Basketball has always occupied a unique pop culture niche that other sports have failed to achieve. Basketball players release rap albums, have designer clothing lines (or designer socks, if you’re Chandler Parsons), and their faces are plastered onto surprisingly not-terrible Arizona soda products. Sneaker-heads will riot and beat the shit out of each other at malls across America in a dark pagan ritual to will this year’s limited edition Jordans into existence.
Occasionally, basketball players even star in video games. However, instead of the expected mediocre garbage that comes with any celebrity-based product, these games exist on the polar spectrums of spectacular and spectacularly shitty, with absolutely nothing in between. They are wonderful, twisted disasters, still deserving of attention from those who don’t care in the slightest about sports or old school game mechanics.
The progenitor of its kind, Shaq Fu emerged from the primordial ooze red-eyed and confused, pumped up with enough amphetamines and hallucinogens to keep a rave going for a week. A loving tribute to Dali-style surrealism, our game begins with The Big Aristotle in the exotic lands of the Orient, doing a little sightseeing before he has to participate in an incredibly vague charity basketball game. Diesel is led astray however, when his eye is transfixed by the sight of a small dojo nestled lovingly in between several blatant advertisements from the one corporate sponsor this game could get: Pepsi. A wizened old sensei tells Shaq Daddy that he is the one from the stars, and he must save a kid named Nezu from the dastardly clutches of Mumm-Ra’s second cousin, Sett-Ra. The Big Galactus is then ushered through a portal into another dimension to begin his own cosmic journey, beginning one of video gaming’s strangest experiences in the process.
There’s obviously not much to write home about the game on a technical level. It controls as well as you would expect a console fighting game in the pre-analog stick era, and is generally about as responsive as a patient in a medically-induced coma. With a story mode that can be beaten in about 20 minutes, there really isn’t much reason to stick with it for more than a passing curiosity. Shaq Fu’s only saving grace is the fact that it is far more imaginative than it has any right to be. The sheer bizarreness has given the game a small cult following, and enough of a residual memory in the public subconscious to garner it an extremely belated sequel (more on that later). An interesting note is that Shaq Fu was an early favorite of NBA Superstar Lebron James, who is apparently something of a video game savant, proving once and for all that celebrities truly are better than us at everything.
Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City
A month after the release of Shaq Fu in November of 1994, the world was treated to an even worse semi-basketball related game in Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City. A mind-numbingly repetitive SNES side-scroller made by the quality control enthusiasts over at EA, Chaos in the Windy City manages to fuck up everything people enjoy about its genre.
Told through a series of barely animated stills done in the vein of a Silver Age comic book, our story opens with Michael Jordan arriving to a charity basketball game (seeing a theme here?), only to discover that his teammates have been kidnapped. A basketball with a note on it tells MJ to go to the museum at night, which our hero valiantly does without any thought of calling the police or informing the families of his teammates of what has happened. What follows is nothing short of a masterstroke of the worst kind of crap early 90’s video gaming had to offer.
Much like an E! Network reality show, Michael Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City proudly wears its vapid and soulless nature on its sleeve. Just about every level looks exactly the same, which makes for a dull and confusing slog from one key to the next until you get to the end. This level of creative bankruptcy is matched only by the repetitive and boring enemies (spiders, floating eyes, and bats like it’s fucking Castlevania), and its equally boring bosses (a robot made out of basketballs). Your health items: bottles of Gatorade and boxes of Wheaties (the breakfast of champions). There is nothing redeemable about this game outside of the fact that it was the first major lead designer role for one of gaming’s most important personalities, Amy Henning, who received the job when the former design lead quit after realizing he was working on a game starring Michael Jordan. She has obviously gone on to far, far better things.
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden
Easily the best game on this list–and one of my personal all time favorites–Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden was a revelation, one of the first indie games to truly catch my eye. Sir Charles has always been one of my favorite basketball personalities, both for his outspoken and refreshingly honest commentary and for his truly unique style of play (I wasn’t watching when he was around, but from watching old games he has always stood out for me). Being able to live vicariously through the round mound in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future was right up sixteen year-old me’s alley.
Unlike the aforementioned games above, Barkley actually makes use of its strange setting to tell a story that is both hilarious and packed with some rather enjoyable satire and lampshade-hanging. As a result of performing the ultimate basketball move, the Chaos Dunk, Barkley inadvertently kills an entire arena full of fans in the year 2043, leading to the game of hoops being banned, and most basketball players are killed in the aftermath. Twelve years later, another Chaos Dunk kills wipes Manhattan off the map, and Charles is the number one suspect. Hunted by the traitorous Michael Jordan and the B-Ball Removal Department, Barkley journeys to the tomb of Lebron James and beyond to find redemption and save the world in the process.
Out of all the games in this article, this one is the most mechanically sound. It’s a good riff on old school JRPGs, while also incorporating some of the button pressing elements of more modern RPGs like the Mario and Luigi series. It is also thankfully devoid of JRPG-style grinding, as wandering enemies do not respawn, which makes the whole experience far less of a commitment in an era where people’s backlogs appear to be only growing (thanks, Steam). If you truly love the old school style of JRPG and have any modicum of nostalgia for it, you should play this game. Trust me; even if you don’t like anything sports, you will enjoy it.
Dikembe Mutombo’s 4 ½ Weeks to Save the World
I am certain that for the vast majority of the people reading this, your only familiarity with one Dikembe Mutombo is a vague recollection of his raspy voice, and that one time he swatted cereal boxes out of the air in that Geico commercial. Basketball fans remember Mutombo for being one of the greatest defensive players of all time, and for his trademark finger wag every time he swatted away a shot. He is a great mix of weird and awesome, and nothing embodies that mix more than Dikembe Mutombo’s 4 ½ Weeks to Save the World.
Created by the Lovecraftian body-horror enthusiasts over at the Old Spice marketing division, Dikembe Mutombo Saves the World is ironically the most dated game on this list despite being released only a couple of years ago. Honestly, playing the game now is met with a level of pop culture impenetrability that is almost all-encompassing in its nature (though I’m sure we all remember the fervor around the royal baby and that time Twinkies went away after Hostess went bankrupt). Dikembe Mutombo is tasked with a variety of tasks, such as rigging the vote for the 2012 election, all to restore the soul of America and postpone the upcoming Mayan Apocalypse.
Besides the inherent datedness and the fact that the gameplay is brief and pretty boring, this game still holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons. Even today, the game is still fucking hilarious to play. Everything from the writing to Dikembe’s delightfully stilted delivery of the dialogue just works. It is packed full of the absurdity that Old Spice loves to put into everything they do. There’s also a higher degree of craftsmanship than you would expect from a browser-based promotional game. It’s brimming with personality (and some surprisingly listenable music as well). It might not be worth a playthrough, but search it up on YouTube one day if you are need of a good laugh.
What Does The Future Hold?
Well, there is going to be a Shaq-Fu sequel courtesy of an Indiegogo campaign, so you know that’s going to suck (especially when the tagline is “Shaq-Fu returns and this time we won’t FU it up!”). It’s going to be a modern beat ’em up infused with elements of Street Fighter and Devil May Cry according to the developers, which sounds amazing…besides the fact that it is a remake of Shaq Fu.
Thankfully, we also have the long awaited sequel to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden to look forward to. While it is undergoing a genre shift away from JRPG to an action RPG style, I have all the confidence in the world that Tales Of will make a game as funny and enjoyable as the first. Oh, and I’m sure there will be an endless runner somewhere in there too: all roads in video gaming eventually lead to an endless runner.
Article by contributor Spadeslick.
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