Tiger Handheld’s NBA Jam: A Critical Review
NBA Jam is one of the classic Tiger Handheld games that populated my youth. I say classic not because I specifically remember this one: I don't. I say classic because I have played it before, as has anybody who has ever played any Tiger Handheld. Each of these bizarre little boxes promised a world of fun and offered only confusion. Each lured you in with images of a movie you liked, or worse, a legitimately good game, as was the case with NBA Jam.
Midway’s actual classic arcade game managed to appeal to everybody. Jocks could finally find themselves playing an arcade game, since by 1993 graphics were good enough to display actual players, and it could feel vaguely like watching a real sports event, except that this one was infinitely better because sometimes you would catch on fire and make the backboard explode. And nerds found themselves with an extremely playable sports game that also let them catch on fire and make things explode.
Given the game's success, it’s no surprise that it was one of the many games sent through Tiger’s torture maze only to emerge from the other side a shattered, LED-lit version of its former self.
When I turned the game on, I was invited to select my team. I have no idea what effect this has on the game, although I would wager a strong guess that the answer is “nothing.” This process itself seemed like an afterthought, evidenced by the fact that the only way of identifying which team I picked was a sticker slapped haphazardly on the back on the device listing the teams. For all intents and purposes, though, you play as team Left facing off against their rivals, team Right.
Up until this point, the game was about cycling through numbers. This is the last point at which anything made sense. I didn’t know it, but I was about to get into the jam. The game started with 4 men lit up against the back of the screen. They all began moving and after a little while I was able to determine that team Right had the ball. I knew I needed to thwart them, but I first needed to determine where or who my character was. Given that there were only two people on my team this seemed like an easy task; I cannot stress just how wrong this assumption was. After pressing up and down for at least ten seconds I finally determined which of my two men was under my control. The problem, though, was that they were identical, and occasionally shared one of the very few spots on the board, requiring another round of mashing the up and down keys to determine which one is flailing in sync with my button presses as opposed to the automated seizure-mind that seems to control the remaining three players.
This movement style should be familiar with anybody who has ever attempted to squeeze entertainment from a Tiger Handheld device. The graphics are comprised of pre- set LEDs, so there is a very limited amount of states that any character can appear in. In this game, my available spaces seem to be left-up, left-middle, left-down, and right-middle. I have no idea why I couldn't run toward my opponent's net on the top or bottom of the screen, but as far as I could tell, it was impossible. Running toward either net presented it's own special brand of confusion. The back of the screen is overlaid with an image of center court, except I wasn't always at center court. Sometimes I was very far from it, but this would only become apparent when either my or my opponent’s net would appear on the side of the screen. The first time this happened, I was still in the throws of determining who I was. This existential dilemma was interrupted by my net suddenly jutting into view. I knew I had to do something, so I took a quick look at the buttons available to me.
My options were "SHOOT/BLOCK," "PASS/STEAL," "TURBO," and "REBOUND." I first tried moving myself in front of the opponent and pressing BLOCK. This made my player raise his hands. I liked this because it seemed like a reasonable reaction, unlike the spasms I had grown used to. However, disappointment soon set in when I realized that I had not once seen my opponent pass. (At least, I don't think I had. I realized later that passing acts something like a teleporter, instantly making the ball appear somewhere else. This would be more obvious if there were more than maybe 10 positions that ball could be in on the screen, most of which are fairly close and could viably be arrived at with a dribble).
Getting tired of raising my arms like a yeti at my opponent I started pressing STEAL. I did this over and over as I tried to move around and stay with him. I suppose it worked because after a while I realized that I had the ball. I did not pick up on this immediately because the ball hadn't actually moved much. It had stayed in almost exactly the same space between me and my opponent, only now my hand was raised slightly instead of his. At any rate, I started running and eventually made it to their net, where I pressed the SHOOT button. I watched with anticipation as the ball went directly into the basket. This is where I encountered perhaps the largest break with reality. I am not a sports fan, and I will admit that I probably did not understand exactly how to control this game, but when the ball goes in my opponent's net, I should get a point. I am confident about this. However, the little number at the bottom of the screen remained at zero. Maybe it's not the score. Who knows?
I managed to sink two more shots, and while I may have been pleased with myself, the game was not and refused to budge from zero before barraging me with some bleeps and bloops before turning itself off when the timer ran out, presumably deciding that I had not earned the right to face the next team.
When I started, the game ominously declared my rank to be 27, which I assume is pretty bad. But I cannot imagine mustering up the courage and resolve to play this game 27 times in order to reach first place. I will stay content with my rank of 27. I can't be the best at everything I try, and this is a battle I am happy to forfeit. I have no doubt that there are kids who have attained that first place rank—kids who could tell me how passing works or what REBOUND, a button I was never able to use, actually does—but it will never be me. And I'm strangely content with that.