The closest I've ever been to a basketball nightmare was trying to dribble one between my legs when I was a kid, only for it to bounce up and whack me in the plums. Let's hope that Sega's 1989 Master System monster-dunk-em-up Basketball Nightmare is a less painful experience.
Okay, sure, that's a fairly nightmarish bit of typography, although I feel it suffers somewhat by having that hint of green at the bottom. Without the green it would obviously just look fiery, with the pastel green there's the faint suggestion that it might actually be rainbow-coloured. The logo does at least let you know that Basketball Nightmare isn't a standard basketball game, because serious sports simulations don't generally have logos that look as though they were traced from the VHS cover of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. So, how is Basketball Nightmare different from NBA Live or even Barkley: Shut Up and Jam? Well, as there are no real options to fiddle with or cutscenes to watch, we can get straight into that.
It doesn't look like I'll be playing for the Best Basketball Team Super Trophy or whatever it is they give to best team at the end of an NBA season. This isn't even college basketball, unless that's Hell-Pit Polytechnic up at the top-right. No, this is something... different.
It's still basketball, though! America's Third-Favourite Pastime! Hyper-Netball! You know how it works. Even I know how it works, although that is entirely because of NBA Jam. Pretty much everything I know about basketball is down to playing NBA Jam. As far as I know, Scottie Pippen is still the best basketball player in the world. In any case, Basketball Nightmare is a basketball game. Your goal is to get the ball in the basket more times than the other team. To this end, you can pass the ball between your teammates, you can jump into the air, you can throw the ball towards the basket. You know, basketball stuff. Oh, and your first opponents are a team of goddamn werewolves.
These werewolves can even pull off totally sweet upside-down dunks, because Teen Wolf was only the first wave in a coordinated media indoctrination campaign aimed at convincing the public that being part dog makes a person really good at basketball. Operation K9-DUNK was designed to soften public opinion on the possibility of creating a new basketball league comprised of grotesque Dr. Moreau-esque manimal hybrids. The Chicago Bulls? Now actual bulls, with genetically-engineered opposable thumbs that allow them to grip the ball! The Minnesota Timberwolves? They'll probably win the play-offs, because we all know wolves are great at basketball! The Toronto Raptors? A terrifying experiment that went awry, resulting in several hundred deaths, the details of the incident being permanently expunged from the record!
It's a shame, then, that I'm stuck playing as a team of identical redheaded quintuplets. They are not nearly as interesting as werewolves, but they also don't seem to be inferior to the werewolves, either - they're just as good at shooting, they're just as fast and they don't have the handicap of stopping every few minutes to sniff each other's backsides.
Your team can dunk, too, despite being about four feet tall. This is not as impressive as seeing a werewolf dunk - your players don't flip upside down or hang from the rim or anything - but you do get a rather jolly little cutscene whenever you pull off a dunk, which is nice but quickly becomes repetitive.
Not that I saw my team's dunk animation very often, because early on I realised that shooting from right down in the corner, outside the three-point line, seemed to have a much, much higher chance of success than any other shot. This makes two-pointers, well, pointless, and because dunks are automated and there's only one cut-scene for them, going for dunks doesn't have the "coolness" factor that might otherwise make you want to use them. No, it's best to just go for three-pointers all the time. They're worth more than two-pointers. I'm terrible at maths and even I know that.
With this knowledge, I managed to squeeze a narrow victory out of my first match. The werewolves' captain turns to look at his team's final points total, as if unable to believe that his team of lycanthropes were defeated by five pudgy kids with oversized heads. Operation K9-DUNK is a failure. Now humanity is condemned to an eternity of regular, boring, human basketball.
Next up is Team Kappa. Kappa, if you didn't know, are Japanese river spirits that engage in all manner of hi-jinx from the prankishly mischievous to the terrifying and harrowing, like trying to steal people's souls by pulling a magical ball out of said person's anus. Hey, I didn't invent these myths, I just read the Wikipedia page. There's no need to worry about rectal soul harvesting today, though, because these kappas are here purely to play some b-ball, having cleared a patch of their marshland home to serve as a court, an old toilet seat nailed to a tree making a passable stand-in for a proper basketball hoop.
Kappa are also said to hold a small amount of water in a divot on the top of their head, and if that water is spilled then the kappa is paralysed and may even die. They should be therefore commended for their commitment to the art of the slam dunk, as they risk their very lives each time they go to the hoop.
Perhaps they're all wearing waterproof yarmulkes or something. Anyway, the kappas don't have to worry about their life-water being jostled loose as I try to win the ball off them, because Basketball Nightmare offers the player almost no defensive measures. You can't swipe at the ball and attempt to steal it, and you can't even jump up to block shots. All you can do when you don't have the ball is change which player you're controlling and try to hold up the opposition by standing in front of them. In the vast majority of cases, if you're standing right in their way the opposition player will just keep running into you, unable to get around you and extremely reluctant to pass the ball to one of their teammates. This is what happens when you assemble a squad of monsters - they're monsters, there's no sense of unity or personal sacrifice for the good of the group to be found there.
The next team is made up of hitotsume-kozou, a Japanese youkai that takes the form of a small bald child with one eye. This is another example of Japanese monsters being about as terrifying as a cucumber sandwich - let's not forget that one of the most famous Japanese monsters is a walking umbrella - and the hitotsume-kozou's single eye surely means that they're going to be as bad as basketball as they are at scaring people. No depth perception is going to all but force them to attempt nothing but dunks.
It may look like this demon-child is falling out of the sky, but he's actually in the middle of doing a flip, the big show-off. The somersault dunk is a pretty impressive achievement considering he's wearing sandals, but it does get less and less impressive when he does it every time he gets near the basket. Familiarity breeds contempt, and if a one-eyed ghost child performing a spinning basketball dunk can become contemptuously over-familiar then it must have been really, really overused.
It's a comprehensive victory for the Tokyo Humans, and it brings more valuable data into the plot to create the ultimate basketball player. Elements to include: being tall, part dog. Elements to avoid: cyclopism, wearing sandals. Next!
Holy shit, a team of basketball vampires. Vampires that play in evening wear and top hats. Basketball vampires. It's incredible. Everyone knows that vampires usually stick to sports that use bats, boom boom, I'll be here all week. I bet the Wallachia Nosferatus here have a deep rivalry with the werewolf team. I know there are many things that could have been done to improve the Twilight saga, but few would be more agreeable than condensing the entire series down into one "Dracula meets the Wolfman" basketball game.
Hmm, the vampires look less impressive when you see them up close. They look like they're wearing massive coke-bottle-lensed glasses that are magnifying their eyes, giving them the appearance of dorky kids rather than bloodthirsty creatures of the night. Still, plus points for making your hoop out of human spines, team vampire. It's very "challenge the forces of death for the right to your immortal soul," like if Ingmar Bergman had been influenced by White Men Can't Jump when making The Seventh Seal.
You might think that being a supernatural creature with enhanced agility and reflexes might give the vampires an unfair advantage, but they're no more difficult to beat than any other team in Basketball Nightmare, and that's because the game's AI is nigh non-existent. Once you've scored a basket - and you will if you remember to keep shooting from the corners - then the computer team get possession and they'll try to run to your basket. Unfortunately for them, ninety-five percent of the time they run in a straight line down the middle of the court, which means you can park one of your players there and the opposition will run into them and get stuck, rubbing up against your player like a cat that's just seen you pick up a can opener. From here, several things can happen. Most often, the opponent will stay fixed in place for a good long time before deciding to pass the ball, allowing you run down the clock if you're in the lead. What you really want to do is win possession, but as I said there's no way to steal the ball manually. So what do you do? Well, eventually I figured out I won the ball more often if I moved towards my own basket in small increments, and I think it's because each time you collide with a player there's a small chance you'll steal the ball, and if you keep tippy-toeing back towards your own net that means more collisions and thus more chances for the ball to change hands.
On paper, this sounds like a really bad system for a basketball videogame to use... and it is. It's terribly limited, forcing every game against the CPU into the same, easily exploitable pattern: rub up against the opposition in the hope that you win the ball. If you don't, no worries, because they always go for dunks whereas you can almost guarantee three points if you shoot from the right place. It's really the only way to play the game, too - even if you try not to exploit the system, there's only so much else you can do in a game as basic as this. And yet, despite all this, Basketball Nightmare still ends up being sort of fun. It's simple, but there's a pleasant chunkiness to both the action and the graphics. You just have to stop thinking of it as a basketball game, because it does a terrible job of being that, and embrace it as it's own weird thing.
Game number five is against a gaggle of spooky old ladies. I assume they're spooky, anyway. Everything else has been thus far, so I doubt that I just showed up and challenged the local over-70s church team to a match.
The ghostly grannies can still get some big air, despite their advanced years. Maybe the invention of basketball is what all Japanese spirit entities have been waiting for, centuries spent scaring the odd peasant while they waited for the NBA to get their act together. I hope that's not the case. It's be sad if they'd waited all that time and then a bunch of children turned up and beat them by doing little more than standing in front of them.
The fact that Sega went so heavy on the specifically Japanese monsters makes it all the more puzzling that Basketball Nightmare wasn't released in Japan, or the US for that matter. As far as I can see it only came out in Europe, Brazil (where the Master System lived an extremely long life) and possibly Canada, none of which I would describe as hotbeds of untapped basketball fans or packed with lovers of Japanese ghost stories. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Brazil is bang into basketball, but it seems a strange release pattern for a game of this type.
The Japanese theme continues with the final team, which is composed of tengu demons. I call them the Big-Nosed Sunburned Granddads, because once I get on the court all politeness and good cheer is stripped away by my relentless desire to win. Don't worry, I'll apologise to them afterwards. Hopefully they won't kidnap my team of small boys and tie them to the top of a tree, as tengu apparently do sometimes.
Okay, that dunk looks really cool. That is also the most impressive basketball hoops I have ever seen, even if it does seem a little sacrilegious.
I was rather hoping that, as my last opponents, Team Tengu would be at least a little more challenging than those that had come before, but sadly that was not the case and they fell into the same set patterns as all the others. I did better against them than anyone else, even, because I'd gotten into the groove a little and also realised that blocking them just inside my half of the court meant they'd sometimes pass the ball back over the halfway line, giving away a foul in the process and turning the ball over to me. Fouls in Basketball Nightmare are handled as arbitrarily as every other aspect of the game, with players being penalised for pushing and charging completely at random when they bump into one another. It has to be at random, because there's nothing you can do to cause a foul beyond walking near someone.
With the tengu defeated, Basketball Nightmare's single-player mode is complete: the humans take the Monster Basketball League trophy, because mankind is truly the most hideous monster of them all. All you get for your trouble is pictures of the various dunks as the credits scroll beneath, but as the amount of effort it took to win was minuscule it seems only right that the ending of the game should be so thin.
There is a two-player versus mode, but it makes the frankly unforgivable error of not allowing you to play as any of the monsters. Instead, you're given a collection of palette-swapped national teams to choose from, none of whom come from the Werewolf Kingdom or a Transylvanian YMCA and are therefore utterly forgettable.
Also, Sega seem to have some very odd ideas about what Cuban people look like.
A lack of monsters aside, the versus mode is probably where you would have gotten most of your Basketball Nightmare fun from had you owned it back in the day - playing against a human eliminates the utter predictability of your opponents, which is the game's biggest flaw, and I'm sure you could wrestle some fun from playing against a friend.
Basketball Nightmare leaves me in an odd position - one where I'm not sure if I can recommend it or not. If I told ten people "you should play this" then I'm sure nine of them would come back and say "what were you thinking, this game is rubbish" and I wouldn't be able to argue with them. It is rubbish, especially if you're looking for "proper" basketball game. It's slow, it's hamstrung by a lack of controls and defensive options and playing against the computer is all but pointless... and yet still I had fun playing it. The slam-dunking vampires certainly didn't hurt, but there was more to it than that. Maybe the simplicity drew me in, I can't really say. It's a lot like Super Soccer in that it's a poor recreation of the sport that it's based on, but once you accept it as it's own unique thing then there's maybe a little pleasure in it for certain people. Plus, it has slam-dunking vampires. I know I mentioned that a minute ago. It isn't something you can mention too many times.