We’ve been slowly making our way through the best sports video games of all time, sport by sport. We’ve served up tennis, checked on hockey, and hit baseball out of the park. Now, with the NBA Finals under way (and with our quota of puns covered in that last sentence), it’s time to address basketball.
This one is no contest.
Winner, Best Basketball Video Game
NBA Jam is the best basketball video game of all time. NBA Jam Tournament Edition is technically slightly better than the original NBA Jam, but the two will be lumped together as one because they were an original version followed by an update.
Let’s make a quick, five-piece rundown of what makes this the best basketball game ever:
- NBA Jam was the first to do fast-paced, 2-on-2 basketball
- You could do front-flip dunks
- You could shove dudes out of the way to steal the ball
- Friends could gather and get into fist-fights over anything and everything involved in this game; four-player arcade action changed everything
- Three simple words: “He’s on fire!”
It was unreal. In the tournament edition, the unlockable secret characters blew everyone’s mind. Bill Clinton doing a 1080-spin dunk? Yes, please. The Charlotte Hornets mascot burying threes from anywhere? Sign me up. Shoving Al Gore and then breaking away for a layup from 18 feet away? That would be lovely, thank you.
This game was so big that it set records for arcade usage in the early ’90s. It brought in over $2,000,000,000 in quarters and many of its 20,000+ units were bringing in $2,000 per week. It was so popular that, despite Michael Jordan not being licensed to be in the game, Midway made a private version that featured him on a team with Gary Payton just so Jordan and Payton could play it together in private. Are you shitting me?!
Arcade bars are becoming a big thing in the States these days, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a barcade (that word makes me cringe) that doesn’t have a line of people waiting to play NBA Jam. It’s still the greatest.
Almost equally as important as the game was what happened next. Ever since, NBA games have been trying to get back to this level of unparalleled popularity. The current NBA 2K series is huge, and it has more or less monopolized the NBA video game landscape, but it’s not revolutionizing the genre like Jam did. NBA Jam bred NBA Hangtime for Nintendo 64, which was quite possibly the best sports game on the entire N64. It was NBA Jam three years later, on a new system, with new easter eggs and create-a-player capability. What more could you ask for? A new version of Jam was released in 2011 to solid reviews as well. It has one hell of an audience.
Other noteworthy basketball games after NBA Jam and Hangtime include the entire 2K series. The original is good enough that I still play it on my Dreamcast when I have several days at my parents’ house. The new versions are excellent, and “blacktop mode” in NBA 2K14 features extra-slick dunks and an announcer who occasionally says “Boomshakalaka!”
NBA Street was an absolute blast, too. It taught kids that you should not try to just make shots, you should try to look as cool as humanly possible in doing so. It had several fun sequels, but the basic idea was 3-on-3 street ball without fouls or goaltending. Sounds kind of familiar, right? That’s why it was so fun.
Last honorable mention goes to the NBA Live series, which dominated realistic basketball action for a decade but ultimately lost out to the 2K series. It’s a shame, but it was bound to happen.