The Gamer Blog: You don't know Jam

The phrase "he's on fire" would never be the same again. Midway

Casual gamers might not know the name Mark Turmell, but if titles like Smash TV, NBA Jam and NFL Blitz ring a bell, then you've probably contributed to the man's fortune in tokens.

NBA Jam is the crown jewel of coin-op, still holding the world record for most money earned at one location in a single week ($2,468). And while you might have fond memories of the word "Boomshackalacka," and the sight of secret character Bill Clinton dunking on Blue Edwards, there's still plenty you don't know about Jam, like the haunting sounds it makes when the audio is turned off and the limited edition version that featured both Gary Payton and Michael Jordan … on the same team.

Turmell sat down with us to spill the details.

MAG.COM: Did you know you had a hit on your hands when you were creating the original NBA Jam?
Mark Turmell: Right away, there was no question about it. Back then, you could break new ground with every game, and we knew with Mortal Kombat and Jam, which were being developed at the same time, that our digitized graphics were different than any video game before. Even though it looks clunky now, when you look back on it, it was breaking new ground.

The big thing for us, though, was the fact that it was the very first NBA-licensed coin-operated game. That was quite a hurdle, because the NBA was really concerned about putting their logo in arcades. Back then, a lot of the arcades they were used to in New York were kind of seedy with drug dealers hanging around, and the NBA didn't want to be associated with that. We really had to educate the league about all the family fun centers and bowling alleys, and why the NBA logo should be on the side of these cabinets. We tried to make them forget about the seedy side and they finally agreed. Then right off the bat, we knew we had a huge game.

Jam was making so much money when it first came out. There was so much four-player action at this one arcade in Chicago that the first week they had to shut the arcade down, because there was a huge fight over whose turn it was to play. There was so much money coming in, they had to change the coin-box every day. It was crazy.

It's funny, though, the big thing I still remember about that time was when I put the first dunk in the game. I didn't even intend to do anything over the top. I put in the velocity and the height, and it looked cool, then I kept going higher until it was clearly unrealistic but still entertaining. Once that happened, we completely shifted the focus of the game.

Who was your favorite two-man team?
The most interesting one was the team of Gary Payton and Michael Jordan. Payton didn't make the cut to be in the game, and of course, Jordan pulled himself out of the licensing of the NBA, so we had to pull him out of the game. But one day, I got a phone call from a distributor out on the west coast who told me that Gary Payton was willing to pay whatever it cost to get into the game. So we told him what to do in terms of taking photographs, so he sent in photographs of himself and Jordan, saying, "We want to be in the game, hook us up." So we actually did a special version of the game and gave both players all-star, superstar stats. There are only a handful of these machines, but Jordan and Payton did end up being in one version of the game.

Shaq actually bought two machines. He kept one at home and then, if you can believe this, they shipped the game with them on their road trips, setting up the machine in their hotel rooms as they traveled. The players would play, then get someone to pack it up and ship it off to the next city.

Did Scottie Pippen's ratings in the game really drop when he played certain teams?
It's true, but only when the Bulls played the Pistons. If there was a close game and anyone on the Bulls took a last second shot, we wrote special code in the game so that they would average out to be bricks. There was the big competition back in the day between the Pistons and the Bulls, and since I was always a big Pistons fan, that was my opportunity to level the playing field.

You guys were the first to put hidden characters like Bill Clinton and Frank Thomas in the game, back before you needed to pay them. How did all the hidden characters come about?
With the coin-op, we started that by taking pictures of ourselves and putting ourselves in the game. That was a lot of fun, and it was really the first time people had put hidden players like that in the game. Then, when we did the consumer version, Midway had a deal with Acclaim to put our coin-op games onto the consoles, so they actually had a bunch of characters they wanted us to use, like Frank Thomas, who had his own game with Acclaim at the time.

Another thing we did is rent a bunch of Halloween masks, and that's how we created the gorilla and the Viking and a lot of the other funky characters. Then Acclaim just said that they wanted to get more noticeable guys, and they generated that bigger list on their own, like Bill Clinton.

What's the rumor we hear about NBA Jam being haunted?
We had already finished making NBA Jam when Drazen Petrovic died. The game had already shipped and he was on the Nets. So we had all of these coin-op machines around, and one night we were playing Mortal Kombat and there was a Jam machine next to it, and all of a sudden the game started calling out "Petrovic!" "Petrovic!" And this only happened after Petrovic had died. Everyone started freaking out. Something weird was going on with the software, and to this day, if you have an original NBA Jam machine every once in a while it will just yell out "Petrovic!" It's wild.