Barkley Shut Up and Jam
Barkley dazzles with its gameplay options and stellar graphics and is, to boot, a lot of fun to play. It'd be a winner on any system, but Jaguar owners should be especially grateful that they've got this hidden gem to explore. Barkley isn't without its faults -- such as a lack of voice samples -- but these are easily forgiven, and do not in total effect the overall high quality of the game.
Barkley is easily the most difficult of the three Jag gaming titles, and it isn't for the novice video basketball player. The game does, however, offer players a number of interesting and helpful gameplay options to help players ease their way into this decidedly complicated game.
Like both White Men Can't Jump and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition, Barkley is a "two-on-two" basketball game. This theme works better than it does in NBA:TE, where one would expect to see more than four high-priced players in a pro-basketball game, and Barkley features better presentation than WMCJ, which looks more like a SNES game.
Barkley offers a number of playing options on the main menu screen, and there's lots of variety here for even the most picky basketball fan. Games can be played in 1, 3, or 5 minute quarters (the timing is, contrary to some reports, accurate), and as one-time events or part of the tournament circuit. Options are selected by right and left directional movements on the joypad, and players should always remember to select the level of player control they wish to have in the game, or else they'll wind up looking at a demo with the computer controlling all movements.
Barkley's default setting allows up to two players to compete head-to-head, but it's possible to have a four-player game if the little-used Team Tap is plugged in.
Barkley lets gamers pick their teams from a rainbow assortment of players that spans the gender and ethnic spectrum. It's a feature that's been long overdue in sports games, and greatly appreciated here. Better yet, there's little tokenism here, and all characters (regardless of gender) are truly talented players. Last night I tried to stack my side with big mean men (Charles Barkley and some hulk from Chicago), thinking I'd created an unbeatable combination. The result? Tianna and Crystal whupped my ass 40-15. Even the two freaks in the game ("Wild West", a ZZ Top escapee, and "Man of Mystery", a Michael Jackson clone) are more fun than scary, and they add some life to the court.
Gaming AI is exceptional and imbues all of the characters with their own personalities. All of the characters have their own little tricks; some will attempt to make illegal checks and steal the ball from you, while others will use acrobatics to make their way to the net. Character skill is also directly tied in directly with that of the player: if you suck, so will your player, regardless of his or her printed stats. Charles Barkley may be a gifted natural athlete, but all his skillz will evaporate if you can't use what you have to make those shots. Conversely, your player's skills will improve when (if) yours do too.
Barkley starts with an exceptionally high degree of difficulty and escalates from there. While all players have different strengths and weaknesses, they are also all capable of executing complicated maneuvers (including a variety of showy slam-dunks), and much experimentation with the Jag pad will be required to achieve a high level of playing finesse with this game. Fortunately, Barkley offers three levels of gaming control (full control, shoot / passing, and no control), and you can tweak controls to let the game control some of your players' movements so you can concentrate on making that outside 3-point shot.
Barkley features the longest loading time that I've ever encountered on a Jag cart title, but dead-time is minimized by the included mini-game of "basketball pong", which allows players to sharpen their reflexes for the main game and forget that they've been forced to wait nearly a minute to play some b-ball. The Jag plays a pretty mean game of Pong, but I usually let it win so it won't feel too bad when I cream it on the court.
Barkley features the best graphics among the Jag's three basketball games, and some of the best graphics to be found in any game for the Jaguar. Most of the player sprites have been compiled from digitized photographs, and it is indeed nice to play a game of basketball where the stars of the game are proportional in size to the court and look like real people instead of giant bobblehead dolls (NBA:TE) or smeary blurs (WMCJ).
The court is presented from a traditional 2D ringside perspective, but the illusion of depth is produced with the many finely-detailed (and quite delightful) city backdrops that are included in this game. I'm particularly fond of the tropical Miami backdrop, which is very colourful and features a nice beach side setting south of the city, although, if I recall my geography correctly, that place should actually be somewhere within the confines of the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station. Now that would have made for an electrifying game!
Other city backdrops are equally fun, and the game attains a grittier edge by offering a choice of inner-city courts (Watts, Oakland, downtown Chicago) instead of the typical bland suburban super stadium settings commonly found in such games.
In-game animation is fluid, smooth, and graceful, and while some of the shots you'll be allowed to make really do defy any laws of earthly physics, they look damn good on the screen.
Barkley fans will likely be disappointed with the absence of both in-game music and digitized voice samples from Sir Charles himself (standard on other console ports), but the average gaming sports fan or casual gamer shouldn't be too bothered by any aural omissions. I actually much prefer this near-silent game to the unpleasant sound effects that can be found in the Jag's other basketball titles: do we really need to hear the banal and often shrill comments of both the players and ringside spectators that can be found in both WMCJ and NBA:TE?
Barkley does provide attempt to create some level of inner-city gaming atmosphere by providing "ambient street noise" composed of honking horns, the distant roar of traffic, and general "city noise". Missing is the blue-streak cursing of street-punks, the howls of police and ambulance sirens, and the screams of junkies, but hey -- this is a family game.
Barkley is simply the best basketball title on the Jag and one of the top ten titles for the system. While all of the Jag's basketball titles are, at the very least, very good games, Charles Barkley truly stands above the crowd with its flexibility and impressive graphics. Some gamers may prefer the video-clip-late-night-news pacing of NBA:TE, or the laid-back humour in WMCJ, but those of those games simply offer too much eye and ear candy distraction to truly play good games. Barkley , on the other hand, is just content having a good time -- and that's enough for me.
(Charles Barkley is available from B&C Computervisions for approx. $70; the Team Tap is required for third and fourth players.)