NBA Jam

Written by webscream

NBA Jam: the book is out now. It took me to a wild and happy trip down memory lane, gave me tons of game design inspiration and made me fire up my SNES.

The memories

I remember sitting on the floor with my childhood friend, Billy, shuffling through the colorful pages of a Greek GamePro issue and looking at tens of pixelated faces depicted as NBA Jam players. They weren’t wearing team jerseys and I hardly recognized any of them: “Who the hell is MCA? And Adrock?” – I wasn’t too big on the Beastie Boys in elementary school. At least I knew who Benny the Bull was. “And what about this guy, Turmell?”“That’s one of the creators” Bill would tell me, as he knew far more about video games that I did. I thought it was hilarious that those guys had inserted their personas in their game. Magazine in hand, we would grab the gamepads of his Super Nintendo and start trying out the different combinations to unlock those characters. I wondered if they were ridiculously good, or even unbeatable; you couldn’t tell, as the hidden characters had question marks on all their stats. It turned out they weren’t; and how could they have been, there were tens of them! When I realized there was no strategic advantage, I settled on Crunch, the Minnesota Timberwolves mascot; I had watched him pulling some impressive moves during an NBA All-Star game mascot dunk show. That wolf was awesome.

Growing up with overprotective parents, I had extremely few experiences with arcades. Of course, it didn’t help that the only arcade venue near our home looked ridiculously shady. It had no sign outside and, through the dark tinted glass that spanned across the entire storefront, you could barely see a room full of game cabinets, pool tables, cigarette smoke and grown-ups; there was no trace of kids. I still was very much intrigued by all the colorful lights that were coming out from the screens, but I never set foot in there; by the time I was old enough to wander around freely, the arcade was out of business.

Therefore, my only experience with NBA Jam had been on home consoles, and mostly with my friend Bill. He had all the latest and coolest games; it’s where I first saw Mortal Kombat as well, another Midway franchise. Of course, as soon as NBA Jam’s Tournament Edition came out, he “upgraded”. I can still remember discussing the change of the box and cartridge label art between the original and “TE”. Decades before becoming a graphic designer, I remember thinking of how they kept their branding intact, and renewed it with a twist, using one of the most characteristic and fun elements of their game: the flaming basketball. I thought it was an excellent move.

nba-jam-labels
Original and Tournament Edition cover art

#JamDay2019

I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment I started following an account called @nbajambook on twitter, but I remember the intrigue I felt reading the account’s description: Exploring the history & culture of #NBAJam, Midway Games, arcades, retro games, ’90s NBA, & more. Out October 22. “Wow, the day after my birthday, that’s cool!” As expected, I forgot all about it till the moment #JamDay2019 actually arrived. When it did, I read the announcement on twitter; without a moment’s thought, I gifted myself the Kindle version, took a picture of it with my NBA Jam TE SNES cartridge, tweeted it, and went on with my daily routine.

During one of my Facebook-checking moments, I came across a video posted by Dan Wilbur, the comedian behind the Facebook page Better book titles. The video had the words “NBA JAM” on top; I thought that maybe he also knew about the book, so I clicked on it. It was a part of an older stand-up performance of his, where he commented the – sadly true – story of how Tim Kitzrow, the legendary voice of NBA Jam, was paid a preposterously low amount of money for his work on the original game.

Even though I later found out that October 22nd was the first day of the 2019 NBA season, I was still surprised at the coincidence of seeing something NBA Jam related merely hours after buying the book.

That evening, I went to the cinema with a couple of friends, at the multiplex housed in a local shopping mall. I parked the car and started walking down the empty corridor that brought you from the parking garage to the main hall – all the stores were already closed. As the main hall began coming to view, I saw a huge Super Mario-esque star statue; it was part of an enclosed area, a temp exhibit of a handful of arcade cabinets. The first one I saw was a standup version of Sega’s Out Run. But right behind that, my eye caught the side of another cabinet. The side panel’s background was covered with the texture of a basketball, its yellow color betraying the cabinet’s age; on the foreground was a big NBA logo and the word “Midway” was written up top.

“You have got to be kidding me…” I whispered.

After a short pause, I started walking around the enclosure to see the front of the cabinet, although I didn’t really need further proof. There it was: NBA Jam. This was the first time I ever saw that cabinet up close. And what were the chances it would happen on that precise day. All the arcades were dark and the area was sealed off; I was already late so I couldn’t have stuck around anyway.

I simply acknowledged that #JamDay2019 magic is real, took a picture and tweeted about it.

I went back there two days later, during daytime, only to realize that all the cabinets were placed right under a huge skylight that filled the main hall with natural light. At the same time, its reflection on the screen made it almost impossible to see what was happening in-game. Suddenly, the dark tinted glasses of my childhood’s arcade made perfect sense. Still, I pressed the first player’s start button – the machine was set to Free Play – and for the first time in my entire life, I was about to play NBA Jam on the arcade.

It felt fitting to unlock the lead designer behind this masterpiece: I inserted the initials “M-J-T” and the birthday “MAR”, “22”. And there he was, Mark Turmell, with his unmistakable long blond hair. I picked my favorite team, the – now defunct – Seattle Supersonics, and played a single match, beating the Dallas Mavericks. It felt amazing.

NBA Jam: the book

I started reading the book the morning after and I completely ran through it. Reyan Ali has written such a well documented essay; it gave tons of nuances to some really old memories.

The journey begins some time before the first digital jump-ball ever occurred on an NBA Jam cabinet, before Turmell joined Midway, as the author lays out a few fundamental facts of video game and arcade history, highlighting info regarding key people at Midway that shaped the video game world with their work. People like Ed Boon and John Tobias, who, wanting to make a beat-em-up competitor to Capcom‘s Street Fighter II, created Mortal Kombat; a franchise that is still going strong in current generation consoles and PCs.

It’s rather surreal reading about how different creative geniuses of the ’90s met and interacted with each other. There’s the moment where James Cameron carefully watches a behind-the-scenes tape made by the people at Midway and tells them “You guys are making movies like I am,” giving them access to all of his Terminator 2 material and urging them to go talk to Stan Winston, the master of practical special effects. While movie tie-in video games have had a long bad reputation, that moment is pure magic.

When you get to the actual development of NBA Jam, Ali goes over a lot of different details of the game’s creation, without ever getting excessively technical. Still, for anyone interested in game design, like I am, it’s incredibly fascinating to find out how some of the most characteristic aspects of the game came to life. One of them was the moment when Turmell showed his friend and mentor, Eugene Jarvis, the digitized movement of Willie Morris Jr., the basketball player that performed all the moves featured in the game:

Turmell showed Jarvis how good the slam dunk looked. On the screen, Morris jumped a reasonable, realistic height and rattled the rim like an NBA star. “I like it,” Jarvis said, “but I think players should jump three times higher.”

This perfectly described how the people at Midway worked to create what they called “exaggerated reality”, a concept that became a staple of the company. Similar tales explain how they came up with the player reaching his “on fire” status, as well as the hilarious Big Head Mode, something that has since been used as a secret feature in so many different games throughout the years, from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to Batman: Arkham Knight. Personally, I was particularly excited to learn about a couple of things that Turmell added and ran entirely “under the hood”: the clock’s speeding up and slowing down – that I had never noticed – and “rubber banding” percentages, that gave a handicap to the team in the lead, in order to give the opponent a better chance of catching up. This was an amazing, yet subtle, way to make the game more competitive and exciting.

The reader also catches glimpses of an uglier side of the industry, reading how Midway unexpectedly lost the entire NBA Jam IP, which passed to Acclaim, the company behind the conversions and publishing for home consoles. It was heartbreaking to read about an all-too-familiar situation where a team’s intellectual material is not their intellectual property, a story that we can witness in some shape or form even today – eg. Hideo Kojima leaving Konami, and Metal Gear, an IP he created from scratch, remaining with the company. An interesting parallel is how, after parting ways with the original creative teams, both IP holders made terrible products: NBA Jam Extreme and Metal Gear Survive.

After that moment, the book sticks with the original creative team, as they move on creating new games, even securing a new NBA license, and making NBA Hangtime. Throughout my childhood, I was always confused about how patents and licenses worked. I didn’t know if Hangtime was a legitimate sequel to NBA Jam or somebody’s blatant attempt at ripping off one of the greatest NBA-related game franchises ever built. Reyan Ali puts all those different elements to the right places, making all those aspects crystal clear and finally restoring order in my head.

Ali’s decision to stick with the original creative team makes absolute sense. Ultimately, this book is about people, about the ideas that were born in a group of minds that gave their best in creating a product that has left an indelible mark to so many of us. And I believe that the entire industry should be about exactly that, the people doing the actual work. I realize that the more complicated and bigger a title is, the more difficult this becomes; nowadays, we get pages of credits after we finish a triple-A game title; hundreds of people work on tiny different compartments. Still, they are the hearts and minds of the industry. They are the ones that come up with new ideas, that figure out ways to implement them, to circumvent and to surpass technical limits, all to bring their visions to life.

In NBA Jam’s case, we are all lucky that the stars aligned when Trey Smith, working on an EA Sports basketball title for the Wii, thought of making it the new NBA Jam: Mark Turmell was also working for Electronic Arts at the time. The collaboration between the two gave us the jewel that is NBA Jam (2010), a game that was born for the Wii, but it was so good that it hopped over to the Xbox 360, the PS3 and mobile devices. This happened during a time when digital distribution was reserved for lesser titles, indie games, and gimmicky projects. In fact, EA Sports managed to almost screw up the game’s release by initially planning to give NBA Jam away through a download code that would have come with NBA Elite 11. When a video showing a ridiculous bug on NBA Elite 11’s demo hit YouTube, the game was pretty much doomed; its X360 and PS3 releases were cancelled and NBA Jam was free to be released on its own.

I eventually bought NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, both for the iOS and the PS3. In a video game world already full of terrible remakes and sequels, the latest Jam was an amazing product, and a worthy heir to the franchise. In the book, there is a passage that I believe clearly explains what made the game so good:

The solution was to employ “the sequel rule of thirds,” a concept Smith described as a way to divide the game’s design into three buckets. The project aimed to deliver a third that was the same (In Smith’s words, “Take them back to their happy place”), a third that was improvements (“Don’t muck with the recipe, enhance it”), and a third that was all new (“Take the game places it has never been before”).

I find this “sequel rule of thirds” to be absolutely ingenious; and I hope more sequels and remakes implemented it. Sadly, while there’s a handful of exceptions, they mostly don’t; they don’t really take us to our happy place, they muck with the recipe and they take the game places it should have never gone.

I’ll do my best to be among the handful of exceptions.