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Souped-up Hoops

Are the newest basketball video games more fun than the real thing?

I can see it coming. He's going to fake right and then drive left to the basket. But I'm ready. He feints; I go for the ball. I'm across half court before he knows it. One defender left. He wheels back on his heels. Without missing a beat, I cross the dribble to my left hand and slip past him, smooth as silk. Now there's nothing but me, the rock and the bucket. I cradle the ball in the crook of my wrist and leap—and even before I reach the top of my arc, I know that this is going to be a dunk to make grown men weep. As I home in on the basket, I know that this will be a jam for the ages, a slam of sleekness and elegance and raw, awe-inspiring power—a stuff that dreams are made of.

Of course, in my case, the stuff this dream is made from is a silicon chip and a computer code—a video game. And all of the action takes place on a 27-inch television screen. Meanwhile, Tin seated comfortably on an overstuffed couch as I manipulate my alter ego across the electronic hardwood through the use of a hand-held controller. Basketball video games are among the most popular of sports video games, partly due to the huge success of the NBA and the NCAA in recent years, but mainly because the sport, with its blend of power and grace, can inspire the loftiest of fantasies. And a good video game can fulfill those fantasies—at least vicariously—and let you feel as though you can slam like Shaq, move like Magic and be like Mike.

Here is a quartet of games that will send your senses soaring above the rim while you remain glued to your seat.

Based on the hit arcade game of the same name, NBA Jam (available in March from Acclaim for Super Nintendo, $74.99, and Sega Genesis, $64.99) is frenzied and turbocharged, and it makes no attempt at realism. Instead it distills from basketball its most gratifying elements: hyperfast action, humiliating rejections, brutal fouls and, of course, outrageous jams. This is basketball that has been stripped down, souped up and fueled with high octane: Cross the NBA with a monster-truck rally and you'll get the idea.

The game presents two-on-two matchups between stars from all 27 NBA teams. Say you want to play as the Phoenix Suns—you control forward Charles Barkley and guard Kevin Johnson. This format eliminates the need to manipulate a complex live-man offense, reducing the game to a playground duel between NBA superstars. And the stars in NBA Jam really are super. Players routinely leap 20 to 30 feet in the air and occasionally punctuate their slams with three or four midair somersaults. (It's gotta be the shoes.)

There are no fouls, and only the most blatant goaltending is called. Players on hot streaks literally burn up the net with their shots. And full-court heaves at the buzzer have a tendency to go in. Yet strangely enough the spirit of the game remains solidly realistic. Contests frequently go down to the wire, and despite their jazzed-up skills, the NBA players on the screen play remarkably like their real-life counterparts. All the elements of basketball are here—you still must set picks, pass to the open man and play tough D—but you get to flex bionic muscles.

In 1993 the coin-operated version of NBA Jam was the most popular arcade game of the year, raking in nearly $350 million in quarters. To put that figure in perspective, it's more than Jurassic Park, the top-grossing film of all time, earned at the box office. Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal liked the game so much that he couldn't wait for the home version—he purchased an arcade unit for his house. People who have played against him report that, naturally, he always chooses Orlando. Most of the time he plays as guard Scott Skiles. So the truth comes out: Shaq, the 7'1", 301-pound unstoppable force, dreams secretly of being a short, balding white guy.

In terms of realism NBA Showdown (Electronic Arts for Super Nintendo, $69.95) is the closest you can come to playing in the NBA without being drafted. No detail has been overlooked: All 27 teams, with their full rosters, are included, and every player in the league is rated on his offensive and defensive abilities. Ratings are based on the players' actual '92-93 stats—which you can call up on screen at any time—as well as on intangibles such as court awareness and fatigue factor. However, this isn't to suggest that the players in the game are reduced to mathematical equations. The game pulls off the tricky feat of transferring the most recognizable characteristics of each NBA player to his video-game counterpart. You know immediately which of the Golden State Warriors is Tim Hardaway when you see him perform his patented crossover dribble, just as you instantly pick out Horace Grant from his Chicago Bull teammates by his trademark goggles.

Playing the game is intuitive. On offense you control the player with the ball and decide whether to dribble, pass or shoot. On defense you can switch from player to player, depending on whom you want to cover. The computer controls the rest of your squad. Of course, while you maneuver a player on the screen you also act as your team's coach. You make substitutions, keep track of the foul situation, deal with injuries, manage your timeouts and, perhaps most important, learn to ignore the sound of all those squeaking sneakers.

In addition to letting you play and coach, NBA Showdown also makes you the general manager. You can trade players and build teams. Pair Charles Barkley with Karl Malone for a lethal frontcourt. Or put together the ultimate power squad of Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Shaq and David Robinson. For that matter, since this is a video game, create a team of five Michael Jordans. Now there's a Dream Team.

However, aside from that bit of whimsy, this game is all business. Every facet of NBA play is reproduced: shot clocks, violations, turnovers, streaks, slumps, fatigue. How authentic is NBA Showdown? Golden State Warrior rookie Chris Webber was seen playing the game during Game 2 of last year's NBA Finals. Instead of watching to see which of his future competitors would be crowned the next champions of the basketball world, Webber was busy blistering his thumbs playing a fantasy game. Then again, maybe he prefers a simulation to the real thing for a reason: The video game doesn't allow you to call a timeout you don't have.

If 82-game seasons and 24-second shot clocks leave you cold, but you can't get enough of zone defenses and the four corners, then NCAA Basketball (Nintendo for Super Nintendo, $49.95) is for you. And though the game does come complete with all the teams from five major-college conferences (ACC, Big East, SEC, Big 8, SWC) along with their 1991-92 rosters, the real appeal of NCAA Basketball lies in its smooth play and revolutionary graphics.

Using technology unique to the Super Nintendo machine, NCAA Basketball gives you a ball-handler's-eye view. With each pass of the ball the court rotates, and you feel as though you are actually on the hardwood. You can see plays develop, lanes to the hoop open up and teammates spring open off picks. When you call for a specific play or defensive formation, you can see your teammates setting up and getting into position. NCAA Basketball may be the only video game that offers you a better understanding of the real game.

You can play an entire conference schedule for any one of 44 teams, and a good record will earn you a bid to the NCAA tournament. However, trying to reach the Final Four is tougher than penetrating a triangle-and-two (you'll know what that means once you play the game). If you're determined to win it all, good luck—you may not emerge from your den until sometime in the spring, giving new meaning to the term March Madness.

Unlike the other basketball games, Michael Jordan in Flight (Electronic Arts for IBM and compatibles, $59.95) uses video footage of Jordan and other players rather than animated images. When you play Jordan in Flight, you control Jordan's image on the screen, not merely a cartoon of Jordan. This effect was made possible by combining traditional video-game production methods with two other seemingly unrelated technologies: special-effects techniques used in feature films and commercial flight-simulator programming.

To make the game, Jordan was first filmed performing various moves on a soundstage in Chicago. The filmmakers used a blue-screen technique, similar to the one used to generate the special effects in movies like Star Wars, so that Jordan's image could be superimposed onto a computerized basketball court. These images were then digitized and translated into computer code so that they could be manipulated by ZCT Systems, a company that designs flight simulators to train commercial airline pilots. ZCT's programming effectively made the game player the "pilot" and Jordan the "plane." Jordan then added his own tactical expertise to the video game.

The result is a stunning basketball simulation that is more akin to a virtual-reality program than to an arcade-style game. You are Michael Jordan. Playing in a three-on-three pickup game, you set picks, block out for rebounds, weave through traffic and, of course, take to the air for emphatic and artistic slams. The effect is so realistic, it's dizzying. In fact, it takes a little while to get your bearings and figure out how to move around. It's not easy being Jordan: Most of us aren't used to covering so much ground so quickly or skying the hoop or hitting the 20-footer.

When you score a basket, you can watch it again with an instant-replay feature that allows you to see the shot from any angle. You can even put together your own highlight film. It's up to you to provide the inane voice-over.

As Michael Jordan in Flight demonstrates, video-game technology is progressing by leaps and rebounds. It is probably only a matter of time before you will be able to turn on your TV, tune in to a basketball game and join in the action by putting on a virtual-reality helmet and slipping into the body of one of the players. And when that happens, video games will have succeeded in bringing the sport right where it should be—in your face.



Jordan at work helping to design his game; Jordan at work starring in it.



In "NBA Showdown" (top and bottom) and "NBA Jam," the stars are all yours.



[See caption above.]