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Boomshakalaka: ‘NBA Jam’ by Reyan Ali

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The arcades of today are shells of their former glory. While arcade machines may be a common sight in the front venues of movie theaters or at Dave & Busters, they have really fallen off as the communal greeting spot of young people, a role that they often fulfilled in the late 1970s and early 80s. With the crash of the video game market in 1983 and the advent of the Internet, home consoles have long overtaken arcades as the world’s primary way of experiencing video games.

NBA Jam by Reyan Ali, part of Boss Fight Books series on critical games in industry history, hearkens back to an earlier and simpler time before the arcade industry was completely swallowed up by home consoles. Diving deeply into the history behind the game, Ali sees NBA JAM as lightning in a bottle, a coup by talented developers, chief among them Mark Turmell, who worked to craft one of the most recognizable and engaging titles in sports history. 

NBA Jam poster.
NBA Jam offered ‘Altitude with an Attitude’ to arcade gamers in the 1990s.

For the most part, Ali nails his analysis of this crucial game. Armed with over sixty-eight interviews, he describes the development of NBA JAM well, getting the essence of what made work at Midway different from other developers. In doing so, he sheds light on the habits of American developers in the 80s and 90s. For those knowledgeable of Japanese approaches to game development from roughly the same era (as chronicled in David Sheff’s classic book, Game Over), the contrast is palpable, with individualistic and ruthlessly competitive American studios contrasting brightly with sleek, top-down managed Japanese video game corporations, such as Nintendo. 

Filled to the brim with memorable characters, including Tim Kitzrow (responsible for such memorable lines as “He’s on fire” and “boomshakalaka”) and Mark Turmell (the project lead on JAM and, in many ways the person whom Ali profiles the most), Ali’s book does well in making each of them come to life. Turmell’s creativity is the focus of many of the book’s early chapters, as Ali analyzes each step in the young wunderkind’s life as he transforms from a socially awkward computer aficionado into a renowned game developer.

A casualty of Ali’s all-encompassing approach is the book’s focus. The narrative increasingly meanders back and forth between different strands and juggles an increasingly large cast of characters that becomes more unmanageable the longer the book goes on. Despite the book coming in at 215 pages for the main text, only around thirty pages deal with the development of the original NBA JAM and the rest is anecdotal storytelling that fills in the details around development. The resulting prose is something that feels more like a history of Midway’s arcade game business or a profile piece of Turmell himself than a history of only JAM.

Additionally, only tangential efforts are made to connect the development of NBA JAM to the overall story of the NBA at the time. While Ali sprinkles in small anecdotes that describe the atmosphere of the League during the development and culturally relevant time of JAM , they are relegated to additional pieces of background information that often obfuscate the main narrative more than they help to tell it. Interviews with Shaquille O’Neal and a number of other professional basketball players are exciting additions that shed light on how even the rich and famous viewed the games industry, but it is a shame that these interviews are not leveraged skillfully into something that advances the overall narrative more adroitly. 

NBA Jam promised ‘Net Profits’ for arcade owners eager to cash in on the game’s success.

Ali’s sourceology is also decidedly limited in scope. Forgoing a traditional citation style in favor of a hybrid system that includes a brief description of the source and an internet link, if applicable, is a stylistic error that robs the work of any scholastic staying power. Ali’s decision to not include citations for his interviews and other important primary sources is also puzzling. Histories of the games industry are typically not given the sort of academic reliability that histories of other applicable industries (e.g. music or film) are traditionally ascribed. Ali’s poor sourceology ensures that that stereotype will continue to endure and is a stain on an otherwise well-researched book. 

In a media landscape with few books (though the number is growing) that talk about the games industry, Ali’s book is an interesting half-step in the right direction. Simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, complete and unrefined, slim, and bloated, NBA Jam is a contradictory book that is as mercurial as it is monographical. For historians of the games industry, Ali’s book is an essential addition because it provides additional primary source information on an industry that suffers from a dearth of suitable historical texts. For the average fan of video games, or NBA JAM, in particular, the book is constructed well enough to be worth the price of admission and provides a story that, while not always focused, is a worthwhile addition to the canon of the games industry. 

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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