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.

On Indie Game Development: Thoughts from a Calculator Hacker

Somewhere between Heman and Y2K, I got a TI-86 graphing calculator (aka “the Ladykiller”). I could make that thing do flips. People would come to me for my hacks. I became like the school Tetris dealer.

TI-85 and TI-86 Calculator Animation

At one point, my friends and I started experimenting with programming on the darn thing. Talk about street cred. I would blow minds with my 1-bit graphic design, then we’d string together the logic and make some calculator magic. Well move over Shigeru Miyamoto, Dave’s in town.

Fast forward to 2016 when Josh and I started brainstorming a retro basketball game. Over a week or so, I did some early character design and Josh started programming. Check out these first concepts Josh put together in Unity…

Now after nearly two years of development, a bunch of market research, play testing, and even some talks with publishers, I feel like we’ve had a great experience making Basketball Classics. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but here are two thoughts that I would share about game design:

1- Focus on Fun
“We just need to make sure its fun to play at each step”. That’s what Josh said from the beginning. It might sound obvious, but it can be difficult in application. With all the mistakes we’ve made, it seems like we go wrong when we try to force an idea that doesn’t actually add to the gameplay. Whether it is some kind of artistic choice or just trying to pack in too many features, be careful to not lose sight of your objective. Sidenote: I think most people hate money making schemes (pay-to-win, in-app purchases, etc.) in games for just this reason. It takes away from the fun.

Also, I think it’s important to have fun as a developer. Creating our game has been so time intensive, it would really suck if the work sucked, ya know? There is no guarantee we’ll make any money at all, but I can say I’ve loved the process of creating.

Dave in Junior High Straight up Slayin
That’s me in the back. Just slayin’ ladies.

2- Be First, Biggest, or Best
Mr. Lee, my legendary art teacher would say that in order to be successful as an artist, you have to either be the First, the Biggest, or the Best. That was a little hard to hear as I toiled away on my Red Hot Chili Peppers oil painting, but I often consider how that might be applied to game design.

As games get easier to make, the market gets more and more competitive, just like the world of books, art, and movies. If you don’t believe me, look up how many apps never get downloaded, or how Steam has essentially become the next App Store. Making a successful game as an indie developer is no slam dunk (and don’t think for a second that that’s the end of the puns).

So how do you stand out? As indie game developers, we’ve got all the freedom in the world. No one is telling us what can and can’t be done. That’s why I feel the best indie games are far and away the most innovative and impactful in the industry. Big companies can’t, or won’t make games that they consider risky or unmarketable. They’re going to stick to proven money makers.

Well, as an indie developer, you’re not going to compete with the technical advantages and brute force of the AAA companies. Meaning, you probably can’t make a better Call of Duty (and that’s me, dissing on a shooter). What you can do however, is come up with an all new game. And if it can be both original and well-made, then you’ll really be an All-Star!

…and I’m done.

Dave and friends
Just a bunch of really cool guys having a blast at their high school reunion. I’m in green, attempting the scissor kick.

-Dave
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