Up until now, we here at JGR have covered console games and computer games, but we have yet to cover the third tier of classic gaming: arcade games. Yes, we’ve taken a look at console ports of arcade titles (including J Man’s review of the Jaguar version of this very game), but we’ve never gone that extra step and looked at the actual arcade version of any of them until now, because thanks to a new Extras section and a working version of MAME that we don’t have and would never endorse using, we can take a look at the One True Jam: NBA Jam Tournament Edition for the arcade.
For those of you that weren’t around when Jam was a thing, it’s a stripped-down, rules-lite style of basketball, with two-on-two action infused with arcade shenanigans like crazy dunks where players leap twenty feet in the air and do four frontflips before slamming it home. The only rules enforced are goal tending and the shot clock, and thanks to three-minute quarters, you can rip through a full game in about fifteen minutes or so, making it just the right length for lines of players to get a chance to play.
Keeping with the arcade ethic, all you have is a joystick and three buttons, and that’s all you need, one for passes, one for shots, and one that provides turbo, the all-important mana of Jam. Holding Turbo while pushing other buttons supercharges moves; passes zip faster, dunks become rim-threatening, and steal attempts are replaced by simply shoving opponents to the floor. Turbo drains pretty quickly, so you have to pick your spots, unless you hit three unanswered buckets with the same player, in which case, they will be ON FIRE, giving you unlimited turbo and the ability to hit basically any shot you put up, within reason, so even if you catch fire with a big stiff like Pervis Ellison, Pervis will be able to hit threes like a sniper.
This being from the mid-90s, the arcade version is the best looking and sounding iteration of Jam. Player sprites are fairly well-detailed, and players’ faces are actually quite recognizable, like Reggie Miller’s weird Ferengi-esque head, and again, this being from the early-to-mid-90s, the box haircut is certainly on display here. Player height is also taken into account here, so guys like Shawn Bradley are taller than guys like Larry Johnson, who are taller than guys like John Stockton. Of course, you also get a lot of in-game commentary from the one, the only, the Voice of God himself, Tim Kitzrow, and unlike most of the console versions, player names are actually spoken, which adds to the atmosphere, and let’s face it, it’s just strangely enjoyable to hear Kitzrow blurt out awesome names like “GUGLIOTTA!”
Your goal, such as it is, is to defeat all 27 NBA teams, which provides a bevy of unlockables. In a nice touch, unlike the console versions, the game actually keeps track of stats like overall record, win streaks, teams most commonly chosen, and yes, even Grand Champions who defeat all 27 teams. Your progress is kept with a combination of your initials and your birthday, to ensure two people who both play as, let’s say “ASS”, don’t get confused for one another.
Most of the teams, except Dallas and Philadelphia, have three players on a team, and substitutions can only be made at halftime, as opposed to quarterly, as seen on the console versions. Each player is rated in eight different categories like three-pointers and blocks, but even terrible shooters are capable of hitting open shots, and shorter players are still capable of swatting shots if they time it correctly.
Sadly, though, there are some big names missing here; Michael Jordan is nowhere to be found, either for likeness reasons or possibly because he was off playing minor league baseball when the game was being developed, I’m not sure, and oddly enough, Shaq is also absent. However, I have heard that what would have been Jordan’s stats were given to Charles Barkley, as Chuck was probably the next most famous player available, and I suspect Shaq’s stats were given to Patrick Ewing, as well.
Now, this brings me to the major downside of arcade Jam: because this was meant to go into arcades, this game’s prime directive is to get you to pump as much change into it as possible, and BOY HOWDY DOES IT DO THAT WELL. First of all, the clock feels noticeably sped up, so it doesn’t really feel like you’re getting a full three minutes a quarter. Secondly, two credits buys you only one quarter of game play, meaning that buying a full game will set you back two bucks, and that’s assuming you don’t go to overtime, because yes, you get charged for the overtime period, too. So, that being said, even if you beat all 27 teams in regulation without losing to any (which, LOL, you’re not gonna do), it would cost you 54 dollars. That’s insane. And how do I know you’re not gonna go 27-0?
Because Jam features some of the most heinous rubber band logic I’ve ever seen in a game, arcade or otherwise. Very rarely, if ever, will you blow anybody out; once someone takes a five-point lead or so, the trailing team will suddenly have the ability to intercept passes and block shots at will. Even on the very rare occasion when you can catch fire and manage to sink four threes in a row, you best believe that 15-point lead will get shrunk to one or two by the end of the quarter. If you’re leading late in the fourth, your opponents will approach superhuman abilities, swiping the ball from you despite not being next to you, hitting any shot that you don’t block cleanly, and pushing you almost less to get the ball than out of pure spite.
It’s so bad that guys who have dunk ratings of zero, who the game explicitly states cannot dunk and can only perform layups, suddenly gain the ability to dunk over Hakeem Olajuwon. I gotta say, I have to admire a game that’s so bent on sucking money out of you that it’s willing to flagrantly violate its own rules to do so. I suppose this is less annoying than leveling the playing field by making you incapable of hitting shots like in the Jag version, but it’s really telling when the best way to protect a slim lead with ten seconds is to jack up a shot as soon as you inbound the ball and hope the clock runs out before the other team scoops up the ball.
Even despite the sleazy tactics designed to get you to plunk down quarter after quarter, I’d still recommend the arcade version of NBA Jam Tournament Edition as the One True Jam. It looks the best, sounds the best, and the rubber band logic does at least provide for consistently challenging games, and if you’re playing on MAME, which again, we do not condone, you don’t have to worry about bankrupting yourself in the process. I would’ve liked to play this with a buddy, but even as a one-player affair, this is the best of the Jam series and worthy of a playthrough, if only in the hopes that Tim Kitzrow can still collect royalty checks from it. Hey, the Voice of God’s gotta eat too.
The best Jam out there, solid graphics and excellent sound, most everyone of merit from the NBA at this point is available.
Shamelessly goes out of its way to make you pour money into the machine, even by arcade standards, the rubber band logic is brutal.