Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why I Love Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball

As all of you know from those occasions where I have forced you to play it with me, Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball for SNES is a terrible game. One button is used to both shoot and pass causing you to frequently throw the ball out of bounds when you don’t mean to. The graphics look plain, pale and more of the quality of something from the NES than the SNES. Gameplay is slow and awkward, since even once you have mastered the controls (as much as they could be) often times the best thing to do is simply throw the ball down the court and hope one of your teammates might catch it before it rolls out of bounds. Scoring a basket feels more like luck than an accomplishment. Most egregious of all though, the game is just boring from the sluggish controls to the repetitive game play, once you have played long enough to get over the initial awkwardness of the whole experience, you’ve done everything there is to do.

Although as a child this game was really my only exposure to this idea, for some reason there were numerous sports game made in the 80s and 90s, most notably Super Baseball 2020, where futuristic robots (some of the art makes them look like cyborgs or something, but in game they look like robots) played instead of humans. With little explanation as to why he is the only human hanging out with a bunch of futuristic robots, this game used basketball bad boy Bill Laimbeer to legitimize the combat elements of the game because apparently this was his dream of how basketball should be played or something. Bill Laimbeer was a star player for the Detroit Pistons known essentially for being a dick. He frequently fouled other players and fought with referees. So Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball brings violence, (if you can call robots pushing each other over violence) robots, and celebrity together in a way that I don’t know has ever been done before or since.

My first exposure to this game was playing it at my friend Wes’s house. He got a SNES before we did and along with it a few games Super Mario World, some weird game with the superscope and Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball. Since we only had these handful of games to play and eventually we got bored of Super Mario World, we ended up playing a lot of Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Baskebtall. I was so excited to be playing the SNES during those times and part of my love of this game is relieving that excitement.
However, it goes beyond that too. Much overlooked in its terrible gameplay, Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball had interesting strategic elements in its campaign mode where you started with a team of lousy robots and as you won more games and won more money, you got to upgrade to better robots. This part of the game was fairly simple, but I remember loving this simple combination of strategy (you had to decide what kind of robots to buy-faster ones, good shooters, etc.) with the addictive ability to gain incremental progress towards making your team better. Although it has a ridiculous amount more depth, Out of the Park Baseball, one of my favorite game series of all time, has similar core elements where you are trying to strategically improve your team.

I guess it’s mostly nostalgia, since I generally have little tolerance for such terrible games, but something about this game speaks to me. It’s bad, but with a strangeness all its own. I like the fact that you are playing something so unpolished where you have to figure out how to win despite the glitches and awkwardness. Much like many people like to watch old, campy science fiction movies with silly looking special effects, I like that Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball contains such a bizarre combination of elements and has that same kind of rushed, shoe-strong budget feel of these campy old movies. I see so much potential in all of this quirkiness as if, in some kind of alternate universe where this game was well polished with better graphics, it would have been a cult classic talked about for years to come. Instead it is something more on par with Yor Hunter from the Future. If only you could also play combat basketball with cavemen . . .

1 comment:

  1. So after further contemplation, reflection and research, it isn't robots in the game, but cyborgs. While this fact does make it slightly less weird, it still does not explain anything about what is going on in this game world.

    Also, I just realized that if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, you get a glorious shot of Bill Laimbeer's armpit in triplicate.