Chasing Ghosts: One Quarter at a Time

Is It The Shoes? NBA Jam dominates childhood

The following is part of a series about my past experiences with arcade games and running them in MAME. I will only write about games I remember playing in an actual arcade, not games I only discovered through MAME.

NBA Jam reportedly made a billion dollars in quarters while in the arcade.

Three-fourths of those quarters probably belonged to me.

For nearly three years, this game dominated my life. Both in the arcades, where I spent all the money I had, and later on the Sega Genesis, where I faced my GREATEST CHALLENGE OF ALL TIME!

OK, the caps lock was a bit unnecessary, but a single-elimination tournament against my Uncle Brett Cherry that took up a whole day tested my video game skills like nothing else had.

To understand my love for NBA Jam, you have to understand the sheer adoration I held for my uncle Brett. I didn’t have an older brother, and he, being seven years older than me, filled in quite nicely. He was also the one who got me hooked on video games. I had gotten his hand-me-down Atari 2600, and Xmas 1989 was the first time I had ever seen the NES in person, as he got the NES Power Set that came with Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt and World Class Track Meet. On the non-gaming side, it was his love of basketball and the full size Michael Jordan poster that got me interested in the sport during 1992.

From there, I digested everything hoops related. I read his Sports Illustrated magazines with articles featuring the 1993 NBA Playoffs, watched Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers every time I visited my grandparents, and watched in awe as he tore through Tecmo NBA Basketball on the NES

I didn’t think video game basketball could get any better (no, Pat Riley Basketball does not count). I was about to find out otherwise.

62000901 62000902

The arcade flyer for the original NBA Jam

Sometime in 1993 (the specific time of year slips my mind), my mom, sister and I were visiting my extended family, and we took a trip to the mall. This is the first time I had seen an Aladdin’s Castle, and begged my mom for some quarters.

Being the amazing mom she is, she always gave me quarters any time we were near arcade machines. This was no exception, as I made my way into the arcade, probably intent on finding X-Men or TMNT. Instead of cartoon turtles, I found realistic basketball players instead.

I can’t be alone in this, but do you remember seeing something like technology or architecture that changed your life? OK, life changing sounds dramatic, but think of the first time you saw high-definition TV, Super Mario 64, or Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World. Seeing NBA Jam in an arcade for the first time was one of those eye-opening moments.

For one, the only previous exposure I had with basketball games before that was the aforementioned Tecmo NBA Basketball and an Arch-Rivals arcade cabinet at the local Pizza Hut (the same one I’d found Ms. Pac-Man at years later). The former featured identical players, while the latter was filled with cartoon characters. NBA Jam, however, had digitized faces of real NBA players.

This was the first time I had seen a video game with this level of realistic graphics. I picked the Bulls, got demolished, and then got annoyed that my 50 cents only got me one quarter of gameplay. I do remember pulling off a backwards dunk with Horace Grant, and losing my mind that he had goggles in the game just like in real life.

This game took precedence over everything that the arcade had to offer. When we went to Chuck E. Cheese, I spent most of my tokens on this game. A trip to Fudruckers in Virginia Beach ended up being the one of the best nights of the year because they had this machine.

And the best part about NBA Jam? Aside from the amazing gameplay, it led me to appreciate basketball even more. It led me to rent different basketball games on the Genesis, such as Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs, NBA Showdown, and even the updated Tecmo Super NBA Basketball (which holds up much better than the previous two games). It inspired me to play real basketball, both in organized leagues and with friends and my mom. Some of my favorite memories involve my mom playing H.O.R.S.E. with me on the Rosemont Elementary School basketball courts during the summer of 94, when we had the hoops to ourselves due to no school being in session.

None of this happens without NBA Jam and my Uncle Brett. So naturally, the two had to meet.

He came to visit a few weeks after I got the game on the Genesis, which I had spent four months saving my allowance to buy. He and I took each other on in a winner take all tournament. He let me have the Eastern Conference so I could be the Bulls, and he took all the teams in the West. Basically, if you won, you kept your team while the opponent went to the next team on the list. I don’t remember the specifics, only that he had about five or six teams remaining after I lost the final game.

My months of playing were no match for the future airman. Still, it’s a memory I wouldn’t trade for the world.

While the game was fun on the Genesis, I would have given anything to have the arcade machine sitting in my house. Even at the age of 10, I recognized the shortcomings that the home console had. The sound wasn’t nearly as great, and the players faces weren’t the same digitized ones you saw in the arcade: they were just generic players that looked somewhat like the real versions (Horace Grant had the goggles, but I don’t remember the real Scottie Pippen having a mohawk). Also, I was a big fan of Shaquille O’Neal at that time, and the home version does not include him due to licensing issues. My home version did include Charles Barkley, but later versions of the game omitted him due to his likeness being used in his own title, Shut Up and Jam.

Still, it was a great alternative to saving up quarters and only playing the game when your mom took you somewhere with the machine.

Due to the heavy use of the NBA Players Association license, it would be extremely difficult to re-release this specific version (EA Sports did an updated NBA Jam for modern consoles that I haven’t got around to playing, but I hear great things) on modern consoles or the PC, so finding the arcade version in the wild or downloading it for MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is the only way you’re going to be able to play this game. Yes, you could get the home console versions, but they feel like curio pieces once you spend a decent amount of time with the arcade version. And with that easily available, I’m not sure why you’d want to go back to the console version, unless you’re playing with friends and you don’t want to huddle around the computer.

So how does it play in MAME? For the most part, it plays really well. My version of NBA Jam, rev. 2.0, had a save problem. After winning two straight games, it didn’t save my data for some reason, despite saving my earlier game. You can use save states to alleviate that, but I dislike using those. It’s a minor thing, but I like the games to start up the way they would in an arcade.

The biggest issue you are going to have in using this in a MAME cab is the number of players. In my cocktail cabinet, I only have room for two players, which means you don’t get the 2-on-2 experience. You either play 1 on 1, or on the same team against the computer, just like I did on the Genesis so many years ago. Even though there is a dip switch setting for NBA Jam to only be a two-player cabinet, I was unable to get this to work. So unless I want to remap the controls, I’m stuck with 1-on-1 games (I was able to get NBA Jam T.E. to switch to a two-player setup, so there must be an issue with the specific ROM I’m using).

Others will probably enjoy the updated versions of the game, like T.E., Hangtime and Maximum Hangtime, more than the original, and I can’t blame anyone for that. Hangtime has more features like different courts, more players to choose from, alley oop dunks, and a create a player option that takes an entire credit without letting you actually play the game. I have great memories of going to the Stardust Skating Rink in Augusta, GA to play NBA Hangtime, and loved every second of it. But those didn’t stick with me like the original did, and despite having all four on my MAME cab, I always go back to the original. Sometimes, simplicity is superior.

As far as how much it holds up, it’s fun for 10-15 minute spurts, enough to play one or two games. It’s pleasant enough to play by yourself, but the real fun is in multiplayer. I’ve found that nearly every sports title on retro systems fails to hold up to fun, playable status, but this is one of those sports games that bucks that trend.

If NBA Jam isn’t one of your favorite games, it’s probably not going to factor into your plans when you are putting together the MAME cab. But if your main interest is four-player titles like Jam, NFL Blitz, and NHL Open Ice, definitely make sure you make a four-player control setup a priority, or you’ll feel a little let down once you are done with your project.

Speaking of let downs, I was victorious in one aspect of our NBA Jam tournament. I had to pick the Miami Heat, who were comprised of Harold Miner and Rony Seikaly.

“Who is Harold Miner?” I asked my Uncle. He seemed bewildered that I had no idea who this player was.

“You don’t know Harold Miner?” he says to the 10-year-old. “He’s really good.”

For some reason, I felt like debating my uncle on this and for no reason at all, I declared that I’d rather have Bill Cartwright (who isn’t in NBA Jam) on my team than Harold Miner. This wasn’t an entirely crazy idea: Cartwright had been the starting center for the Bulls during their championship years, while Miner was a rookie in Miami. However, this annoyed Uncle Brett to no fixed end.

“You know what they call Harold Miner? Baby Jordan! That’s how good he is. Bill Cartwright is not better than Harold Miner.”

I reminded my uncle of this conversation a few years ago, while at the same time presenting him with statistics of their respective careers.

Cartwright: 963 games played, 13.2 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 1.4 assists per game, three NBA titles

Miner: 200 games played, 9.0 points per game, 0.4 rebounds per game, 0.8 assists per game, zero NBA titles.

Yes Uncle Brett, Bill Cartwright is better than Harold Miner.

And NBA Jam is better than any basketball game ever created.

My Wife Plays NBA Jam

In an effort to get my wife to play more games, I agreed to give her space to rant and give her thoughts on a game with one credit’s worth of playtime. Here are her words. Oh and she’s on Twitter, @alliwait).

I wish I had known Dustin had the game set on hard. I had trouble trying to block shots, getting my shot blocked, and stealing the ball. But I had fun, and I liked hitting three-pointers (even one from half court). One of the guys had flames on the ball, and that made it even more fun.

I didn’t realize I had picked the Phoenix Suns, but I do like Charles Barkley. It looked like they just chopped his face off of a magazine, and the Big Head mode made it really easy to tell who it was.

The game felt nostalgic, but not too lame. Sometimes when you go back and play a really old game, you’re just mashing buttons. I liked the strategy you had to use in this game.