You should have played… Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball
What? I hear you ask. Yes, that’s right Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball for the SNES. Allow me to explain.
Bill Laimbeer was part of the notoriously rough Detroit Pistons team that won two NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990. He then went on to become a coach in the NBA and won numerous other accolades. Unless you’re a fan of late 80’s NBA that’s not really important. What is important is that his name, and ‘likeness’, were used for the first ever basketball game to be released for the Super Nintendo. There was no fanfare, no rapturous praise installed and no “Game of the Year” awards. In fact, I struggled to find any historic reviews at all, only finding two links on Wikipedia in which one reviewer stated:
“Ill-conceived controls, annoying sounds, and a number of other faults mar what could have been a guilty pleasure”
However, load it up now and you might be pleasantly surprised. There’s no denying that it looks awful, the music is terrible and the controls come in 8 movements only, but, it has an undeniable charm.
I came across this game when playing some old SNES roms with a close friend. We were just mucking about with 2 player stuff. The usual, Bomberman, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter 2. He was good at Street Fighter, I was good at Bomberman, and we’re both bad at Mortal Kombat. It was a fun night, but little did we realise how much better it was going to get when we found the hidden gem that is Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball. Having a bit of a chuckle at the name we loaded it up to its Blood Dragon-esq opening screen.
And decided to give it a go. The game told us that the year was 2023 and that Bill Laimbeer has become the new commissioner of the NBA and throws out the rulebook. Contact is allowed, mines, bombs and other weapons litter the court and anything goes. Well, you can’t go offside for some reason because you know, that breaks NBA protocol, but I digress. We immediately started to play, the first few games were tame. Hits here and there, little bit of banter. Cheering the 3 pointers. 30 minutes later and we had become hardened veterans of Bill’s sick twisted game. Expletives were echoed around the living room, celebrations shook the building and the anger level was high. You FIGHT when you play Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball, you throw your minions around the screen attempting to knock the ball loose, you curse their entire families when they miss shots, and you want to elect them as president when they manage to score that miraculous shot in the dying seconds. You are happy when you win, but you know that it came at a cost!
What made the 2 player experience of Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball incredibly entertaining and competitive? It’s simplified control scheme. One button to launch yourself at the ball carrier when you are on defence, one button to pass if used with a directional key and one button to shoot. All bound to the same button. We were both beginners and experts within 5 minutes and it felt good. This wasn’t like going up against a StarCraft Pro, or some Counter Strike wizard. Winning or losing purely came down to strategy and understanding of how far your guy would dive for the other guy.
We played this for hours, and I honestly think we tied victories by the end of it, but it was a whole load of fun. Thinking back it does bring a few questions that I think merit discussion in the age of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Why do we focus on having our tie-in titles be so serious? Granted this was the age of Shaq Fu, and that endorsed games were big business. What’s stopping us in today’s age. Why can’t we have games like Ron Burgundy’s News Simulator or Leonardo Di Caprio’s Quest for an Oscar? Instead, we’re told that games that star celebrities need to be serious. Beyond Two Souls and The Last of Us for example. I can appreciate that the industry has grown with the age of its audience, but surely we need games for fun. I know that Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball and Shaq Fu would have been developed to be serious titles, designed to generate revenue for their endorsed stars, but can’t we have a bit of fun with this?
Have we went backwards with mechanics and is this a good thing? This is more of a concern outside the world of Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball but I feel it merits mention. This is a game that could very easily be adapted to tablet or smartphone. It would work well on this platform given its simplistic controls, I just fear that we are becoming a world of tappers. For all that is good, just have a look at Flappy Bird.
When was the last time you picked up a 2 player game and were both good at it straight away? Nidhogg is probably the closest game I’ve seen to having this effect, but let’s be honest. Give someone 5 hours on Nidhogg and put them up against someone that’s never seen it before, they’re going to get absolutely slaughtered. There’s no tricks with Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball, no front flips over opponents, no speed boost abilities. Yeah, it might not be an in-depth title but for what it is, it works well.
Maybe I’m on my soapbox screaming about how I want my multiplayer experiences in games to be. Maybe I’m being far too nostalgic for my own good. Maybe, just maybe, we need more games like Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball.