Double Dribble

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In 1987, Konami released a video game cartridge for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console that was a port of a fairly widespread basketball simulation arcade game called Double Dribble. Could such an early-release title for the young system’s cycle actually live up to its arcade-cabinet origins? ~Eric Bailey

Double Dribble

Gameplay

Double Dribble is a basketball simulation video game sporting (pun intended) five-on-five full-court gameplay. In this particular NES b-ball sim, the developers opted for the control scheme of using B to switch which defender is being controlled or to shoot on offense, while the A button steals on defense, or jumps to contest a shot if the opponent is shooting, or passes the ball. Actually, to clarify, pressing B once on offense makes the player jump, while pressing it again in mid-air releases the ball for the shot. If this is done near the rim, the game shows a dunk-animation cutscene, emphasizing the slam dunk; or, in some cases, getting “hung” when the ball clangs off the rim instead of satisfyingly tearing through the net.

Double Dribble

Other, the gameplay is fairly standard for an 8-bit basketball game, following four periods of play, offering a selection of a handful of cities to pick from for teams, and instituting certain penalties such as out of bounds, traveling (incurred whenever a player fails to release the ball in midair) and backcout violations, humorously called “BACK PASS” on-screen and resulting in a rapid change of possession. There is a tip-off to begin each game, but the computer always wins. Double Dribble does, though, have a few unique quirks: The players retain their momentum if they jump while running, which is already distinctive, but then the player can even change the athlete’s direction in midair. This leads to very interesting maneuvers in the paint, wherein a fairly dexterous player can change direction five or six times before the second B button tap to launch the dunk animation. It could be presumed that this is something akin to digitally throwing down a 1080-degree jam. Also, the game seems to emphasize stealing as the primary strategical element.

Double Dribble

Furthermore, the A.I. moves in the weirdest, most illogical patterns – even on higher difficulty levels, one example would be when an unguarded player has a clear path to the basket, only to turn and take several step back toward the half-court line instead. Finally, one unfortunate deficit of this basketball game is the inability to pass to an on-screen teammate: The computer can pass to an off-screen teammate, but a human player must absolutely only pass to a player that is already visible on screen, lending a certain limitation to available plays.

Double Dribble

The title screen has a voice effect for the Double Dribble name, then after the player chooses to play alone or versus a human opponent, a cutscene launches that shows people (or, at least, very fuzzily rendered pixelated massive blobs) swarming to an arena as a Konami blimp flies overhead. A shortened version of America’s national anthem plays, balloons are launched, and an absolutely enormous flag is raised over the stadium. Finally, one of the most awkward options screens in gaming history is found: Settings such as period length, team, and difficulty level can be altered, but with each button press, rather than simply and instantly scroll through the available selections, an on-screen player actually fires a jump shot at a rim that aligns with the intended option. This makes for an overly tedious selection process, which would be bearable if it were not for the already drawn-out effect of the opening ceremonies screen.

Graphics

This 8-bit basketball sim looks okay. There are better-looking roundball titles, and there are worse-looking ones as well. The players do not differentiate in height; but in classic NES basketball game tradition, there are palette-swapped sprites in two varieties to display white players and black players. Gameplay follows somewhat smoothly, the one animation anomaly being a bit of flickering, even besides the intentionality of the ball-handler flickering as a possession signal.

Double Dribble

Perhaps somewhat humorously, rather than the disappearing act of typical flickering characters, the ball-handler alternates in sprite frames between being caucasian and African-American in appearance. But the visual highlight of the game are the dunking cutscenes, perhaps the best on the console, copied by later titles but never quite equaled in their five or six frames of slam-dunk monochromatic-athlete glory.

Sound

Background music is laid to the wayside in favor of traditional arena organ ditties and the constant repetition of the bouncing basketball, emphasized appropriately for a game called Double Dribble, to the unfortunately annoying result. Some digitized voice effects are used, such as for the aforementioned title screen and certain foul calls.

Double Dribble

There is the usual “swish” sound effect for a made shot (heard often, since it seems very difficult for the computer to miss a jumper), the oomphy dunk noise, and perhaps this reviewer’s favorite, the rattling clang of a missed slam of the rim. Just as with its graphics and its gameplay, the soundtrack of this game is middling for a basketball title on the NES, though Konami does flex its muscles in a few highlight portions.

Originality

Double Dribble cannot get too much credit for creativity, since it is not only an arcade port, but also a title based on a pre-existing sport, basketball. However, Double Dribble did set the basketball video game standard on the NES, considering its early release date in the console’s supported lifespan. The gameplay is actually somewhat impressive in that context, but its most significant contribution to the genre is likely the dunking animations, which would be endlessly emulated by dozens of future basketball titles and series across further console generations, making the switch from gameplay view to a specific up-close dunking shot a staple for roundball games to come.

Double Dribble

In terms of its production quality, programming accuracy, faithfulness to the original sport, and overall place in the NES library, Double Dribble is an average game. This is not a title that will appear on any all-time greatest lists, except perhaps those that allow for sentimental favorites, but nor will this appear on worst-ever lists either. It is what it is: A simplified, arcade-style basketball video game. In fact, it is actually probably a step up from the original arcade iteration, which made players actually press a button for every single dribble. Nonetheless, Double Dribble on the NES scores two and a half stars out of five.

Midway Arcade Origins

midway arcade origins

Nostalgia can be extremely arresting.  Can a gamer ever return to the feeling experienced when first taking out the Death Star in Star Wars, smashing multiple baddies with a single rock in Dig-Dug, or playing a flawless board of Ms. Pac Man?

midway arcade origins

Gamer nostalgia is also conjured by environments and contexts.  I’m sure most middle aged gamers have swapped stories from their youth about visiting the local arcade (remember those?) to plunk some quarters in their favorite machines. In those golden years, we played for nothing but score and bragging rights, and we were fascinated by graphics that were so remarkable that they couldn’t yet be reproduced on our home systems or personal computers.  I used to beg my father to take me to the PX on base (military brat, represent) so that I could play one of my retro favorites—the cartoonish cop chase game A.P.B.  It was my fond memory of this 1987 relic that led me toward Midway Arcade Origins. I do not regret the purchase.  At the same time, some of the classic titles within this trove of 30+ games simply don’t reignite the longing to play arcade games that I fondly remember from my childhood.

midway arcade origins

The first problem with the compilation is that some of the classic control schemes just don’t translate to modern joypads.  720 is a prime example. In my youth, I would eagerly line my quarters on top of the black-and white-checkered plastic control panel assembly, but without the circle-locked joystick on the arcade cabinet, the game is almost unplayable.  Too much die, not enough skate.  The same unfortunately applies to A.P.B., a game that is dysfunctional sans its steering wheel and pedals.  Granted, you can still get some enjoyment out of the titles, but they just aren’t the same without the respective racing wheels and other cabinet specific peripherals.

midway arcade origins

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of useless filler in the compilation.  The less you remember about Pit-Fighter, Xenophobe, and arguably the worst sequel of all time, Spy Hunter 2, the better.   In light of these weak choices, I found myself wondering why Paperboy, NARC, and Roadblasters were left out.  All three were extremely popular Midway titles from my youth, and all three could have easily made the compilation exponentially better, especially since Paperboy is no longer available on Xbox Live Arcade.

midway arcade origins

Thankfully I was able to get a lot of enjoyment out a few of the included offerings.  Joust and Joust 2 hold up extremely well, as do Satan’s Hollow, Robotron 2084, Spy Hunter, Rampage, and both Gauntlet games (just don’t shoot the food!). Two titles I’d never played before, Wizard of Wor and Bubbles, ended up being my favorites.  Smash TV and its sequel Total Carnage also play well with a modern controller, and they still serve as a reminder that most of these games were simply designed to get one more quarter out of the pocket of your Kangaroos.  This is certainly a staunch contrast from the “save anywhere, unlimited lives” mentality that permeates game design today.

Leaderboards are also included so you can still appreciate how badly you perform compared to other hardcore retro gamers.  Further, multiplayer is offered on any title that traditionally supported it.   While the limitations of portable console gaming and the omission of certain titles does make the compilation feel a bit incomplete, the game isn’t a bad purchase if you are looking to scratch that retro itch. Just don’t expect most of the games to play like they did when you were waiting in line behind that skeevy dude in the Iron Maiden t-shirt to get one more crack at Sinistar.

Arch Rivals

Arch Rivals - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

Arch Rivals

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.

Gameplay

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).

Arch Rivals - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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.

Arch Rivals - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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.

Arch Rivals - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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.

Graphics
Arch Rivals - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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.

Sound
Arch Rivals - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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.

Originality

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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.