Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Barkley: Shut Up and Jam! - Time For Some Pain

I’ve never really played that many sports games, but I have gone through phases of interest in certain sports and there are certain events that I will watch without question, mainly the Super Bowl, and I do root for/against certain teams regularly. When I first “discovered” sports as a kid, there was a time when I cared about Basketball and rooted for the LA Lakers (on a field trip, I’ve also seen most of an LA Sparks game). As time has gone on, I’ve become more aware of Basketball players attempting to have a movie career, mostly limited to Shaquille O’Neal, but the one player I remember seeing in a movie in any great detail was Michael Jordan in Space Jam. While Jordan was the main star in that movie, it also starred other well-known players as supporting characters, including Larry Bird, Wayne Knight and Charles Barkley; that last name is our main discussion point for this review. Barkley hasn’t been in the most glamorous light in recent years, what with the gambling addiction and all, but clearly he had enough star power to get his very own video game by Accolade on the SNES and Sega Genesis known as Barkley: Shut Up and Jam! Having found out about this game, I decided to buy it to not only see if it was any good, but also expand my Genesis library with a sports title. I bought it for only $2, so I wasn’t expecting too much, but I wasn’t expecting as little as I actually got when I finally played it.

Seeing how this is a sports game, there isn’t really a plot, but the idea behind it is that you can play as Charles Barkley and 15 other (fictional) players in 2-on-2 games in the downtown b-ball courts of different NBA cities. I’ve read that this is similar to the pretty well-known NBA Jam, but having never played that title, I won’t be able to make comparisons, so I’ll instead be talking about how it handles this idea on its own. In this case, I feel that it gets some things right, but could definitely have been improved in some areas.

To begin, I’d like to talk about the rather dismal menu selections. There are only four choices: New Game, New Series, New Tournament and Load Game, where you enter a short password to continue where you left off in a series or tournament. There are also a few options lower on the screen for each gameplay type, but they are very bare-bones. You can play with up to two players (as opposed to four on the SNES version) and mute the music (more on that later), but then with a Single Game, you can make quarters last one, three or five minutes and choose to play with the timers or until some reaches 21 or 50 points. For a Series, you can make it be the best out of five or seven games. If you are playing with two people, you can also decide if it will be competitive or cooperative play. I’ve just listed off every single option in the game, and it only takes about 30 minutes to an hour to explore every single combination. I am looking at the main menu as I type this and can confirm that it’s like going to Universal: Once you’ve done everything you want, which won’t take long, there’s not much else to do. I understand that this game was released in 1994 and there were certain limitations as to what home consoles could do at the time, but I’m also aware that other games released at the same time offered much more. While I was never expecting the game to have the sort of wealth of options that most sports games do now, I’ll admit that I at least expected more.

Pictured: The main menu screen.

Well, you can pick the players you use and the court that you play on, but strangely, starting a Tournament seems to change the rules. Not only can you not select Phoenix, as it contains Charles Barkley (this was back when he played for the Phoenix Suns), but when you pick players, you are actually picking which city to represent. That last part makes sense, but to those like me who are unfamiliar with which player comes from which city, it’s a total crapshoot. Also, when you make a selection in general, there’s no way to back out of your choice and pick something else, so if you pick something by accident, you have to live with it until the mode ends or you lose (whichever comes first). You could also just restart the console, but then you have the additional effort of trying to undo your mistake the long way.

You could pick other people, but why wouldn't you want to be Barkley?

At this point, I’d next like to talk about the gameplay, which should at least be good. Surprisingly enough, this is the game’s strong point. The players are easy to control once you get the hang of it and the short game time forces players to think on their feet when out-maneuvering the other team to get to the basket. The mechanics at play are simple, but effective, with the ability to steal the ball or block a shot being your primary means of defense. You can also get close to the basket for an easy two-pointer or take riskier shots from further away in an attempt to maybe get a three-pointer. I know that what I’m saying sounds like obvious basketball strategy, but since that’s nearly all there is, I’m actually appreciative of the minimalist mechanics. There is an additional mechanic where you can activate a set amount of charges, which can be replenished, that allow the current player a temporary boost in skill, possibly allowing you to quickly gain the upper hand on your opponent. Also, there’s no play clock to pressure you. It’s actually pretty fun overall, but there are some things which hold it back a bit.

For one thing, your partner is completely controlled by the AI, so if they get the ball, you have absolutely no control over what they do. You can ask them to pass the ball to you, but if they choose to try and aim for the net, you’re helpless to control the outcome and can be screwed if the other team blocks the shot. This can be overcome with a little planning in advance, but then there is one little oddity that stands out, which is the penalties, or lack thereof. I’m not complaining about there being no penalties in street basketball, since that’s how it would play out in real life, but I am complaining about how the game insists on looking for a goal-tending violation (due to the font chosen to display this, it looks a little like coal-tending violation at first glance). Not only does it stand out for being the only penalty, but the detection for this can also get pretty ridiculous. I once had a game where there were three such violations in rapid succession, even if the ball had already hit the rim. Also, when controlling your player, you can only accomplish some of the more mundane actions, but when the AI has the ball, they can do things like spin in the air while dunking the ball or, if they are the opponent, even pass the ball forward into the air to their partner who then dunks it perfectly from mid-air. I was completely baffled after this as to why I can’t do these things, but the computer totally can. As a final twist, if the opponent has the ball in the final second(s) before the end of a half, they will throw a Hail Mary to the net and almost always make it in. What I’m really saying is, the computer is unfair and can accomplish things you can’t even dream of doing in a sports game on the Genesis.

Moving on, the graphics of Shut Up and Jam are just all right. I have no idea if there was anything groundbreaking here or if even back then it was considered lower quality, but they are sort of what I expected from it being on Genesis and what it does render it does pretty well. The sprites for each player are visually distinct from each other, although it is still possible to lose track of where you are sometimes, especially if you pick two characters who are visually similar to each other, like “Sir Charles” Barkley and “Smoothy”. Each of the courts are distinct and also capture the backstreet feel very well, creating great immersion, although I did find it odd that one of the courts resembled an official NBA court. It’s a little out of place, but after a while I was able to just dismiss it as an option for people who still want to play indoors. Thankfully, no matter where you play, it is very easy to keep track of the ball as it is the only orange object in the entire game.

What a game of backstreet b-ball looks like (Barkley is the one in purple).

Lastly, I want to talk about the sound design. The effects are all right; they sound good and don’t get grating, but everything else is a mess. One place it falls apart is the music. At first, it’s all right and you can get used to it. However, the game only has a couple of tracks and when you begin any game mode you’ll hear the same 20 to 30-second loop over and over again. It gets grating after a while, and I actually got a headache from how repetitive it was, so it might be a good idea to mute the game and put on your own soundtrack. The other point of contention is the voice clips by Charles Barkley. A commercial touts the ability to hear Barkley’s digitized voice, but the clips are hard to make out. It took me about ten times loading the game to finally figure out that when the Sega logo pops up, the clip is saying “Time for some pain.” Similarly, I almost couldn’t understand it when he says “Get the ball” or something to that effect when the ball is on the ground during a game. Maybe there were limitations to what Accolade could do, but I’d have thought that they’d put more care into transferring the former NBA MVP’s voice into a video game.

I’m not sure there’s much else to say about Barkley: Shut Up and Jam. The gameplay options are a little lacking and the sound, while charming at first, gets annoying with extended play. Beneath the game’s flaws however, there is a game that is actually fun to play, but only in very small doses. Collectors or those looking for something fun to play on their Genesis should consider picking it up as a bargain purchase and have something retro to play with friends. You might find yourself ready to change the game after an hour or so, but that time won’t really be that bad. Just be sure to have your own personal soundtrack handy (and remember that this game is canon).

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