While I cannot recall the first time I heard about Midway’s NBA Jam, I can remember when I came across one for the first time. I was a fresh teenager and the part of town where I lived was not quite as populated and busy as it is today. A friend of mine wanted to go see a movie, but we had no transportation – the adults were too busy to drive us there, and there was no bus that went that route, so we decided to walk. Now this theater wasn’t in the neighborhood – it was 4 miles away. But it being the early 90’s, playing outside and walking a ways to places was normal. Although 4 miles was a bit longer than I had done before.
Upon finally getting there, the bought our tickets to whatever it was, then hung out in the lobby. They had a very small arcade room to the side with only a few games inside. The only one I can remember was NBA Jam. Unfortunately we only had change left over for a single game, and the movie was about to start, but I still remember playing that more than I remember what I would have spent the next couple of hours watching.
I don’t know if that’s the case for everyone else, but such an “exaggerated reality” sports game really sticks with you, even if you don’t have an affinity for sports games. But how did such a game come to fruition in the first place? It’s an interesting and entertaining tale that is the subject of a new book, NBA Jam by Reyan Ali, published by Boss Fight Books. This work was mentioned on the site way back in 2017 for a Newsbytes post when I had first learned about the project; this last week, the book was published digitally to the world. As a note for this review, Reyan kindly provided a review copy of the book for me to read, which I was able to complete in a day.
Short Review: Awesome read, I’d recommend it.
Detailed long review that might have what you could consider to be “spoilers” for the book:
As a testament to the subject matter and the writing, while I am a fast reader, I was able to complete the book’s 215 pages (it has a total of 256, the rest taken up in notes) of primary text in less than 24 hours because I found it to be an intriguing read. While it isn’t a fictional thriller, it was really hard to put down, which became a little more complicated by me having to work two normal jobs on a busy Friday (one of those being the operation of my arcade business, where I read most of it. Seems appropriate!).
Granted, I love history, particularly when focused on game development and design. NBA Jam [the book] is by far the most exhausting post-mortem I have ever come across not just on that particular game, but also about Midway itself. Readers of the site here know that I hold a special nostalgia for Atari, where information about the company and it’s many games tends to be fairly easy to come across. But Midway has not always shared that same spotlight for whatever reason, despite many of the people who made that company what it was still being around [we did a sort of deep dive into them back in 2013 with Midway Arcade Prototypes of the past Part 1 and Part 2]. Reyan was able to compile a large amount of information about Williams/Midway and it’s various developers who were in one way or another involved in the development of NBA Jam, and expand it beyond just that game’s scope to cover the big picture.
While you do learn a lot more about games like NARC, Arch Rivals, Total Carnage, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, WWF WrestleMania, NFL Blitz and others, you learn much more about the people who moved these games from a murky collection of ideas into a game that you likely sunk many quarters and hours of time into. The main focus of the book, from starting at the first location test for NBA Jam at Dennis’ Place For Games in Chicago, to the last NBA Jam release on the Nintendo Wii, is Mark Turmell. As the project lead for the series, there’s enough info packed in there that he could probably call this book his biography.
Mark Turnell’s first video game, Sneakers for the Apple II
But it expands beyond that, using a 3rd person omniscient view of the entire process. Reading it feels like you’re there in the Midway offices, seeing interactions between Mark and Eugene Jarvis, George Petro, Sal DiVita, and others as they crafted a new and unique sporting experience that would become a cultural phenomenon. I also appreciate that Reyan gives the reader some arcade lingo background, such as covering what a location test is, or discussing conversion kits. While Eugene and George were not directly involved in the day-to-day development process of the game, they were big influences on how it turned out – George is the one who suggested to Mark that he take on a basketball game after Total Carnage flopped; Eugene’s suggestion is what made the dunks outrageously iconic, etc. There’s more to it than that, so let those “spoilers” (if you want to call them that) serve as a tease. Chapter 5 is where it gets into the nitty gritty of the development process, but it is all crafted in a way that you won’t want to skip ahead to get there.
Along the lines of the personal interactions, here’s a little content warning in case you like having that before you consume a piece of media: there are a few times throughout where someone is quoted using profanity. On today’s grading scale, probably of the PG-13 variety, but when I was growing up, would have been considered ‘R.’ It’s not often though, maybe three or four times total. Nothing you don’t hear on a daily basis at school, on a popular comedy or angry YouTube video or in a lax work environment.
It also spends time telling you about Tim Kitzrow’s experience in recording the voice overs(it’s sad how he got screwed over for his iconic contributions, but it all worked out in the end), how Roger Sharpe convinced the NBA to give them the license through persistence, dedicated fans who put together the first strategy guide, NBA players who just loved the game and got arcade cabinets for themselves, and how Acclaim first boosted, then drove the franchise into the ground. But the most interesting part of it for me was how word of mouth led to an ever expanding adventure of discovering the game’s many secrets and surprises. While I think everyone here is familiar with at least some of the secrets, you might be surprised to learn about some you hadn’t heard of before (I hadn’t heard of a few of them).
Reading this part made me sad for today’s arcade culture; In the 12~ years that I’ve been doing the blog here, we’ve barely heard a thing about new games featuring a bevy of secrets to discover and explore. I’ve asked about it on some games, but if they’re there, no one is talking. This lack of “the treasure hunt” makes today’s ticket-focused games feel even more sanitized and soulless by comparison. But the development process and the subsequent fall out of NBA Jam does give us an “origin story” as to why licenses are still driving game creation to this very day.
The book is the only work I’ve come across that really gets into detail behind the rise and demise of Midway. The rise can be a bit confusing, since the company existed under several different names and entities through the 1980’s (a separate company in Williams Electronics, Bally Midway, Bally Sente, merging Williams and Midway together). The end was a shocking event for the arcade industry at the time, since Midway comprised of itself and Atari Games, two names that had made such an enormous impact on gaming for three decades. It left a hole in American arcade development that would be salvaged by Raw Thrills. It also gets at why trying to translate arcade games to console games just doesn’t work – it’s not just the developers that approach the games with a completely different mindset, it’s the players too.
If I had to find something to nitpick about the book, it’s that there were one or two minor factual inaccuracies that I came across. But, they were pretty minor and only partially incorrect – probably something that only an arcade history nerd like myself would notice. There is an large notes section at the end which shows the sources on the facts presented throughout the book, although there are no footnotes in the chapters. I suppose that some could be bothered by the lack of footnotes, but I think it helps the read go more smoothly. I’ve used footnotes before and to be honest, it kind of bothers me since it breaks the flow of the narrative. So I don’t mind that they aren’t used here, but you can still refer to them in the back if you really care to dig.
All-in-all, I would highly recommend NBA Jam – The Book to anyone who has a fond memory of playing the game, who has an interest in game development and design, to anyone who enjoys game preservation and history, or likes reading a true story of navigating the challenges of creating something that has an impact.
It will definitely make you want to pick up and play the game again – I have the board itself, but not in a cabinet right now, so I’ll have to dig out my copy on the Atari Jaguar (I do have a Genesis and SNES, but not the game). But before you do that, grab a copy and read all about what made it “razzle dazzle.”