I don’t understand why some video game franchises flourish and others die, why some mediocre brands are supported by stacks of cash and others are left to drift into obscurity. Take, for example, NBA Jam: a few years ago, Electronic Arts revived the sports franchise for home consoles and smartphones. And then... nothing. NBA Jam — one of the most iconic sports games this side of Madden and FIFA — left just as suddenly as it arrived.
Some smaller, shrewder developers have capitalized on the mistreatment or total abandonment of classic properties. Eric Barone mined Harvest Moon fandom with the exceptional Stardew Valley. Shooters like Devil Daggers, Dusk, and Strafe have recaptured, in different ways, the joy of playing Quake on your parents’ Dell. Now NBA Jam has its indie heir in Dunk Lords.
Designed by Andy Hull, the programmer on Spelunky HD, Dunk Lords is a 2-on-2 arcade basketball game for 1–4 players. Dunk Lords doesn’t re-create NBA Jam one for one, so much as it shares the game’s philosophies of art and design. NBA Jam stripped away rules like goaltending to emphasize speed, and Dunk Lords goes further. There is no inbounds pass, and when the ball heads out of bounds, it hits an invisible wall and zips back into the court. NBA Jam encouraged players to reach in for a steal. Dunk Lords encourages players to dish an uppercut.
Uppercuts are, perhaps, the biggest evolution of the NBA Jam formula. They are the counter to the dunk. In a number of other ways, Hull is fascinated with how to layer strategy onto the basic NBA Jam skeleton.
He enjoys the action of NBA Jam, but finds it can become repetitive from one quarter to the next. So in Dunk Lords, players earn money throughout the game, and can spend it between quarters to upgrade gloves, armor, and shoes with a variety of abilities. It’s reminiscent of League of Legends and other MOBAs. Each player is taking risks with what they purchase, deciding if they want to counter their competitor’s gear or take a risk on something new.
Say you’re playing someone who upgrades their uppercut skills. You could buy a special armor that makes you invulnerable to uppercuts, or you could be aggressive and get shoes that let you dunk from anywhere within the 3-point line. Each quarter feels slightly different, with players gradually upgrading into superpowered basketball gods.
The game doesn’t have the rights to the NBA, its teams, or its stadiums, but it does have the art design of a ‘90s Trapper Keeper that has spent the last 20 years stewing in a cauldron of melted Gushers. Characters include a retired basketball legend, a robot, and an anthropomorphic strawberry. Each has two special abilities. Strawberry, for example, lays sticky jam, while another player can summon a baby spider that steals the ball.
With all the tweaks and updates, you start to understand why indie developers have stepped up to re-create beloved classics instead of the publishers that own the popular brands. NBA Jam is, for better or worse, loaded with nostalgia. Fans have an idea of how it should look, feel, and operate. But a game like Dunk Lords is free to take the strengths of NBA Jam and trim the fat. (It’s an arcade game, after all; not one built for competitive play.)
Hull says he’s put two years of development into Dunk Lords, and believes he has one more year to go. But it already looks promising and feels great. It’s colorful and fun, a throwback to a franchise I love, and yet, very much a brand-new thing. NBA Jam was great, after all, but it didn’t star a trash-talking bear.