Video Games: Jammy dodgers: The rim raiders of slam-dunk play high-speed basketball with President Clinton. Rupert Goodwins catches fire

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The Independent Culture
What's got eight armpits, one ball and sounds like a breakfast food for diabetics? NBA Jam, fast basketball for the couch potato that's been a big hit in America, where slam-dunk is written into the Constitution.

NBA Jam is a coin-op conversion. Not a religious experience in a laundromat, but the industry term for a game that's made the transition from video arcade machine to the home. It shows. Arcade machines have to pack in the punters by doling out a good squirt of action in return for every second bought: deep thought is out, sweaty palms are in. NBA Jam manages this by taking the basics of basketball and throwing out all the bits that slow things down. Like referees, rule infringements, and most of the players.

The Nintendo and Megadrive versions are all but identical to the last pixel. The hand-held Game Gear version has most of the features, but suffers somewhat from players the size of tadpoles and audio effects by melodious bees.

The game starts with the ball dropped neatly over the centre line; one team gets possession and the big men are away, skittering merrily over a wood-effect floor. At its most basic, the game is running over to the opposition's basket and pressing the fire button; your player rises in a ballistic or balletic curve and dispatches the ball firmly hoopwards. If the other team has the ball, you have to get close, stay close and execute a variety of finger-tangling special moves on the control pad to steal it away. They'll be doing the same to you, so you'll have to learn defence and passing as well. Moves are few, though, and given that there's a maximum of 24 seconds allowed before one of you has to have a shot at the basket, you're best off dodging and heading for the net.

Each player in the 27 two-man teams has his own specialities and mix of skills, which boils down to how likely he is to succeed at any of the manoeuvres. You're supposed to pick your favourite team, but if like me you thought the Denver Nuggets were a girl group from Motown's golden age, you might as well choose those with the silliest haircuts. It worked for Motown.

The graphics are not bad at all. These rim-raiding manikins are a good couple of inches high, and since there are only four of them the court doesn't get cluttered. With games this basic a lot of the continued attraction depends on the detail, and there are nice touches - light shining off the varnished floor, a commentator squealing with joy or disgust, the occasional grunt from a player. The crowd in the background is as static as a Victorian group photograph, though, and just as interesting.

Some additional cleverness adds spark to the game. If a player shoots three baskets in a row, he's on fire, man] He runs faster, shoots straighter and wins more steals until the opposition next scores, although you can add more speed and dexterity at any time through judicious application of the turbo button. This runs out after a while. Also, the computer can adjust the skills of the players in mid-game if it thinks one team is dominating; career gamers will turn this option off at once, but the more casual dunker will enjoy the way this keeps the scorelines excitingly close.

Hidden players provide the final dash of silliness. By tapping in a secret code, you can persuade digital pictures of Bill Clinton or Al Gore to slip into the Reeboks and religion-revealing shorts to take on the Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately, this all- American game gives us no chance to see John Major dribble or catch fire. Perhaps we could start a petition.

NBA Jam (SNES, Megadrive and Game Gear)

(Photograph omitted)

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