In 1987, the development publisher team of Acclaim/Midway/Rare pitched in to produce an arcade port of the basketball simulation Arch Rivals, as they would release as an 8-bit video game cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console. Would it measure up to its original cabinet counterpart? Well, no, actually; it looked much worse, and simply did not play as enjoyably. However, it did manage to forge its own identity as one of the quirkier basketball-game selections on the ol’ Nintendo system and managed to serve as a bit of foreshadowing to a future blockbuster b-ball franchise.
On its surface, Arch Rivals is a basketball video game on the NES. There are a few features, though, that make it somewhat notable. This is not a five-on-five version; rather, this cart features two-on-two full-court style hardwood action. Additionally, the player only controls one character on the team, rather than the switch of controls used in many other games. However, the player can tell the teammate what to do, in the sense that pressing the pass button (B) not only makes the teammate pass the ball, but the player’s character is actually shown, via speech bubble, telling the teammate to do so, or to shoot by pressing the A button (also used to jump on defense).
On defense, though, the claim to fame for this video game is in using the B button to punch opposing players. There are no fouls in Arch Rivals, and in fact no other penalties either, as it is impossible to move out of bounds or travel, for example. Thus, gameplay devolves (evolves?) into a cat-and-mouse chase across every possession, as the offense struggles to set up an open shot or dunk before the defense can punch them out and get the ball back. Holding the B button sets up for a punch, during which the character’s arm is visibly withdrawn and the player can move about the court, until it is released to unleash the punch. Or, while holding B, the player can press A to perform a weird diving, somersault-rolling “swipe” move to try and steal the ball and retain motion. This move is much more difficult to pull off.
Once past the humorous title screen, displaying up-close face shots of two “arch rival” players plainly irritated with each other, with a basketball in the middle until a fist bursts forth from its round orange skin, the options are presented. Weirdly enough, there are only four tongue-in-cheek teams to choose from (Los Angeles, Brawl State, Chicago, and Natural High), and even of these four, only very specific match-up configurations are available, scrolled through with presses of the B button. The A button moves to a hints-giving session, screen by screen, providing helpful instructions. After the options comes the character selection, giving eight different players the player can choose from, or two players in a head-to-head game with each choosing their own character. They supposedly have different characteristics, such as one being a top shooter, one being the best brawler, etc., but in reality, the actual gameplay results of most of them is similar enough to be unintelligible from the other.
The play control is a little off-kilter, especially when compared to other basketball games. For example, the physics programmed into this game demand a bizarre momentum, whereas defensive players without the ball move notably faster than ball-carriers; akin to the “catch-up” boost a losing kart may receive in a Mario Kart game. In fact, if the player pauses the game will running at full tilt, the player actually continues to move until their inertia runs out, even though the other athletes are frozen still. Not since Kid Kool has an on-screen character sprite had so much trouble coming to a stop.
Then there are the truly distinctive factors behind Arch Rivals. For one, players can trip over the little referee. Also, eventually in the game, random garbage and stuff gets strewn about the court, tripping players that run over them. Furthermore, one interesting aspect is that, on the occasional slam dunk, the backboard breaks, bringing glass shards down to the floor and remaining broken for a little while. This, along with the two-on-two action, one-character control with teammate commands, emphasis on knocking the opposing team over, and arcade-style gameplay are very reminiscent of Midway’s later basketball series, the more famous NBA Jam franchise. In this sense, Arch Rivals can be seen as the direct predecessor to Jam.
Another early NES basketball game is Double Dribble, which surprisingly only looks a little worse than its original arcade iteration. Arch Rivals, on the other hand, looks decidedly worse than its upright cabinet original. While it would be nice to say that this is primarily due to the superior graphics of arcade Arch Rivals over arcade Double Dribble (which, in itself, is an opinion that may merely be a matter of taste), the visuals of the console cart have unusual choices throughout, the prime example being just the eerie, not-quite-right way the actual players are renders, with single white pixels as eyes. There are a handful of different “cutscenes” that are seen after every successful score, ranging from the ref standing there with a whistle, to the possibility of one coach or another seen barking at their players off-screen, or even a cleavage-bearing cheerleader. However, despite the graphical goofiness of these potentially appealing scenes, they pose a very telling problem: Pausing the action after every single made shot makes Arch Rivals much more slowly paced, which removes from its otherwise zany charm of punching and rushing back-and-forth action. It can be confidently stated that, without these needlessly overdone cutscenes, Arch Rivals would be a better game.
It could be argued as admirable that the background music is not distracting, but surely the programmers could have done better than a bass-rhythm, quick-hits-otherwise ditty that seems to make the player feel like the developers were unaware that the NES had more than two channels for music. The sound effects themselves are barely noticeable either, which is a more disconcerting issue. Even with the somewhat obvious limitations of the 8-bit NES machine, the backboard-shattering surely could have been rendered with more punch and circumstance. Perhaps this reviewer is just dreaming, but Arch Rivals is decidedly not a game that reached for the stars in its audio department, merely settling to service the gameplay mechanics.
As mentioned before, though its gameplay is not quite satisfying for basketball purists and merely suffices are a zany diversion for everyone else, unfortunately coupled with the gameplay flaw of stop-and-go rhythmic issues, Arch Rivals holds an intriguing spot in console history, one that laid the path for the amazing entries in the NBA Jam series. But historical context itself cannot make a great game, and Arch Rivals must be properly recognized as neither among the best ever created, nor the worst ever suffered through: A two and a half star rating out of five pegs the b-ball sim for good.
Eric Bailey is a retro gamer on a crazy quest to write a quality review for every single American-released NES video game over at NintendoLegend.com.