” off on the options menu and play “Juice Mode” in which you can multiply the speed of all players on the court. You can also turn on “hot spots” which will occasionally appear and allow you to score up to eight points at a time. You can enable power-up icons which also appear sporadically and give you momentary fire, 3-pt ability, speed, and my favorite: dunk-from anywhere. The power-ups and hotspots go a long way in providing replay-ability, especially in the company of friends.
T.E. is all about classic arcade play. The option to enter your initials before every match makes you feel like you’ve already accomplished something, since arcade games in general would require obtaining a high point score first. The effortless controls become even more fun with time, as dribbling up and down the court and avoiding injuries becomes second-nature. The players are gifted with super-ability in the way that makes it appear the User “can do a lot with little effort.” The game shows incredible polish all the way through, with no glitches to compensate for. The only time it becomes difficult to maneuver your player is when you’ve sustained significant injury–but this is a purposeful aspect built into the game to promote awareness. After every quarter you have the opportunity to sub out the most injured player.
Along the way you will develop a set of skills. My favorites are on the defensive side of the ball. I like trying to rebound by picking the ball off the rim (barely avoiding goal-tending), and even more I like performing a put-back after an offensive rebound. As fun as it is to be on fire and drain three-pointers, I find blocking and stealing to be a more pleasurable challenge. Turbo management is nothing less than an art: it’s needed for effective passing, shooting, blocking and punching. Yet the crucial skill of T.E. is timing. Most shots and nearly every dunk will be a success if you can avoid defenders, and when you can push an opponent over right as he’s about to drive it home, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Learning the art of fire is an absolute necessity for anyone serious about their 27 team quest. “If your player makes three buckets in a row with the same player, he is on fire. Give him the ball,” reads one of the between quarter gaming tips. A player is on fire until the opponent scores, or until he’s made four buckets on fire. Sounds easy enough in concept, but the computer has its ways of sneaking in a score and snuffing that fire out, by means of pushing you down, or having you whiff an attempted block. But with a little strategy and balance between aggressive offense and patient defense, getting and remaining on fire is the most pleasing part of the game. Head to Head matches are often decided by who gets on a fiery role in the second half. So do your best to get on a streak or two, and avoid your opponents from catching fire at all costs!
Goaltending plays a strangely significant role in T.E.. You can block any shot after its release, so long as the ball isn’t falling down toward the hoop; otherwise it’s goaltending. Goaltending gives the shooter the points for the shot, but you delay your opponent from starting or continuing a string of buckets. You also protect your own thread. This affects how difficult the game appears to be. As you begin your quest to defeat all 27 NBA teams, the ones you face first aren’t too difficult to put away. But as you make your way along the gamut you’ll have to keep on your toes. You’ll find it difficult to not use goaltending to your advantage especially in close games. The importance of goaltending is less a glitch as it is a risk: Would I rather give the points to my opponent and keep my streak going, or be stingy and risk losing my fire?
It’s always a bonus to have a player on your team with an eight or nine dunk rating, if for no other reason than to see how they will deny physics. Some players can jump off the screen before falling to the basket for a dunk! This makes T.E. fun for friends to watch and waiting time for the next challenger more bearable. Spectacular dunks are no more difficult to block than less impressive ones, however. If you have good timing, dunking is the surest way of scoring. For all the above reasons, NBA Jam is aptly named.
If gameplay is near flawless, sound is a weak point in T.E. I enjoyed the music of this game growing up, but as I replayed it recently… let’s just say I can see why sports games can seem like doing the same thing over and over. The opening theme has a sort of charm to it, but it’s not one I enjoy encountering between games. There’s no music during the game, only sound effects for squeaking sneakers, landed punches (‘huh!’), the ball bouncing, as well as a glittering sound for steals and slapping the ball defensively. The highlight of TE sound is of course the announcer, who endlessly puts in his two cents about what the players are doing.
T.E. scores mega points when it comes to replay-ability. Once you’ve beaten all 27 teams, the roster for every team is expanded (unless you’re the Atlanta Hawks). You can try out all the new players, many of whom are rookies. Most other games out there would give you an extra player or two when you beat them: T.E. gives you over 35. As for two-player mode, it simply will not, cannot lose its appeal if you have an invested partner. Although I’ve never tried four-player mode, I can only wonder how fun that would be. The hot-spots and special items are fun to tool around with every now and then, but they’re honestly not my favorite part.
Whether passing the controller around or multi-tapping it up, T.E. has a way of bringing people together. While the game is most remembered for the iconic voice acting of Tim Kitzrow, his enthusiastic slogans are an embodiment of how much fun this game is to play. Any defects of sound are well compensated for by gameplay and the endless amount of players you can unlock and cheats you can enter at the “tonight’s match-up” screen. Unlike some sports games, NBA Jam has a large draw for the casual fan. When it comes to legitimacy of the Super NES in 2012, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition is one of the chief reasons.
Five out of Five Stars
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