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Review: NBA Jam the Book

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HE’S ON FIRE!

EA Sports Rookie Class Video Game Tournament

For basketball fans of a certain age, NBA Jam will always be without peer in the sports video game world (apologies to Damian Lillard and the 2K franchise). Twenty-seven years have passed since the first quarters were fed into Jam cabinets, but catchphrases “He’s on fire!” and “Boom—shaka—laka” are as recognizable as ever. A testament to the lasting cultural impact of Midway’s iconic creation.

Part of NBA Jam’s charm is that it was one of the first to leverage the technological limitations of the time into a format that was addictingly absurd and replayable. Rather than laugh at the Tom Chambers dunk glitch in the nominally “realistic” Bulls vs. Blazers, NBA Jam players were encouraged to revel in Clyde Drexler’s 15-foot vertical leap, the distinct lack of rules, and a flaming ball. The frenetic (chaotic?) two-on-two arcade format emphasized the fun of a childhood fantasy version of street ball, in lieu of over-programming a five-on-five simulation on an 8-bit machine.

In the aptly named NBA Jam, published by Boss Fight Books, author Reyan Ali outlines the circumstances that lead to this ingenious creation. Via in-depth research and interviews with many individuals involved in the creation of the original game, Ali paints a complete picture of not just the production of NBA Jam, but also the circumstances motivating its genesis, the immediate fallout of its release, and the game’s lasting legacy.

The result is a holistic picture of ‘90s sports gaming culture, in general, and the NBA’s place in video game history, specifically. For example, Ali describes the troubled history of arcades in New York City. He recounts for readers the 1942 banning of Pinball and 1980s stigma that arcades were for “troublemakers.” It was in this cultural climate that Midway Games had to talk the skeptical NBA into agreeing to a licensing agreement — the only video game license the league had at the time. Naturally, the NBA retained an escape clause allowing it to pull the license if cabinets started showing up in “disreputable” locations.

Of course, the NBA did not regret its decision. Once the game was released it became an almost overnight hit — even among the players it emulated. Ali notes that stars Glen Rice and Shaquille O’Neal were ardent gamers. “I was an NBA Jam junkie,” Rice told Ali. Shaq purchased his own cabinet and regularly faced off against Magic teammates Anfernee Hardaway and Dennis Scott.

Overall Ali provides the perspective and insight of a professional historian. Many projects like this fall into the habit of a journalistic style of stringing together a uni-directional narrative that provides no greater insight. This book is the opposite in that the case study of NBA Jam includes minute details about the production of the game and the circumstances of the NBA, but also bestows the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the climate and process behind ‘90s sports video games.

A final note on the book’s format: There are no illustrations or photos so readers can order the digital copy without fear of missing out on any visual information. Given the inherently visual nature of video games, I strongly recommend browsing the author’s twitter feed while reading. He supplements the information in the book with a veritable treasure-trove of contemporary documents and videos.