White Men Can’t Jump

White Men Can’t Jump
1.5
Game Name: White Men Can't Jump
Platforms: Jaguar
Publisher(s): Atari
Developer(s): High Voltage Software
Genre(s): Basketball
Release Date: 1995

White Men Can’t Jump was a 1992 comedy starring Woody Harrelson as a young white kid trying to con black street ball kings out of their money. This is accomplished by playing to the stereotype that goofy, pasty motherfuckers can’t play basketball. Woody pairs up with Wesley Snipes to get deeper into the tournament scene, and hijinks occur.

None of the actors appear in the game, and their character names aren’t even referenced. Instead, the license is attached to a recreation of generic two-on-two street ball tournaments. Think NBA Jam, without the famous names and in a pseudo-3D perspective. I’ll give it this, it’s original, and it’s a look that could not have been pulled off on other consoles of the time. It is, however, a little flashier than it can handle. Like Snipes’ character in the film, it would rather play badly as long as it looks good doing it.

Jump has two modes of the same gameplay. The quick game option is a single match between AI or human opponents, with typical adjustable variables like teams, courts, and strictness of rules. The main game has you vying to enter the Slam City tournament. The buy-in is $5000, and the reward is the completion of the game. You borrow $500 from some loan sharks to start, pick the team of two characters you want to play as, and proceed to play around town placing your money on the line.

Each round offers you three opponents of harder, equal, and lesser difficulty, with the prize money scaling accordingly. If you win your match you’re closer to your goal. If you lose, your loan shark friends surprisingly will just grumble a little and send you on your way. They only end your game if you haven’t entered the tournament by 50 matches. You also can’t pay them back, even if you can afford it, so they exist only to force you into the tourney.

The game takes the dangerous approach of trying to replicate a 3-D court using only 2-D sprites for characters and backgrounds. It takes the perspective away from the side-tracking audience camera common to earlier basketball games, and commendably tries to bring you into the action. The problem is that it’s too early, and the technology isn’t there yet. The perspective of a roaming camera following the ball and zooming in and out above the court would become a common setup for Playstation-era 3D ball games, and a continuing option in modern titles, but trying to do this with flat player sprites is more confusing than dazzling.

Digitized photographs make up all characters, but they’re scaled down to such a small resolution that you lose most of the detail. This method also limits their frames, resulting in jerky, marionette animation for every player. This is combined with a wholly unimpressive framerate to create motion that borders on sickening. I would estimate the entire game clunks along at 10 FPS, perhaps a little more when the camera is stationary. The game isn’t unplayable, but it is undesirable.

Most grating is the difficulty of determining depth. Players scale as they move up and down the court, but also scale in relation to the position of the hyperactive camera. It can be difficult to determine who is in front of who, which player is closest to the ball, or which side of the ball they are on as they run toward it from a distance. Aiming a steal becomes nearly impossible, and players easily turn into a jumbled mess of bodies if they all share the same basic area. Sometimes this gets cleaned up as the camera slowly zooms in, more frequently you just have to hit buttons and hope you escape with the ball.

Game mechanics follow the standard “street ball rules” created by Arch Rivals and perpetrated by NBA Jam. Any time you wish, you can throw a fist or elbow and knock another player to the ground without penalty. This lawless freedom is countered by a red aggression meter tracked for each of the four players. Players that throw a lot of punches, goal tend, and generally play unfairly show a rise in their aggression meter. If a player is knocked down with high aggression, it takes them longer (3-4 seconds) to get back up. You can mitigate this by spreading these activities among your two players, or exploit it as a key way to take a violent opponent out of play and give yourself a temporary advantage.

Other applicable rules are loosely enforced. Goal tending blocks the point from being made, but significantly raises aggression. If you don’t clear the ball (take it past half-court after receiving it), then you can make the shot, but it won’t count. An indicator in the upper part of the screen shows both possession of the ball and legality of the shot – a red X means it won’t be scored. Other options can be set for the quick game, including the “make it/take it” rule (where you get the ball back after a score), whether scores are tallied as 3/2 or 2/1 (roughly defining the length of the game), or if you want to play a timed game or to a certain amount of points. Others are non-negotiable. You cannot play a game other than half-court two-on-two ball, and your characters are physically prevented from moving out of bounds. Tournament rules are also non-negotiable, always being first to 21.

There are 14 teams you can play as or against. Third graders must have offered up these rad tags, such as the Slammers, the Psycho Squad, and the Dis Masters. Characters have three stats affecting their stamina, speed, and shot accuracy. These will be important to learn once you pick your team, so you can exploit their strengths. If one character has a high speed rating, you can ideally use them to scoop up the ball and pass it to the other member with a higher shot rating.

Your AI partner does a commendable job of moving the ball around, setting up for rebounds, and getting in great positions for a pass. You can even set up some elaborate pass skipping between your two players. Your AI opponents also manage a fair challenge, though they’re too quick to throw punches. They’ll even knock you down after a basket, which serves no purpose whatsoever, or try to corner you when you pick up the ball and knock it away. As if to compensate, I don’t think they even understand the concept of the three-point shot. Despite all the game’s numerous flaws, I was able to beat teams 21 to 4 because I exclusively took advantage of the long shots.

Controls are limited to the A, B, and C buttons. A runs, B punches and passes, and C jumps or shoots. Double tapping A switches to your other teammate. Every shot is a jump shot, so no layups or off-the-board moves. Your other option is to dunk, accomplished by holding C and inputting a Street Fighter style move unique to each character. Dunks are flashy, cartoonish moves involving ridiculous air time and usually some somersaults. The dunk also does not offer the protection you would think, however, and opponents can simply knock you out of the air during your flight to the basket. There are “super dunk” moves the manual mentions and that I believe I have seen the computer pull off. These are unblockable and tend to bowl over nearby opponents, but require more button presses and are not listed in the manual. Their use is far from required to win the game.

There’s a soundtrack in there somewhere, but it’s set at an unnaturally quiet level that cannot be changed. It sounds like some piano notes, and a guy rapping “black,” but I’m not very sure about this. Effects are strictly standard, except for an overuse of voice clips. These are lines like “Get off me, chump!” and “Watch it!” played seemingly every time one player in the game brushes against another. Amusingly, the same voice actor provides every line in the game. I’m not sure if this makes him a narrator or what, but you’ll be hearing him more often than you bargained for. He is less annoying than the text messages that appear and fly around saying much the same things. The text, thankfully, can be turned off.

The game’s major claim to fame is its inclusion of the Jaguar Team Tap. You plugged this box into the second controller port and used it to support three more controllers; allowing for true two-on-two gameplay. This would have been a start in the right direction, since multiplayer was coming into its own, and consoles with four controller ports built in were coming back (N64, anyone?). I still can’t imagine it being much fun. Your AI is good because it can’t see how ugly its own graphics are. Human players will be just as limited and confused as you are. There’s a chance that two player could be a riot, but four players would just involve a lot of tripping over each other’s characters and running in wrong directions to catch a loose ball.

As I’ve already said, White Men Can’t Jump has a look unique to the Jaguar. The cost to processor and playability was in no way worth it. NBA Live 95 embarrasses this title in the gameplay department, and even Jammit and Barkley: Shut Up and Jam are easier to understand, control, and thus, more fun to play. This one looks nice in still frames, looks worse in motion, and looks frustrating when you’re at the controls.

 

The Good

Digitized graphics and a unique 3-D look.

The Bad

Choppy framerate mixed with 2-D sprites in 3-D environment makes a game that’s playable, but not smoothly or easily.

 

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