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Devs tell the tale of making NBA Jam: 'I was down on the monster dunks'

"I was down on the monster dunks," former Midway dev John Carlton recalls in a new Sports Illustrated oral history. "I loved the NBA for what it was; I didn't want to turn this into a clown show."
"I would show these dunks—at pretty normal heights—to Eugene Jarvis, who made Defender and Stargate and Robotron, and he was like, 'Maybe make that a little faster, a little higher.'"

- Former Midway game maker Mark Turmell, speaking to Sports Illustrated about working on NBA Jam.

Remember NBA Jam? The high-flying, 2-on-2 arcade sports game that debuted in 1993?

Someone at Sports Illustrated sure does, because today it published an entertaining oral history of the original game's development that includes stories from former developers, voice actors, NBA players who did work for the game, and NBA reps who came around (eventually) to giving the NBA license to an arcade game.

It's a fun read, especially if you're curious about what went into producing an arcade game in the '90s. Notably, there's also a lot of reminiscing about disagreements in the office about how outlandish something called NBA Jam -- which paved the way for Midway's seminal NFL Blitz and helped define the genre of "arcade sports game" -- could get.

" I was down on the monster dunks, I have to admit," recalled former Midway developer John Carlton. "I loved the NBA for what it was; I didn’t want to turn this into a clown show. . . . But within 24 hours I was converted."

"There were some naysayers,"  said lead designer/programmer Mark Turmell. "Sal hated the fire mode. Jamie Rivett and I said, 'We need some flames to put on the basketball,' and Sal actually said, 'No, I’m not gonna give you flames.'"

And it sounds like even as things were heating up (or not) among the dev team, the folks who came in on contract to help with things like voicework or player modeling were putting in work under much different conditions.

"You know how when you’re on fire and you tumble over and spin when you dunk? To film that they set me on a picnic bench; there was a mat on the floor and I would just tumble over, like stunt work," said NBA Jam model and former NBA player Stephen Howard. "We did that for about five days. It was pretty monotonous work."

The full oral history, which covers everything from the genesis of NBA Jam on through to its demise in arcades, is well worth reading over on Sports Illustrated's website.

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