When NBA Stars Attack

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I can honestly say that I have never cared about basketball at any point in my life. In fact, I wouldn’t know a thing about basketball if it weren’t for two things; the media and video games.  Basketball games have always made up for a substantial share of the video game market since the beginning.  When we take a look at why, there is a very good reason, and that is the fact that the game itself has always been ripe with larger-than-life personalities that we have come to know and love as NBA Superstars.  Now don’t get me wrong-I’m not saying there is anything wrong with basketball itself; it is just a personal preference, just like how some people hate baseball or boxing.  In the old days we had Jordan vs. Bird, Double Dribble and Arch Rivals.  Then in the early 1990’s, Midway introduced us to NBA Jam, an arcade style 2-on-2 basketball game that took the world by storm.  Everybody was into NBA Jam, including me.  The face of video game basketball was changed forever, and in a good way.

pippenonfire NBA Jam first hit arcades in 1993, and was wildly popular. I was aware of its release but paid it no attention, as I didn’t care about basketball. As far as I was concerned it was a good thing, seeing as how it drew gamers away from my favorites like Mortal Kombat, shortening the lines that I was standing in to play.  A year later, it was ported to the Sega Genesis and SNES, and that is where I first played the game, on a display at a music retail store called Media Play.  Now here was a basketball game that I could get into.  I was hooked, and still am, to this day.  The simple, arcade-style play, devoid of fouls, out of bounds, and even free throws, made the gameplay fluid and the action nonstop.  The concept of being “on fire” (after scoring 3 goals in a row you had infinite turbo), shattering the back boards made the game even more fun than you could have imagined.  There were also an abundance of cheat codes you could apply to the game, such as slippery courts, big heads, and infinite turbo, as well as a roster of secret characters seemingly as large as the actual player roster.  You could even play as Bill Clinton!

ClintonJamWhile playing as Slick Willie and some of the other guest stars was as entertaining as the game itself, NBA Jam offers something much deeper than what we see on the surface.  Understand that, just like in real life sports, there were factors influencing the game off camera, as well as some other curiosities.  Rumor has it that the Mortal Kombat (another Midway property) characters could be accessed as players early in the game’s development life, but the NBA itself didn’t like the idea, due to the high profile controversy of video game violence at the time. This is understandable; but the dirt doesn’t stop there.  Midway was able to acquire the Official NBA license for the game, which granted the developer the ability to use the likeness and name of any NBA stars they wanted for the game. Well, except for a few, and I’m talking about 3 guys in particular: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley.  These three were probably the best three players in the world at the time, and they were well aware of it.  So much, that they weren’t included in the game because they owned the rights to their own names and images, and proved to be too expensive for Midway to purchase for the game.

NBAJAMBARKLEYMichael Jordan in particular was too expensive from the get-go, however Barkley and Shaq appeared in the arcade version.  When the game was to be ported to home consoles, Shaq had followed Jordan’s lead and was also omitted from the game.  Charles Barkley appeared in the original pressings of the game, but was absent for the same reason as the other two on later issues of the game. Its been said that Jordan actually had a copy that featured him specially made for his own personal use. One has to question why three of the most prominent men in the sport at the time decided not to be included in what ended up being the definitive video game version of the game.  I would say I have the answer for that with the following games these men chose to appear in, but I admit this probably leaves more questions than it does answers.  You be the judge.

Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City (1994, Electronic Arts)

MJChaos2So, when Michael Jordan’s agent told him about NBA Jam, this was Jordan’s better idea? Hmm.  Basketball legend passes on a basketball game in favor of an action-platformer starring himself using basketballs as a weapon. Interesting.  The truth is, this isn’t really a bad game at all; its just odd.  In Chaos in the Windy city, Michael Jordan is preparing for a charity basketball game when all of his teammates are kidnapped.  Notice the ‘charity basketball game’ aspect of the storyline. It’s as if the charity element is meant to be a counterweight for the obvious ego trip that this game ultimately comes off as being.  Anyways, its up to Michael Jordan to use all his mad b-ball skills to save them.  What really struck me as weird when writing all of this was the parallel to another superstar’s video game, Michael Jackson: Moonwalker (1990, Sega).  Both feature a megastar with the initials “MJ,” both have you rescuing people, (basketball players in Jordan’s, children in Jackson’s) and in both games you utilize the protagonist’s real life skills to defeat enemies (basketball for Jordan and dancing for Jackson). I do sense a conspiracy here, people…

moonwalker Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1990, Sega)

 You have all the elements of a classic platform game infused with basketball. Jordan uses his ball as a weapon to take out enemies, makes jumps across pitfalls, locates keys and rescues team mates.  There are even baseball elements to the game, referencing his ill-fated attempt to crossover into baseball.  Don’t leave out the product placement-Gatorade, Nike, and Wheaties are all faithfully represented here in this game.  The graphics are decent, including a humorous healthbar based on Jordan’s face in the upper left hand corner of the screen.  The game also has adjustable difficulty settings and has more or less decent gameplay.  At the end of the day, Michael Jordan skipped being in NBA Jam for this fairly decent, albeit strange game. Which isn’t half bad, when we look at the other games featured here.

Barkley: Shut up and Jam! (1994, Accolade)

BarkleyTitlescreenOf all three players mentioned here, at least Charles Barkley’s game is an actual basketball game.  True, the game has the least ridiculous premise of the three, however it does come off as the biggest ego trip in my opinion.  Shut Up and Jam! is a 2 on 2, street hoops game, in which Charles Barkley is the only NBA player featured, leaving the rest of the roster filled with fictional characters.  Think about that for a second.  This man actually insisted on having a game where the player has no choice but to play as him.  Amazing.  As soon as the game boots up, you hear Barkley’s voice say, “Time for some pain.”  He couldn’t be any closer to the truth.

BarkleygameplayThis game is horribly broken; the graphics are well below that of NBA Jam, and the shit rolls downhill from there.  Remember all those cool features from NBA Jam I was talking about earlier? Well, none of those features can be found in this game.  Just simple, dribble and shoot basketball.  The AI is horrible; it isn’t common to see the computer players stare at a loose ball on the ground for several seconds.  This will prompt Barkley’s voice to yell “Go get the damn ball!” which makes me wonder if that was done on purpose.  I remember back in the day, Nintendo Power had a contest for the game, where the Grand Prize winner got to play the game with Sir Charles himself.  If it had been my house he had visited, I would have insisted we play NBA Jam instead.

Shaq Fu (1994, Electronic Arts)

shaqfuboxartDon’t act like you had no idea where this article was going.  We all knew the whole time I was leading up to this.  In 1994, Shaquille O’Neal was everywhere.  Regarded as the savior of the Orlando Magic, Shaq could do no wrong.  He was a monster on the court, an actor starring in such silver screen classics as “Kazaam” and “Steel,” as well as a prominent rapper.  It was rumored even then that Shaq would be a guest rapper on Guns n’ Roses’ upcoming album which in reality we wouldn’t see until 2008, and sadly, Shaq does not, in fact, rap on the album, which has nothing to do with this monstrosity here.  Shaq Fu was published by Electronic Arts, a company that was years away from being the sports powerhouse that it is today, and not a company known for its fighting games either.  I can imagine this game being pitched to the execs at Capcom, with an uproarious laughter following the dejected pitchman out of the room.

shaqfu2This was not a one or two system release either, mind you.  This was the Shaq video game, dammit! It saw release on every home and portable console on the market.  It is shocking that this game ended up not being as bad as it could have been. The graphics were not bad at all, as far as the standards of the day were concerned.  The animations were very well detailed, but the mechanics of the game are where the problems laid.  You would be in the middle of executing a move, only to have it not work due to the fact that the length of the jumping animation caused your timing to be off.  The characters were also poorly balanced, and the sound, while having decent music, lacked any semblance of sound effects.  Then there was the asinine plot, which to be honest, helped kill this racehorse before it even left the gate.  The premise was Shaq was on his way to a charity basketball game (there’s the charity thing again) when he wanders into a kung fu dojo.  That’s right, in most cities you’ll find the kung fu dojo in the same neighborhood as sports arenas. At this dojo, Shaq finds out that an evil mummy kidnapped a young boy, and sets out to find him by entering a fighting tournament. I swear to God, that was the plot.

new shaqfuAt the end of all this, you have to ask yourself what in the hell were these men thinking when they came up with these ideas.  At least Charles Barkley, for once in his life, stayed modest and stuck to a basketball game.  Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal had to have talked about this with all their friends, families, and business associates prior to their game’s releases.  Did nobody have the decency to tell any of them that these were horrible ideas?  That has to be the downside of sports stardom, being surrounded by yes men, I guess.  On a closing note, during my research for this article, I discovered there is a website, www.shaqfu.com, which is dedicated to saving mankind by hunting down and destroying all copies of the game ever made.  On the other side of the coin, there is an opposition website, www.saveshaqfu.com, which is dedicated to searching out and preserving all copies of the game for future generations.  My wife has joined the latter of the two, and is currently championing the cause.

funnyshaqPerhaps, the final battle between good and evil on this planet will not take place between God and the Devil; the fate of our very existence could end up being decided between these two groups and their war over Shaq Fu.  Time is running out, people. Better choose a side.

So let it be written, so let it be done.

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I am a full time Firefighter/EMT living in the United States. In my spare time, I split my time between modern games on my Xbox and the rich universe of the systems we all grew up with.

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