An Abridged Video Game History of Michael Jordan

NBA 2K11 released this week, featuring a fully playable Michael Jordan. He's the cover athlete, he's got his own mode, and I'm getting a little choked up just thinking about it. The combination of HD graphics on next-gen consoles paired with playable classic teams and MJ's career highlights have left me drooling with anticipation for months. I got to meet His Airness a couple of years ago (and wrote about it here) so naturally I couldn't wait to get my hands on the game. But It also got me thinking about how many games MJ was able to appear in over the years. He wasn't available in every annual title. Guys like me grew up watching him play, but never really had a chance to control a fully fleshed out video game version of MJ. At least not like this.

Until now. Let's start from the beginning.

Sort of.

*One quick note: some of these titles were available on more consoles
than were listed, but I'm only including the versions that I played.

Double Dribble (NES, 1987)
Even though there were others basketball titles that came before this one, like Atari Basketball and One on One: Dr. J versus Larry Bird, this was the first game that I ever really got into. And by got into, I mean it's the first game that I have a memory of playing. There were no real teams or real players, but there were crudely made knock offs. At the time, this was progress. When you dunked, the screen would cut away to a slow-motion video that you couldn't control. Fun. I mainly played so I could hear the announcer say, "Double Dribble." It was oddly soothing. So no Jordan, but it was team basketball. This would be important later on. Baby steps.

Jordan vs. Bird: One on One (NES, 1988)
The sequel to Dr. J vs. Larry Bird, the title did such a good job of explaining the game that it's hard to elaborate. You could select either Larry Bird or Michael Jordan. You could play one-on-one, a three-point contest as Bird, or a dunk contest as Jordan. And that's about it. I had a buddy who had this game at his Dad's house. He would always pick Jordan and if I wanted to play, I had to be Bird. That sucked. In an unrelated note, I no longer talk to that guy.

NBA All-Star Challenge (SNES, 1992)
I'm slightly embarrassed to admit how much I used to play this game in the early 90s. You couldn't actually play real basketball. You could play one-on-one (in tournament form), a three-point contest or a dunk contest. That's about it. The clincher? There was only one selectable player from each team. That player on the Bulls was Michael Jordan. And that was enough for me. One odd key detail: you could see the player's reflections in the court. Ooo. So shiny.
 
Bulls vs Blazers and the NBA Playoffs (SNES, 1992)
Finally, real Michael in real team basketball! This game was the very early predecessor to the EA's NBA Live series, which stretched from NBA Live 95 to NBA Live 10. It has since been renamed NBA Elite and was recently postponed, with no official release date.

This game only featured selectable playoff teams, which would be a deal-breaker today but back then didn't seem to matter. I set up many brackets playing as the Bulls. I didn't care that the gameplay was very slow and clangy. I didn't have much to compare it to. It was clearly an upgrade over Double Dribble, even though not by much. You could kind of point your player in a direction, shoot, pass, steal and block, but there was little depth beyond that. You could see numbers on the players jerseys, not names, so the bald #23 was as good as we got.

Also, we had to walk uphill two miles in the snow just to get to the video game store in those days.

NBA Showdown (SNES, 1993)
This was basically Bulls vs. Blazers, but with all the officially licensed teams and players. So there was that. I remember thinking that this was the greatest basketball game ever created, and at the time, that was a pretty accurate statement. Bulls vs. Hornets! So realistic. Bonus points: It was also the last EA basketball title before the start of the NBA Live series.

Michael Jordan Chaos in the Windy City (SNES, 1994)
As NBA games started to evolve, with changing camera angles, different modes and improved controls (like the revolutionary turbo button, which eventually became standard), Jordan was absent from most of them. Instead, his likeness graced the cover of this title, a side-scrolling action platformer. You control Jordan, and you attack by throwing basketballs at enemies. You can earn power  ups to make them more dangerous, adding ice balls, fire balls or homing balls to your arsenal. Maybe it's a coincidence this game released in 1994, the year MJ was retired from the NBA. Maybe it's not. All I know is, it was spectacularly wonderful for an 11-year old. At least, it was in ten minute chunks. Otherwise it was virtually unplayable.

NBA Live series (SNES, Playstation, PS2, XBox360)
I went through a legitimate blue period after MJ officially retired from the Bulls, following his second three-peat in 1998. Basketball wasn't basketball without MJ. I talked myself into players like Penny Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell, but I knew the best had passed us by, and it was terrible. NBA Live games would be released without a Jordan in his last few years in the league, with a generic shooting guard holding his spot. He was not number 23, but did have high ratings in lots of skill categories.  And without a create-a-player option for a few years, you were stuck with that substitute. Then he retired, although he was in NBA Live 2000 in the one-on-one mode and he was also on the 90s all-decade team in NBA Live 2004. And yes, he was selectable as a player on the Wizards in the years during his last, ill-fated final comeback, but we never speak of the Wizards years.

Ever.

NBA 2K11 (XBox 360, PS3, 2010)
This is, without question, the best video game Michael Jordan package ever assembled. In my opinion, it's the best basketball experience ever created. Not only are there eight different selectable Bulls teams for the XBox and PS3 versions, but you'll be able to control different versions of Jordan. That means  younger Mike is more explosive, has hair, but doesn't have as developed of an outside jumper, and older Mike has the leg sleeve, no hair, and a more refined jumper. The Jordan Challenge mode, something that 2K sports must have stolen out of my dreams, includes playable Jordan moments, like The Flu Game, The Six Threes against Portland, and the Double Nickel at the Garden. If you can complete all ten challenges, you unlock a rookie MJ that you can import into the game's Association mode. He'll age as the years go on in the game.

I couldn't believe that level of detail playing Michael's Last Dance, Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Jazz. Jeff Hornacek's free throw ritual? It's in there. So is Karl Malone's bald spot, John Stockton's hair cut, and Dennis Rodman's dye job from that game. Several of Jordan's biggest rivalries are recreated. You won't play against a generic teams, you'll play against the real Bad Boys, classic Lakers, and Riley's Knicks. Older paint jobs on the stadiums are recreated. Special commentary mentions things that happened during the time period. All rendered in HD. Total, you've got 18 classic teams to choose from and as you go, you can unlock different Air Jordan sneakers that you can use as powerups. They even included the classic Bulls intro with real theme music, Sirius by the Alan Parsons Project. Goosebumps.

Apparently they thought of everything (Jordan shrug), which is also definitely in the game.

NBA 2K11 is available now. Learn more here.

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