[Ed. note: Out today, Boss Fight Books’ latest, NBA Jam, looks back at the ‘90s arcade phenomenon known for bringing in over a billion dollars in quarters. In talking to the development team and many others affected by the game, author Reyan Ali has pieced together one of the most significant chapters of Midway history. Below, we have an excerpt looking back at the game’s secret characters.]
On its surface, NBA Jam was a small game. You moved back and forth on a tight playfield, always playing the same kind of game on the same court for the same crowd. There was nothing to customize, no supplemental modes or bonus features of any sort. Four players. One ball. That’s it.
But as soon as gamers started digging, NBA Jam, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition, and the two games’ many console adaptations revealed much, much more. Over the 1990s, NBA Jam’s lore grew to be filled with strange codes and peculiar stories, imbuing it with the same mystique the Mortal Kombat games had. No matter how far-fetched a rumor about NBA Jam was, it felt like there was a chance it was true. This aura went a long way in keeping the game on players’ minds as new games arose to compete for Jam’s attention. In the case of the game’s most famous hidden element — its secret characters — the whole thing started as a joke.
After wrapping up the game and admiring how well NBA Jam had turned out, someone on the development team suggested that they all get their faces digitized for the game. With the face-swapping system, substituting heads was easy to do, so why not put themselves in the game? It would make a fun little memento. One by one, each of the seven went up against the blue screen to have his image captured.
When it was Sal DiVita’s turn in front of the blue screen, he stood stoically.
“All right, smile if you want,” a voice behind the camera said.
“I don’t want to smile,” DiVita responded.
“Not even for the selection thing?” the cameraman said.
DiVita stayed silent. Locking in his most intimidating game face, he slowly rotated against the screen. He turned 360 degrees, allowing the camera to get a complete view of his features, including his long black mullet — the kind of haircut popular among the pro wrestlers of the era. Capturing DiVita took 10 seconds. Then, it was on to the next developer.
Jon Hey stuck out his tongue. John Carlton dangled a cigarette out of his mouth. Shawn Liptak widened his eyes and jumped around. One by one, each of them stepped in front of the camera.
The developers buried themselves in NBA Jam through codes corresponding to their initials and birthdays that could be entered at the start of a game. DiVita was SAL, February 1; Hey was JWH, September 20; Carlton was JMC, August 5; and so on. They quickly added their friends at Midway, and the blue screen actors, too. Everyone’s heights and abilities were blown out of proportion, but hey, this was their game.
To the team’s surprise, this in-joke proved to be of immense interest. Players everywhere compared notes about these unfamiliar characters and their skill sets. Lists of codes containing secret characters were taped to the sides of cabinets, and guides like “How to WIN at NBA JAM!” traveled far and wide outside Kentucky. One Midway distribution partner sent management an irate letter about the codes because of the frenzy they were causing. “Your programmers have created a monster,” Lieberman Music Company president Stephen E. Lieberman wrote, attaching an FAQ, which was being sold to players in a Minneapolis arcade for $10 to $25 a copy. “I think that programmer creative freedom has gone too far.”
Yet as NBA Jam’s earnings started to fade, rumors and codes were crucial to boosting them up. “[Jam designer Mark] Turmell and those guys were masters at spoon-feeding information to the press and the public at regular intervals,” VideoGames & Computer Entertainment editor Chris Bieniek said to me. “Eventually, they realized that it was actually easier — and even more effective, in the long term — to just straight-up lie about secret stuff because people would still keep trying different button combinations and guessing at the supposed hidden characters’ initials and birthdates, hoping to be the first to discover a new secret.” One kid tracked down Turmell’s home number and called and spoke to his wife, pretending to give a survey, just so he could get her initials and birthday to check if she was in NBA Jam. (She wasn’t.)
Cheerleader codes became the most buzzed-about subject among NBA Jam fans. The cover of the August ‘93 issue of VG&CE boasted a screenshot of a digitized Kerri Hoskins coming in for a monster jam, implying that she (and, by proxy, Lorraine Olivia) had to be in the game somewhere. Players did everything they could to find them, testing combination after combination. The discussion began on message boards then led to players hunting down Playboy back issues for her initials and birthday. Some resourceful boys called Playboy directly, hoping to speak to the ladies themselves. As it so happened, the original screenshot was just a mock-up so VG&CE would have something cool for the cover, and the cheerleaders were never actually playable characters. When Tournament Edition came out, Hoskins and Olivia finally made it into the game, but not without Turmell hinting that they had been hidden in NBA Jam the entire time.
Because of his role as a secret character, John Carlton experienced one of the strangest moments of his life. The artist was at his desk one day when he heard a voice say, “Hey, it’s Carlton.” When he turned around, Macaulay Culkin was pointing at him. Three years after reaching superstar status with Home Alone and becoming one of the most famous people in the world, Culkin was in Chicago filming Richie Rich and had stopped by Midway for a tour. “I always play your secret character in NBA Jam,” Culkin said to Carlton. Then he walked away.
With Tournament Edition, the roster of special guests ballooned. The Midway guys rented Halloween masks and invented a new batch of weirdos, like the Grim Reaper and a gorilla in a Viking helmet called Kongo. This time, nearly everyone who worked in video games at Williams Bally/Midway made it in. Eugene Jarvis showed up for his portrait in a straitjacket, cackling, with an X carved into his forehead. Ed Boon glared. John Tobias grinned. Including everyone in NBA Jam epitomized the high morale and team spirit of the era. Eric Kinkead, who did art and testing for Tournament Edition, once described the move to include everybody as “the point of Camelot for Midway, the round table and the white castle on the hill.”
When Acclaim created the home versions of NBA Jam, secret characters took on an even more pronounced role. Acclaim first asked to add its own developers, which Midway agreed to, then had the idea to toss in celebrities. Instead of using digitization, the lower-resolution heads for the home games would be hand-drawn, allowing them to make anyone they imagined. The new draft of special guests included president Bill Clinton, vice president Al Gore, Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon, and George Clinton, the man whose music inspired the game’s soundtrack.
“I’ve seen it a couple of times and heard my hair caught on fire,” George Clinton, who appeared in the game as “P-Funk,” recalled to me. The legendary funk front man was in a bad place in the early 90s when NBA Jam came out (“At that time, I was a crackhead,” he said), but he did hear from his grandkids that he was tearing up the hardwood. Clinton loved golden age arcade classics like Pac-Man and Galaxian, but he never played Jam. “I never could get the coordination when games started controlling people running up and down the court,” he said. “In Galaga, I got that, but when it came to real-life shit, I couldn’t even do that on Nintendo.”
Rumors about who else might be in the game grew increasingly bizarre. According to reports, musicians Ted Nugent and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea appeared in prototypes of the home game. GamePro editor Dan Amrich dedicated a portion of his online NBA Jam guide to clarifying who was not in the game. Contrary to gossip, the game did not contain Magic Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, Beavis & Butt-Head, Charles Manson, Darth Vader, Barney the Dinosaur, Al Pacino, or Michael Jackson. One gullible soul even wrote to Amrich asking whether or not Jackson really performed a halftime show.
By the time Acclaim plotted the home versions of Tournament Edition, an unpredictable roster of secret characters had become one of NBA Jam’s unspoken selling points, so the company pushed the concept further and further. With each new release, another outlandish name was in NBA Jam. You could hit the court as Hillary Clinton or Prince Charles, the Beastie Boys or Sonic Youth, Larry Bird or Heavy D, Chicago White Sox heavy hitter Frank Thomas or Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or DJ Jazzy Jeff.
“Yo, dude,” someone said to DJ Jazzy Jeff, gesturing toward the television. “You’re a character in the game.” The DJ born Jeffrey Allen Townes was hanging out with friends when a group had fired up a game of NBA Jam and entered his code. In the 90s, Townes and Will Smith were hip-hop musicians as well as stars of a popular sitcom, plus they worked with the NBA on its “Stay in School” campaign, so they made an excellent fit for the game. It’s likely that Smith played as himself in NBA Jam, according to Townes, though he typically didn’t have the patience for video games.
Townes, on the other hand, was a serious gamer, having waited in line for Jam at the arcade even when he preferred simulation-style basketball games. He was dazzled by the cameo. Being a secret character in NBA Jam was, in his words, “almost a badge of honor.” “Every musician I know wants to be a superstar in sports and every superstar in sports wants to be a musician. That’s why you have so many rappers playing in celebrity basketball games,” he said to me. “Every time you saw someone jump up and dunk with that character, that was actually me. I did that.”
Little information is available on Acclaim’s licensing and compensation for use of the special guests. The fine print on one of the game’s boxes showed a copyright notice for George Clinton’s “P-Funk” nickname, but Clinton did not recall ever receiving any payment or signing any agreement for his likeness. The same went for Townes. While Clinton thought his inclusion as a secret character was cool, he associated it with a time when he routinely went unpaid for use of his likeness and music. His career, he said, had been plagued by stories of reneged contracts and missing royalties. “NBA Jam,” he said, “is just one of 1,300 of them.”