Game Review – Tecmo NBA Basketball: Why Tecmo Couldn’t Recreate the Magic

Before the smash hit NBA Jam was released in the mid 90’s, dozens of basketball video games had already been released across several platforms. Check out these snippets of some notable titles:

Animated Gif of snippets from Basketball Video Games
Gameplay images from early basketball titles, such as Double Dribble, Advanced Basketball Simulator, and Basketbrawl.

Well in 1993, NBA Jam became the quintessential basketball video game. “Quintessential” comes from the latin root “Quinte” meaning “Boom” and “sential” meaning “Shakalaka”. This became obvious when clones and remakes started hitting the market. Another game which clearly dominated a sport in the video game arena is Tecmo Super Bowl, which held its champion status through the 90’s until Madden took over. Even though Tecmo has become more about lore now (see Bo Jackson), the game still holds up, with national tournaments and modern rosters.

Soon after the release of Tecmo Super Bowl (TSB) and before NBA Jam, Tecmo made the now nearly forgotten, Tecmo NBA Basketball. The question I have is, why would a game which closely follows the format set out just a year before in a runaway success, fail to recapture the imagination of its audience? The following is my analysis of 5 critical aspects of the game.

Cover of Tecmo NBA Basketball

5. In-depth Rosters:

When I was 7, my mom accidentally locked my baby sister in our Astro van outside of Gart Sports. Overhearing our plight, a very nice young man believed he could open the van door using a wire hanger. As a kid obsessed with Hoops trading cards and the Utah Jazz, I recognized our hero as none other than Delaney Rudd.

Never heard of him? Well long story short, Tecmo NBA allows you to start backup, backup Point Guard- D. Rudd over hall of famer- J. Stockton. An option I obviously took advantage of. My way of saying thanks for saving my sister’s life.

Delaney-Rudd

Tecmo was miraculously able to get the license for the NFL, NBA, and both players’ organizations. They are the first fully licensed games of their kind. Tecmo NBA even had Michael Jordan if you can believe it.

This may be the strongest aspect of the game with every team and player represented, 5 starters and 12-player bench with actual stat-based attributes. If you had the patience, you could even play an entire season, with playoffs, and the game would record all your stats. An incredible feat on that small cartridge.

Rating – 5 Pat Riley fist pumps5 Pat Riley fist pumps from Pat Riley Basketball

4. Strategic Gameplay:

I might be alone in this, but I learned everything I know about football and hockey and track and field- from playing video games. TSB especially nailed the basic strategy of football. You know, 4 downs, timeouts, shotgun vs pocket, why Lawrence Taylor was such a big deal. Understanding the layout of a play, when to use it, and how to execute it is elemental to the success of TSB.

As strategic and deep as the sport of basketball can be as well, in Tecmo NBA, unfortunately the play calling system seems like an abandoned project. I can’t be too critical however. Can you think of another basketball game to successfully implement plays? Especially as early as the NES? I also realize that basketball is just more fluid and for that, the strategy may be more difficult to translate into a video game.

It’s not for a lack of trying however. In Tecmo NBA, there is a whole play selection system with hidden prompts. It shows all kinds of possibilities to spread out your teammates on the extremely cramped half court.

Play selection screen
Play selection screen Tecmo NBA Basketball

To illustrate my point, bumping into people is a big big deal in this game so I tried the simple “Set Pick” play. A teammate came over and stood in a screen position, but somehow, the defenders just waltz right through him like Patrick Swayze (just to make sure you know how funny I am, Swayze was both the star of “Ghost” and a fantastic dancer… so double joke).

While player’s attributes (mostly just speed) do force you to use strategy simply by considering who you should pass to, the intended strategy is so convoluted in this game that it ultimately amounts to little more than what Double Dribble was able to accomplish. But let me stop myself right there. This game is NOT Double Dribble. Players collide, there are actually 10 characters on the court at a time, and players have some identity. By my third game however, I found myself playing it in a similar way. Pass pass pass, dribble to slam dunk. For that:

Rating – 3 fist pumps 3 Pat Riley fist pumps from Pat Riley Basketball

3. Player Likenesses:

With an 8-bit game, you are limited in file size and resolution. This left developers with some important decisions for player likenesses; such as…

I. Everyone will look like Dave Cowens

Don’t get me wrong, I love Dave Cowens. Undersized center with unmatched tenacity and a hairdo straight off a Bread album.

Well, I think the Tecmo player model was designed from Cowens. Then skin tone is either white or brown. Hair is always black. So Mugsy Bogues is indistinguishable from Manut Bol, except for…

Muggsy and Manute on Tecmo NBA

II. Player Attributes

Like most sports games, player speed is the defining attribute. In this game, it is especially exaggerated. In fact, if you get a really slow player (Mark Eaton for example) that has a high rating in another area (blocking), it just becomes frustrating because he’s never able to get to the spot you want him at. But at least he’s got red hair and a beard in his…

III. Profile Pictures

Tecmo Super Bowl had an incredible gallery of profile pics. Check out some of these pixelized interpretations:

Boomer Esiason Tecmo Super Bowl

Kelvin Bryant Tecmo Super Bowl

Now check out some examples from Tecmo NBA:

Joe-Wolf-Profile

Olajuwon-Profile

Does it seem like the artist on Tecmo NBA had to rush it a bit? They all look like a David Robinson mosaic. Even my man Delaney.

Robinson-Profile

Delaney-Rudd-Profile

Rating – 3 fist pumps 3 Pat Riley fist pumps from Pat Riley Basketball

2. Sound Design:

Credits for Tecmo NBA

Besides the intro, there’s really only one song in this game. Then, like TSB, they decided to restart the music at the beginning of each new possession. For some reason however, the music from TSB didn’t seem quite as repetitive to me. Maybe because possessions were so short, it was more like a cue or sound effect. In Tecmo NBA, the song reminds me of a sitcom or something and it is constantly restarting.

I do appreciate the overall sound effects in this game. Unlike the incessant pounding of the court that appears in most games, Tecmo did decide to dial it back some. The dribble doesn’t get overly annoying and the basket and pass sounds aren’t bad at all for its simulation approach in 8-bit. I’d give this part…

Rating – 2 fist pumps 2 Pat Riley fist pumps from Pat Riley Basketball

1. Pace and Flow:

Would you like some basketball with that whistle?

It seems certain elements of a game can serve no purpose but to bum you out. You know the type. Like the “injury” attribute on NBA jam. Here we are, players literally lighting on fire and doing backflip dunks- but don’t look now, you have to sit Shawn Kemp cause he’s winded. Of course everyone loves being forced to use Detlef Schrempf every other quarter.

Well Tecmo NBA is full of these realities. Errant passes? Poorly timed cut scenes. And worst of all: constant fouling. If there is one thing that brought the success of this game to a screeching halt, it was the sensitivity of the foul calls. I’m sure it was done with good intentions, but how crappy would TSB have been if every other Warren Moon long bomb was interrupted with a Yellow flag?

Game developers are always faced with these decisions of how closely to simulate reality. What if Megaman’s blaster occasionally jammed? Or if Link had a bladder bar and was required to use a pay toilet? Burgertime might have sucked if it included an in-depth portion on food handlers permits.

Burgertime-Foul

In a sport where pace and flow is so crucial, I feel this aspect of the game is its principal weakness. This goes at the heart of why NBA Jam took over basketball with its furious pace, exaggerated everything, and complete disregard for strategy.

Rating: 1 upset Tom Thibodeau. Tom-Thibodeau-on-fire

So concludes my analysis of Tecmo NBA Basketball. For as much as I loved Tecmo Super Bowl, and had an inordinate amount of statistical NBA knowledge, and wore a broken hat signed by Mike Brown for the majority of my childhood, this game should have been my jam. Despite being the best title to feature 5 on 5 basketball on the NES, it crumbles under the expectations set by its Super Bowl predecessor and is completely overshadowed by other more exaggerated games of the time.

Just a really handsome kid, well-respected amongst his peers.
Just a really handsome kid, well-respected amongst his peers.

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