Experiences in Old Sports Games: NBA Jam

Legend has it that basketball was invented on a rainy day in the December of 1891. At the time, James Naismith, a physical education teacher and aspiring medical doctor, was teaching at a Massachusetts YMCA when the idea struck him. He had just attained the age of thirty, and being that life expectancy was far shorter at this time, he had begun to suffer a terrible midlife crisis. He’d taken up the opium pipe, he had spent the last of his cash on a sleek red soft-top horse, and now he was reconsidering future medical career. His mind was full of wistful thoughts of his childhood dream of becoming a great actor, dashed by Federal law preventing the exhibition of Canadians upon a stage.

It was this shattered dream, his professional training, and the need to make enough quick cash for his next horse payment that led to the development of the game that would be his legacy. Basketball, a sport played by actor-athletes, requiring both the skill to accurately lob a ball and the talent to pretend to be injured. Each match would appear to be decided by the players on the court, but the outcome would ultimately be controlled by the referees, allowing Naismith, who hand-picked the refs, to profit from the burgeoning sports betting industry without appearing suspicious.

I can't believe there is literally a picture of James Naismith with a ball in one hand and a basket in the other.

I can’t believe there is literally a picture of James Naismith with a ball in one hand and a basket in the other.

Basketball was a hit at the YMCA, where a number of boys had been seeking a socially acceptable outlet for their theatrical talents. The game spread to classical repertory companies, art schools, and even theatrical prep academies across the country. Professional squads, barnstorming and hustling from town to town, turned massive profits and soon consolidated, like the WWF, into a National Basketball Association. This brings me to this week’s game: NBA Jam.

nba_jam_title_screen

NBA Jam, a 1993 release in arcades which was followed up by ports onto almost every conceivable home console, is one of the most successful sports games of all time.  It didn’t just make it big across multiple platforms, but also helped spawn an entire genre: the ridiculously over the top arcade sports game.  Sure, we had Base Wars before NBA Jam, and even NBA Jam owes a debt to its predecessor Arch Rivals, but the idea of taking a sport and distilling it down to the most simple actions, then cranking those actions up to Michael Bay levels originated here.  Without NBA Jam, we would have never seen NFL: Blitz, The Bigs, NHL Hitz, or the only good argument I’ve ever seen for owning a Kinect, Diabolical Pitch.

In NBA Jamthe number of actors allowed on the court per team is lowered from five to two.  This services multiple purposes.  First, it is a function of NBA Jam’s origins as an arcade game.  With only four actors on the court at any given time–two per team–each one can be controlled by a different person standing at the arcade cabinet.  A four player arcade game can generate twice as much revenue as a two player game, and the idea of having every single participant in the basketball game controlled by a human was appealing.  Second, it limited the number of sprites on screen, allowing a level of detail in the players that was fairly remarkable for 1993.

Wow, it really looks like a horribly monstrous version of Patrick Ewing.

Wow, it really looks like a horribly monstrous version of Patrick Ewing.

Like all video games, NBA Jam was a product of its times.  In 1993, the United States was still reeling from the hangover after the raucous party that was the 1980s.  In my post about RBI Baseball, I referenced the singular focus on individuality that was mocked by the simplification of the game of baseball.  NBA Jam does not subvert that fixation, but rather embraces it.  Basketball ceases to become a team performance, and rather focuses on the acting skills of two players.  But this isn’t about the way that media downplays collaborative effort in favor of individual performances.  This is about something else.

Known for signing the North American Three Point Agreement, President William Jefferson Clinton was fond of sinking the three pointer from down town, if you know what I mean.

Known for signing the North American Three Point Agreement, President William Jefferson Clinton was fond of sinking the ball from downtown, if you know what I mean.

On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms commenced a raid on the Mount Carmel Center compound, home of the Branch Davidians religious sect.  The raid resulted in a siege of the compound that lasted almost two months, captivated the American public, and ended in a massive fire that killed the majority of the Branch Davidians, including their leader David Koresh.  The Waco siege was a particularly unusual chapter in modern U.S. history, and set the stage for everything from the entrenchment of the survivalist ethos to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.  It was also the unconscious inspiration for NBA Jam.

To understand the relationship between the Waco siege and an arcade basketball game, we have to start at the beginning.  Specifically, with the Branch Davidian religion.  Branch Davidianism is a sect of a sect of a sect of a sect.  They broke off from the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, which based their teachings off of a two book series (entitled Shepherd’s Rods) by the reformist Victor Houteff.  The Davidian Seventh Day Adventists were, naturally, a sect of the Seventh Day Adventists, which themselves are the largest sect of the Adventist protestant movement.

This image of the siege is the very first google image search result for "Waco", which really sucks for a town with a rich history like that other time it exploded just last April.

This image of the siege is the very first google image search result for “Waco”, which really sucks for a town with a rich history like that other time it exploded just last April.

Adventism has its roots in the teachings of William Miller, a mid-19th century preacher who taught that the return of Jesus was just around the corner.  Miller’s downfall was like that of so many similar men, in that he gave a precise date to the second coming–October 22, 1844–and when it didn’t happen most people rightfully stopped taking him so seriously. Some, however, decided to cut Miller a bit of slack and give him the benefit of the doubt.  Jesus didn’t come back on October 22, 1844, but that didn’t mean he didn’t start getting ready.  Essentially, the remaining Adventists decided that William Miller had the right date, but that it wasn’t the date of Jesus’s return but rather the day he started packing his bags to eventually return.

See, my son, I told you that satan does not have a kickin' rad rear projection TV like I do.  ...what?  He has a plasma?

See, my son, I told you that satan does not have a kickin’ rad rear projection TV like I do. …what? He has a plasma?

Now, as we all know, Jesus doesn’t have to worry about having a variety of daywear and eveningwear on his journey back to Earth, so he isn’t packing his bags with clothes.  Rather, he’s filling his luggage with souls.  And the reason he is taking his time is because he wants to make sure he takes along the right souls.  This process is known as “Investigative Judgment”.  Seventh Day Adventists are big into Investigative Judgment, which has led to a conservative mindset among the movement.  They also have returned to celebrating the Sabbath on a Saturday, but that makes perfect sense because it makes NCAA Football players heathens rather than NFL players.

Salvation up front, party in the back.

Salvation up front, party in the back.

The Davidians shared the belief in the Investigative Judgment, but specifically diverted from the mainstream Seventh Day Adventist movement by embracing the importance of prophecy, vegetarianism, and, later, disclaiming Israel as the pre-Millennial kingdom.  Meanwhile, the Branch Davidians differed from the Davidians by moving up the date of Jesus’s judgment to 1955 and, for a time, incorporating some unexpected feminist teachings into the religion.  Unfortunately, all the good–or at least pleasantly radical–stuff was stricken from the religion and upon the death of Lois Roden, who was their leader throughout the late 70s and early 80s.  The majority of the religion was taken over by David Koresh, who banned the feminist teachings of Roden and turned the Branch Davidians into a run-of-the-mill crazy survivalist sect led by a run-of-the-mill charismatic who wants to be Jesus except without all the Teaching Good Things and instead Molesting Underage Girls.

NBA Jam is basically to basketball what Branch Davidianism is to mainstream Christianity.  The rules and customs of the sport have been filtered through a number of iterations.  Basketball evolved into NBA Basketball, which was forced into the two-on-two format NES game Arch Rivals, which, like the splintering of the Davidians into the Branch Davidians, transformed into the madness of NBA Jam.  

And then everyone caught on fire.

That's it.  That's the punchline.

That’s it. That’s the punchline.

I was lazy with this one because I’m still playing too much Grand Theft Auto V and watching near-playoff baseball.  Also fuck trying to get a Sega Saturn emulator working, that’s just a time sink.  I’ll be back with a real post next week, I promise.

 

 

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