Released amid a surge in the popularity of professional basketball during the early 1990s, NBA Jam rode the wave along with many other basketball video games. In spite of all the competition, it became a legend in its own time and is still remembered fondly today. Often sport-based games become obsolete a year after their release, but Midway shattered that perception with a dunk heard 'round the world.
No doubt one of its biggest selling points, its cutting edge graphics feature lifelike character animations while most other video games of the time generally look more like a cartoon. NBA Jam's designers drew its players to actually resemble what they looked like in real life, and although we take this for granted now on modern systems, the effect is still an impressive feat considering that it was accomplished on the Super Nintendo.
The soundtrack is also upbeat and catchy, while oftentimes sports games tend to either license popular music of the day with little regard to theme or consistency or feature generic midi music for lack of anything better. NBA Jam’s score is perfectly matched to the action and will have you humming along for days after a play session. Additionally, the commentary by the in-game sportscaster is perfectly suited to the gameplay and uses memorable catch phrases that are still quoted even now.
The gameplay is fast and furious. Sometimes even basketball can slow down with the application of a good defence, but NBA Jam moves at a constant breakneck speed. With only two players per team, the court is left wide open for the player possessing the ball, making for a very offence-friendly game. Matches play like a race to rack up the highest score (and pull off the more impressive stunts) rather than the slower, strategic grind that comes from having a full five-player team on each side.
Further distinguishing Jam from the other basketball games of its time is the fact that despite the official license from the NBA, it moves beyond arguably boring realism into the exciting world of fantasy with impossible jumps, basketballs catching on fire, and players punching each other in the back of the head without any consequence. NBA Jam is extreme – and by extreme, we mean extremely extreme. Even while going for realistic representations of the players, it utilises completely unrealistic gameplay and player abilities. Most of the action is powered by the inclusion of a "turbo" button that players can lean on to get the most out of their team. Until you use it up and wait for it to recharge, you can put it towards making extreme leaps, running faster and shooting more accurately. You can more skillfully attempt normal three-pointers or channel your inner Michael Jordan for a slam-dunk from the three point line, adding a couple of mid-air flips just for style. The action is over the top and a feast for the imagination.
Taking things to an even greater extreme, if the same member of your team scores three baskets in a row, he becomes "on fire" and can use the turbo all the time while endowed with even more powerful abilities. This status is obviously unbalancing, but it doesn’t last very long. Given that NBA Jam focuses on dazzling the player with crazy, outlandish moves, attaining "on fire" status always feels like a great accomplishment as it makes possible the most bizarre moves available – including actually being on fire – and is undoubtedly the most iconic experience in the game.
This surreal arcade style action combined with the simultaneous rise in popularity of player vs. player fighting games produced a perfect storm in NBA Jam. Released only a year after Midway’s own Mortal Kombat, players were hungry for player vs. player violence and NBA Jam delivered. Although this was not the first time such a gimmick had been tried in basketball video game history (Midway introduced the punching mechanic in its own Arch Rivals four years earlier), this was the first time everything had been brought together into one tight package, complete with official licensing.
One downside, however, is that not all of your favourite players are here. One of the most famous basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan, was benched due to licensing issues. Charles Barkley, originally in the game, sat out later printings of the cartridge to instead promote his own competing title, Barkley: Shut up and Jam!, released around the same time. Other well-known names from the era are absent as well, but with only two players per team, this will likely go unnoticed once the game begins.
Perhaps a greater shortcoming is that the game, although exciting at first, becomes repetitive over time. Once you have experienced most of the special moves available, they become less entertaining each time thereafter. However, in the meantime, you will have exhilarating multiplayer fun. And if you know your way around some cheat codes, you can extended the scope and lifespan of NBA Jam far beyond what a silly two on two game of basketball ever otherwise would.
With fast-paced, addictive gameplay, a catchy musical score and graphics that are still easy on the eyes today, NBA Jam has certainly aged well and, despite its tenuous connection with reality, stands as the definitive basketball game of its generation. Although there were many sequels that tweaked the formula with extra bells and whistles, none exceeded the original in core gameplay quality. Indeed, it is a testament to the excellent game design of this first release in the series that its developers and publishers were able to later repackage what was essentially the same game for years while making few, if any, changes.