Sports games in the arcades basically fell into two categories, neither of which ever attempted to be simulations. The first, and the first to come along, were the games like Ice Hockey and Soccer that offered loose simulations of the actual sports. Complicated or time-consuming rules were dropped or lessened to promote faster gameplay. Building on that idea came this game, which set up the second type of arcade genre known as the “dirty sport.” These are games like Mutant League Football, that basically take all of the rules to keep sports clean and fair, and toss them right out the ‘ol window. The intent becomes to play aggressive; like a hyperviolent parody of the games they are based on. Though neither bloody or deadly, Arch Rivals, by self-admission, did create the whole concept of the basketbrawl.
Rivals is a simple two-on-two game of basketball, with personal fouls and goal tending rules removed. Opposing team has the ball? Wind up and crack them in the jaw, then pick up the dropped ball and score. Opposing team shoots for three? Jump up and smack the ball out of the goal before it goes through. The emphasis is on playing dirty and playing to win. If you go solo, it’s you and computer teammate against two computer players. If you bring along an optional friend, you each control one member of the opposing teams, with a computer teammate offering backup.
Midway and Acclaim clearly operate on the belief that stealing from yourself is not plagiarism. Later gamers will quickly recognize that Arch Rivals is in every way, shape, and form, a very early version of NBA Jam. From the controls, to the lack of rules, right down to shattering the backboard after a heavy dunk, this is an NES version of the Jam. If you are a hardcore Jammer, then don’t bother with the rest of this review as you essentially have already played this game.
Fundamentally, Arch Rivals is meant as a tongue-in-cheek parody of professional basketball. Rules appear to have been removed both to expedite the gameplay (you’re certainly not going to have to stop the game for a ref’s call, or wait for boring ol’ free throws) and also to make the entire game more fun and arcade-simple. Graphics are very cartoony, and team names range from both the unassuming (Chicago) to the comedic (Brawl State and Natural High). The ability to knock players to the floor for a steal, or just to take them out of play for a second, keeps things moving quickly. Only having to worry about yourself and a single teammate keeps things basic. Controlling your player is pretty intuitive, with a button to pass and a button to shoot. The shoot button punches when you’re on defense, and the pass button leaps skyward to block the ball. You can also use these buttons to order your teammate when you’re not directly facing or engaging an opposing player. So you can request him to pass or to shoot, complete with little speech bubble over your head.
The arcade’s graphics looked absolutely awesome – here, well, not so much. Characters are much smaller and shorter than in the arcade, the crowd not as detailed, the court, well, probably about equal actually. The net effect is playing the game from a much further perceived distance than in the arcade, maybe ten rows back compared to courtside. The ball’s shadow is also smaller and harder to spot, making it harder to track as it, and the characters, move from foreground to background inside the court. Similar trouble with lining up a punch on another player, all of whom show no shadows at all. Still, the gameplay remains intact, so the question for you is if the quarterless home version can offset the reduced graphics.
Sound is pretty much what you would expect. The main theme plays throughout the game,and is a simple hip-hop kind of beat with a few loops of major sports songs thrown in when you score a point. Animations come with this too, such as brief “cutscene” pictures of the refs, cheerleaders, and coaches after a score. Detail here is quite good for the NES, with cartoony, exaggerated characters. Between quarters there is a half-time report in the form of a fictitious sportscast. It offers brief snippets of wisdom on the controls or suggested strategy, and occasionally a quick cheerleading routing. It’s rarely informative, and primarily serves to pimp the British Knights shoe company, who apparently offered their license for this game. In fact, the diamond BK logo will sneak its way into the background of every single animated cutscene and onto the side of the actual court itself. Hmpf. Companies using games to promote their products? Inconceivable. It’s a good thing that so much has changed since the 80s.
The faults of the game will make themselves apparent for you pretty quickly. One is the fact that the teams are just color changes on the uniforms, and the exact same players are on all teams. These players are supposed to have different attributes, such as more accurate shots or rebounds, but if there is a difference in the players it is certainly not great enough to notice. Many of them also have very generic attributes listed, like “great player” or “all-American” making it hard to discern what stat boost you’re supposed to be looking for. It seems more likely that Midway just ran out of ways the characters could be distinct.
The AI isn’t all that bright either. The opposing team seems average, though it’s easy to find a pattern that works and exploit it through the whole game. A series of difficulty levels would have helped this. Still, they handle the ball pretty well, and do a good job of moving it down the court. They’re not bad shots either, and they are never reluctant to pop you in the jaw when the opportunity presents itself, even if you’re not carrying the ball.
The intelligence for your computer teammate is much lower, and although he can steal and move the ball, he won’t ever make a move until you tell him to. If he has the ball and makes it down court, he will just move around and wait until you tell him to shoot. He also will never pass the ball until you shout that specific order, which basically makes him fist bait. He doesn’t appear to be any one of the characters you can play, so it’s hard to tell what stats he’s supposed to have. But when he shoots, he’s relatively accurate so he’s not completely worthless. Yet he’s at his best when he’s moving the ball and setting you up in position for a quick pass. Most other times he’s laid out on his ass while the opposing team runs away with the ball.
If you’re looking for an original and entertaining basketball game, this is worth it. It’s fun to play the game so loosely, and its brand of humor can be very amusing, such as tripping over the midget referee (whose thick glasses probably explain why fouls are never called) or shattering the backboard after an impressive dunk. However, the game could have benefited from a few different game modes, or perhaps a persistent season instead of just endless exhibitions. The replay value suffers a bit because of this, but it still offers its share of enjoyable matches, especially if you can scare up a friend, and especially if the much-improved NBA Jam is not an option.
The original in enjoyable arcade-style basketball.
Only one game mode, no difficulty levels, unreliable AI.