NBA JAM Day was March 4th, 1994. It was the day that the console versions of NBA JAM were to debut on store shelves, after months of waiting for fans like me.
I had been hooked on NBA JAM ever since playing the arcade game for the first time back in June of 1993 and winning on a last-second desperation three-pointer. The crazy dunks, the over-the-top commentary from Tim Kitzrow, the effect of getting to “on fire” status, and the elation from shattering the backboard glass on a dunk just blew my mind from that time on.
The game was also a big outlet for me to get away from some tough personal times that would begin later that summer. I got laid off from my job as a long-distance operator after 2 years. I was forced to move in with my paternal grandmother as my living situation crumbled and my former roommates moved away. My long-term relationship ended after we couldn’t make the long-distance thing work. Finding a new job with my limited skill set was tough, and I took a lot of rejection. I even wrecked my car. Through it all, visits to my local Just Fun arcade at the Fairfield Mall in Chicopee, Massachusetts and games of NBA JAM gave me much-needed breaks from it all. I eventually beat all of the NBA teams and my PJS initials flashed on the cabinet’s leaderboards.
When word hit that console versions were coming, I was more excited than I had been in a long time. I preordered the game from a video game store called Fantasy Realms, which had a small setup in the mall. I paid it off well before the launch date, which made the anticipation all the more intense. I had chosen the Genesis version because it had a battery backup, as opposed to the password feature that the SNES version was disappointingly using.
JAM Day at my house in Chicopee was complicated by a snowstorm that had rolled in overnight and lingered into the daylight hours. Waking up that morning to see all of the snow on the ground, and still falling, made me nervous that the mall might close. Once I got word that the mall and the store were both open, I made the 2+ mile trip on foot back and forth to go and pick up my game. It was a soggy, sloppy experience… but well worth it, as I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening playing the game and making my way through the teams to get my initials on the leaderboards– just like the arcade.
So… how does NBA JAM on the Genesis hold up today?
The core of the JAM arcade experience is here, and that’s the most important thing. There are high-flying dunks, wild shots, vicious steals, shattering backboards, and more that make the transition home. “On fire” modes are also here, and can still turn any game around– or perhaps put it out of reach. The battery backup means that progress through the teams and a few key stats for each registered player are stored even when the power is off, and that is huge.
Unlike the arcade game, this version (and others) of JAM allows players to make some key changes. Time can be sped up or slowed down, AI player difficulty can be increased or decreased, as well. The most notable option for players is the ability to toggle Computer Assistance on and off. Computer Assistance is, basically, Midway‘s “rubber band” feature from the arcade game that keeps scores close. This can be a positive when players are new or when players want games to come down to the wire, but playing with the feature off decides more games by skill than by interference. Having the option lets players tailor the kind of experience that they want, and that’s always a plus.
The play controls are very responsive. The game defaults to a button configuration on the Genesis controller that nestles the Turbo button (B button) between the Shoot button (A button) and the Pass button (C button). It takes a bit of getting used to, especially for players familiar with the bumper buttons on the SNES or PlayStation controllers. Turbo feels more natural on these bumpers, instead of rocking your thumb on the B button over to A or C. It’s not the game’s problem, of course, but a bit of a learning curve is needed to get accustomed to the button layout here. Once you do, shots, passes, dunks, steals, and blocks quickly become instinctive actions.
In terms of visuals, there’s more to like than not. The game performs well technically, with no slowdown to speak of, except for dramatic effect when the backboard is shattered. The players animate nicely, with the same kinds of acrobatic dunks from the arcade original. There are score overlays after baskets are made, and a sweet animated Halftime Report sequence that’s pulled right from the coin-op. On the downside, player models are a bit smaller than their arcade counterparts. They also lack a bit of detail. The most glaring issue is the relatively washed out color that the Genesis version has, compared to the SNES version. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but it’s hard not to notice.
The sound is fine, though the quality of that sound is a bit lacking. There’s a fair amount of commentary to be had for a cartridge-based game. While it can get a bit repetitive or even seem rather off, it’s still at least somewhat reminiscent of the arcade original. The sound effects for dunks, steals, and other actions are fine. It’s noteworthy that the Genesis version of JAM has in-game music, while the SNES version does not. This alone doesn’t give the Genesis version a huge advantage, but it adds to the curious differences between the versions for the two 16-bit titans. The quality of the sound is worse for the Genesis version, though. The instrumentation for the music is shallow and the voice quality is a bit muffled.
When weighing the home console versions of NBA JAM now, I still give the nod to the Genesis version… as I did back on JAM Day. There’s no denying that the SNES version looks more vibrant, has better sound quality, and benefits from a more suitable controller. That said, the Genesis version wins out with its battery backup feature. Passwords for sports games have always been tedious at best, often not allowing for stat tracking and making for some frustration if a letter or number was copied down wrong, so battery saves have always been the preferred way to go. The Genesis version also has in-game music, instead of the sound effects-only approach that the SNES version takes.
No matter which way I JAM— whether it’s on the Genesis, the SNES, in an arcade, or even on one of the new Arcade 1Up cabinets that I hope to afford some day– the game still holds up incredibly well more than a quarter of a century later. I still get into JAM as much today as I ever have. It gets my pulse racing, it still stimulates my love of competition, and it still gets me through those rough times life often throws at me. It’s the game that really got me into sports video games as a fan, and I’ll always be grateful to Mark Turmell, Sal DiVita, Tim Kitzrow, and the rest of the talented people that made NBA JAM happen.
For further information on NBA JAM, I strongly recommend reading NBA JAM, written and researched by the awesome Reyan Ali. The stories and information shared in the book are well worth reading. The book only costs $5 for a digital version and $15 for the printed paperback. Also, keep an eye out for the upcoming documentary, Insert Coin, helmed by Josh Tsui, which not only features NBA JAM— but many other things Midway.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to get one more game in.
Buyer’s Guide: At the time of this writing, NBA JAM for the SEGA Genesis is valued at about $10USD for just the cartridge, and between $15-$20USD for a complete in box (CIB) copy. The SNES cartridge is more expensive, closer to $15USD, while a complete in box copy is closer to $30USD. An instruction manual is not necessary to play the game, as experience will generally allow players to learn the play controls. The Genesis version does have a battery backup, so be sure to check that the battery still saves and have it replaced, if necessary.