Four years before NBA JAM debuted, there was another arcade basketball game from Midway. Like JAM, this game is in a two-on-two format. It features a no-rules, no fouls format. Steals can change the game, along with clutch three-pointers. Players can dunk from the foul line– and sometimes even shatter the backboard glass.

The game is called Arch Rivals.

Released in arcades in 1989, Acclaim licensed the home version for the Nintendo Entertainment System from Midway a year later and turned conversion duties over to RARE Coin-It, the wizard development studio from England that had quite a history of NES game development for Acclaim and other publishers. Arcade conversions were not new for RARE, having already brought coin-op hits like Marble Madness and John Elway’s Quarterback (I’ll get to that one!) over to Nintendo’s 8-bit platform. RARE’s effort here is solid… but before looking at the quality, it makes sense to take a deeper look at the base arcade game.

Upon starting the game, players are asked to choose the team matchup. The teams are a mix of city names, along with a couple of “attitude”-powered names in Natural High and Brawl State. It doesn’t matter which team is selected, as the players are the same for every team. Next, a basketball player must be chosen to play as. There are eight to pick from, each with his own trait. Lewis is branded as a “top shooter”, while Mohawk is “tough and mean” and Tyrone is a “defensive giant”. These traits don’t seem to apply to the court, though; Lewis, for example, doesn’t hit as many threes as one might expect from a “top shooter”. It’s basically picking a team and an avatar, and then hitting the court– where skill and a bit of luck will determine the victors… and that’s not a bad thing.

On the court, games are played in four-minute quarters. In the arcade version, tokens must be inserted occasionally to keep playing… but the NES conversion is, of course, free of that distraction. The game scrolls horizontally, with arrows signifying where players are if they’ve fallen behind the camera. Baskets are worth two points or three points, just like fans of the sports are familiar with. The A button jumps and shoots, while the B button passes. There doesn’t seem to be a trick to getting better accuracy by holding the Shoot button down until the top of the jump shot.

As mentioned above, there aren’t any foul calls here; in fact, players are encouraged to punch opponents by pressing the B button in order to steal the ball or to knock them to the floor and out of position for rebounds or before they can shoot. Punched players get back up rather quickly, and games will see a lot of blows landed before they’re done. It’s pretty satisfying to land a punch, steal the ball, and fast-break down the court for an easy dunk or jumper. Conversely, it’s not always possible to escape from the backcourt if a defender is closely guarding, so there can be quite a few turnovers that might frustrate especially new players. Punching is perhaps the signature trait of Arch Rivals; in fact, the act of punching is prominent in the title screen sequence. It’s violent, sure, but cartoonish violence– and, admittedly, it makes the game more fun.

Opponents’ fists aren’t the only things out to get players on the court. After each intermission, scattered debris litters the floor. Any player who runs into these objects goes down like a sack of flour and gives up the ball. Even the referee is an obstacle, as he patrols the top of the court near the half-court line. Running into the ref is the same as slipping on popcorn or soda, so it’s best to watch where players are going– especially early in each period.

There’s a halftime show in both the arcade and NES versions of the game. Interestingly, the halftime show and each of the intermissions is sponsored by British Knights footwear in the NES version. Acclaim capitalized on an advertising deal with the sneaker company, and players will see the BK logo– not to be confused with Burger King— everywhere. The first and third quarter intermissions each feature a game tip, introduced by a TV sports anchor from WIDB. These are all nice presentation touches, and add some more personality.

At the end of each game, if the player’s stats are good enough, there’s an opportunity to enter initials for the Top 5 leaderboard. Unlike the arcade version, the NES conversion does not have the ability to save data– so turning off the NES wipes the leaderboard back to its default. Most NES arcade conversions are guilty of this. Back in the 1990s, I personally logged all of my high scores into a notebook. These days, if players are that interested, they can take photos of their achievements. That said, it is a little disappointing when you have a huge game and know that your stat line is gone once you turn off your console… but it’s not a big enough knock to keep affect its quality.

So how does the NES conversion hold up against the arcade original? Pretty well. The visuals are slightly downgraded, but most of the arcade experience is here. There are short cutscenes after each basket, just like in the coin-op. The player models are decent and animate well. The intermissions and halftime show look very good. There isn’t any digitized voice in the NES version, but that’s not a major omission given the hardware differences. The music sounds similar to the arcade, and master composer David Wise knocks it out of the park again with his arrangement of some of the tunes.

On the court, computer-controlled opponents can be a bit too predictable. Sometimes, they’ll run right into a player’s closed fist for no reason, leading to an inexplicable turnover. Shooting is perhaps less accurate than the arcade version, with quite a few blown dunks and short jumpers that clang off the iron– even if the shooter is wide open. Rebounds only seem to travel in one of a few predetermined directions, so it can be easy after a few games to memorize them and take advantage of positioning… especially against the computer. The good news is that, while playing against the computer may be too easy at times, playing against a friend on the NES is just as fun as it is in the arcade. The only drawback may be that four-minute quarters sometimes feel like they’re overstaying their welcome, especially in blowout situations.

In 1992, a Genesis conversion of Arch Rivals would be published by Acclaim’s Flying Edge subsidiary. While it more closely resembled the coin-op in terms of graphics and sound, shot accuracy was over-corrected, leading to baskets from almost anywhere. within half-court. Then, in 2004, an emulated version of the coin-op original was included as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 compilation for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube. This emulation is as close to the arcade original as a player can get, outside of owning the actual cabinet.

I open up a new copy of Midway Arcade Treasures 2 in this #Unsealed episode.

As for the NES version? It compares favorably to the coin-op original, in my view. It was one of the first NES games that I bought after getting the console for Christmas in 1990, and I never regretted that decision. I played it a lot on my own, and always shot for 100 points in a game. It was cheaper than dropping tokens into it at my local arcade, plus I actually got better at the arcade version when I did spend money on it by practicing at home. I still go back to it every now and again, and I still find it fun.

I had no idea back then that Arch Rivals would at least indirectly lead to my favorite arcade game of all time… but that’s a story for a different Midway Monday.

Have you played either of the console conversions? What do you think of them? Feel free to leave a comment to share your thoughts here, or jump on Twitter and talk to me there about it!

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