March Madness is already upon us, folks. And what better way to celebrate the immediate demise of your office pool bracket than with a look at the unexpected, beguiling and ambitious videogames that took basketball not as their subject, but as their inspiration? These are the five best (or worst) basketball videogames that are not really about basketball.
NBA Baller Beats was supposed to be a big deal. The trailer was narrated by Common, the same guy who just won an Oscar last month for co-writing a song about the civil rights movement and our country’s ongoing struggle for racial equality. “It begins this way for all of us,” Common says, a sweaty gentleman dribbling a basketball in a gym. “Discipline. Determination. And dedication.” Jump-cut to that same guy dribbling that same ball but in his living room in front of his TV. Baller Beats uses the Kinect to monitor your actual movement in time with on-screen instructions, all in time to a music track. The experience is half-skill workout, half-rhythm game.
WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT: Equal parts Tim Hardaway Simulator and Downstairs Neighbor Revenge.
Contemporary sports games are too often funneled down the same narrow channels: Here are your professional players, here is your Season campaign, here are your tracked statistics. Games from yesteryear took sports and used their physical exertions as building blocks for new experiences. World Class Track Meet was an NES game that used the Power Pad, that red-and-blue plastic bubble mat and in some ways the precursor to Dance Dance Revolution. You pumped your feet in place; you watched as your on-screen avatar ran faster. The phenomenon of Wii Sports in 2006 hinged on that same digital mimicry; you swing your arm, you hit the ball. Six years later, Baller Beats put the ball in your hand.
But there’s a reason Wii Sports didn’t ship with an actual racquet; most living rooms have lamps, or roommates, or dogs, various fragile objects not interested in being thwacked for the sake of a high score. Baller Beats fails in the same way most any game requiring the Kinect fails: You need too much space and perfect circumstances to play as intended. If your hardwood floor is parquet and you aspire to Globetrotter status, fire up Baller Beats. Just be ready for the noise complaints.
My middle school basketball jersey number was 33, in honor of my favorite player, LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal. Such was my delusion that, to focus on my game, I quit taking piano lessons, as they took place at the same time as after-school practice. That same year I would stop growing vertically. The choice—to stop learning how to play a beautiful instrument to spend time honing my scrappy defense—haunts me still.
Here’s my point: Even for a legend, basketball alone is never enough. And so Shaquille O’Neal, then a third-year NBA all-star, lent his image and name to Shaq Fu, a one-on-one fighting game that used a slightly more realistic martial arts style than the popular games of the day, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The world did not need Shaq Fu. But Shaq did. And so it was.
WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT: Celebrities can bend the world to their every whim, especially if they are 7’ 1”, 325 lbs.
Mr. O’Neal liked videogames. He liked Kung Fu. He wanted to star in a kung fu videogame. Some delusions will never pan out. Others, by sheer force of personality and menacing size, come true. And the man’s not finished; last year, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn was announced along with a crowdfunding campaign for nearly half a million dollars. The developers, Big Deez Productions, reached their goal. Look for the sequel on consoles and PC sometime next year. Meanwhile my original piano composition, a minuet in C#, remains a work-in-progress.
Slam City with Scottie Pippen was one of a small number of interactive movies for Sega-CD. The studio Digital Pictures used a then-nascent Compact Disc platform as a means to channel large amounts of compressed video to your screen. One major drawback was an extremely limited means of control. Imagine Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace, but instead of lush Don Bluth animation, you watch pixelated video of actors pretending to guard you one-on-one.
WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT: Technology asserting its dominance over good decisions.
Other games of this era (Corpse Killer, Prize Fighter, Sewer Shark) all fall victim to being stewards of fancy new graphical flourish at the expense of actual fun. The point was to be amazed. That’s not a sprite of Scottie Pippen made from colored pixels; that’s actual video of Mr. Pippen himself. At the time, these mini-movies-in-game’s-clothing were thought to be the future. How wrong we were.
Slam City is not the only basketball game to die on the vine due to an emphasis on novelty; NCAA Basketball for the SNES looked incredible at the time due to its rotating “Mode 7” court perspective. I rented the game back when it came out and was suitably impressed. I was young and foolish. Based on these fond memories, I bought the cartridge used for $1.00 a few years back. The game was nigh-unplayable. But at least you score points and progress up and down a court in a facsimile of play. Slam City asks you to push a button and watch the same automated scenes—”your shot gets blocked again!”, “Buff guy dunks over you and gets in your face!”—over and over. If you’re aching to play an interactive basketball movie, seek out VCR Basketball instead.
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is a role-playing game based on the licensed 1994 SNES/Genesis street basketball game, Barkley: Shut up and Jam! That phrase “based on” needs some clarification. Gaiden is based on the original two-on-two sports title the same way a juicy hamburger is based on a cow: Though one stems from the other, the origin is merely a raw starting point for something crude and ridiculous and, through some strange intoxicating alchemy, altogether better than the source material.
Now, there is basketball in the game. But instead of free throws or slam dunks, basketball is used like an ancient mythology that some future species takes as gospel, or a made-up set of rules by which the characters live their lives, a la Bokononism in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Standard issue fantasy tropes are rewritten through a B-ball prism: The “chaos dunk” is a powerful force that threatens civilization, and so all ballers are wiped out, leaving only a few to seek out answers and make a new start. Monsters drop from the sky with dimpled orange basketballs as heads. Michael Jordan plays a kind of warped government official, a survivor of the old times who just wants to forget and live out his days.
WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT: Acculturation, testing limits, getting away with it.
The entire premise is an excuse to make jokes. The premise itself is the joke, of course, but what’s curious is that the referential coating feels more like a defense mechanism. Having Charles Barkley as your protagonist takes the pressure off of creating an actual game. And yet Tales of Game’s, the developers led by pseudonymed “Chef Boyardee,” another feint, have created a real RPG with systems, dialogue, skills and exploration. They created a small world worth visiting. If Gaiden’s execution remained a joke only, players would not have cared. Enough did that they successfully Kickstarted a sequel, now in the third year of development. The first twenty-four months were reportedly spent coming up with and typing out the game’s title, Barkley 2: The Magical Realms of Tir na Nog: Escape from Necron 7 – The Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. The joke continues.
The classic arcade quarter-muncher is not a basketball game. Yes, you control actual professional players who crossover dribble, pass the rock, sink threes from downtown, and slam it down hard. But the actual videogame has little to do with the sport itself.
WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT: The euphoria of Boom-Shak-A-Laka. The joy of managing a confined space. The corrosive effects of overstaying your welcome.
Imagine NBA Jam as more of an action game played on a single level, its DNA closer to some modern mutation of Pong. The ball moves back and forth within a single, pre-defined rectangle. You manipulate the ball and score points. Take away the cheering crowd and the announcer yelling, “He’s on fire!” and you get something that feels very much like an evolution of Atari’s rudimentary, industry-forming success story from 1972.
Basketball puts ten athletes on the court. There’s little room for the unseen or hidden. Part of NBA Jam’s appeal was unearthing a near-endless series of tricks and aesthetic grace notes: Woe to all who have never played with Big Head mode on. In updates and ports to home consoles, extra codes were included to allow play as secret characters, including then-President Bill Clinton.
Then NBA Jam became a powerful brand of its own. The videogame was fully formed; there was little to improve. But we crave the next thing, and so we got NBA Jam< Extreme, a 1996 attempt to bring the original’s pure two-dimensional play into the awkward and chunky 3D textures of the era. While the sport increased in popularity, the videogame waned. NBA Jam ‘99 and NBA Jam 2000 kept mining the same ground with less and less gold in the pan. The reason these games did not succeed is not only due to oversaturation and the resultant malaise: These games were closer to the actual sport. You could only access the simple arcade delights in a separate part of the game called “Jam Mode.”
The English “mode” comes from the French, meaning “manner” but also “style.” The word fits the game well: NBA Jam is less about sport and more about style. You do not win the game; you punish your friend with an unrelenting series of Turbo shoves, or snatch victory away with a last-second impossible heave.
May such grace find its way to your NCAA Office Pool Tourney Bracket.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.