What Arcade Sports Games Could Learn From NBA Jam

Operation SportsCorrespondent IJuly 19, 2008

Now that we are in the middle of the heat of summer, school should be the last thing on any young person’s mind. There are places to go, sports to play, adventures to be had. For some underachieving students, though, summer is a time to hit the books, to catch up, to review the basics. Some need summer school.

Perhaps no one is more in need of summertime schooling than makers of arcade sports video games. Recently, arcade publishers have been flunking test after test. Midway’s NBA Ballers: Chosen One was an absolute bomb (which is much different than being “Da Bomb”) and EA Sports’ NFL Tour was equally as bad.

Fortunately for these developers, school is now in session, and today’s class is being led by an old, wise instructor: NBA Jam. This arcade classic is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year and is still considered one of the best arcade sports games ever released. What can arcade developers learn from Professor Jam? Take a seat, open up your Trapper Keeper, and pay attention.


Lesson 1: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

Let’s face it: video games have changed a lot since NBA Jam’s heyday. Back in 1993, we played our games using controllers that featured 8-direction D-pads and three buttons. The Sega Genesis boasted a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM. When we wanted to play, we popped in a cartridge, not a disc.

The point is, games during this era weren’t particularly complex, deep, or advanced—the existing technology wouldn’t allow it. This didn’t prevent games like NBA Jam from being a total blast to play.

Even in today’s gaming environment of high-definition graphics, motion-sensitive controllers, and surround sound, NBA Jam stands the test of time. The game is just as fun to play as it ever was.

There are no complicated controls to remember, no sliders to mess around with, no convoluted gameplay mechanics to wrestle with.

The lesson here is that arcade games are best when they are simple. Take for example the controls in NBA Ballers: Chosen One. The control scheme was unintuitive and there was no real way to get help figuring it out without resorting to the manual every five seconds.

An arcade sports game should have a more simple control scheme that is easy to figure out for beginners, allowing everyone to get in on some head-to-head action. Speaking of which…

Lesson 2: Head-to-head is the key

Sure, you could play against the AI in NBA Jam. With the difficulty cranked up, the AI might be able to give you some challenging games. There was even a “CPU Assistance” option that forced the games to remain competitive. But where NBA Jam really shined was its head-to-head play.

Its simplicity allowed first-timers to jump in and quickly figure out how to play the game. The games were the perfect length: not too long, which may cause the players to get bored and lose interest, and not too short, which allowed players to overcome a bad quarter or large deficit.

Although NBA Jam featured over-the-top gameplay with sky-high helicopter dunks, no penalties and the famous “on fire” mechanic, the game was truly a test of skill, making head-to-head competition a blast.

In a lot of recent arcade sports titles, head-to-head play just doesn’t seem as fun because there are a lot of gameplay mechanics that seem to be distracting and annoying when playing another person.

For example, FIFA Street 3, another poorly-reviewed arcade game, featured the now all-too-familiar “Gamebreaker” mechanism which allowed for easy goals. In head-to-head matchups, it seemed that whoever got the most gamebreakers (or the last gamebreaker in close matches) won, which takes away a lot of the fun and drama.

The gameplay of arcade sports titles should allow for many types of strategies and many ways to play. That brings us to our final lesson…


Lesson 3: Balance, balance, balance

Despite NBA Jam’s simplicity, its gameplay was actually pretty balanced and deep. There were many ways you could go about trying to earn a victory.

First of all, the teams varied enough in ratings that some strategy was involved when choosing them. None of them were so terrible that you had to avoid playing with your favorite team.

You could run the pick-and-roll (or the pick-and-shove) with Utah’s Stockton and Malone, bomb threes with Portland’s Porter and Drexler, or play stifling defense with Chicago’s Pippen and Grant.

On the court, there were several avenues you could take to victory. You could try to bomb away from the three-point line, shove your opponent as much as possible to build up that injury rating, play ball control and run down the shot clock on each possession, or even use more unconventional strategies such as goaltending shots in order to get one of your players “on fire.”

A lot of recent arcade sports titles have not found the type of gameplay balance and depth that NBA Jam had. The aforementioned “Gamebreaker” mechanic seems to dominate play and often seems like the only way to achieve victory.

In some games, one strategy is far too effective and makes trying any other aspect of the game futile and a waste of time. These types of deficiencies make many recent arcade sports titles get very frustrating and very stale rather quickly.

This article was written by Ryan Spencer for Operation Sports.  Operation Sports is the Internet's leading sports video games resource.