Chicago Moments in Gaming History – Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City

One of the biggest tragedies in gaming history was when Michael Jordan separated himself from the group licensing deal with the rest of the NBA Player’s Association in order to have his own individual (and more costly) deals just before the release of NBA Jam, a game that was seemingly designed with the concept: “Let’s make a game that lets gamers do just a slightly exaggerated version of what Michael Jordan can already do.” As such, Bulls fans had to play as a two-man squad that consisted of Scottie Pippen of course, and then either Horace Grant or B.J. Armstrong. Yeah. Moving right along…

Shortly after, Shaq and Charles Barkley followed suit. And when game companies didn’t pony up the extra cash to get the three independents into their basketball games, that’s when things got…interesting. Barkley at at least bothered to actually make a basketball game, the 2-on-2 street ball game Barkely, Shut Up and Jam! The most memorable thing about that game was Barkley saying “Go get the damn ball!” when a loose ball would fly across the court. Shaq went a different route, and that route was the fighting game Shaq-Fu. Moving right along…

After the very forgettable Michael Jordan in Flight, a game which never moved beyond DOS (look it on up YouTube. Seriously, do it), Michael Jordan’s “likeness” was applied to a platformer called Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, released in 1994 for the Super NES. Back in the 8- and 16- bit eras, programmers would seemingly crank out a bunch of generic platformers and wait for someone to come along needing to make a game based on something, and they’d shoehorn sparse bits of that license into one of those platformers, and boom, you have a game based on Home Improvement (no, really, that was a thing). And Chaos was no different.

The opening cinematic of the game explains that on a “windy day” (nice) in Chicago, Michael shows up to practice with his team – for a charity game, naturally – only to find that they aren’t there. Then a basketball comes crashing through a window with a note attached to it, explaining that his teammates have been kidnapped. He is instructed to come to the Field Museum – hey, that’s a real place in Chicago! – if he wants to save them, signed by a Dr. Max Cranium. From an admittedly neat-looking cartoon rendition of the city’s skyline, you choose your next location, and off to the Field Museum we go!

In a move that you saw coming a mile away, a museum level is just an excuse to have a stage that takes place in a catacomb full of bats, spiders, and zombies…with basketballs for heads (remember what I was saying about the shoehorning?). But fear not, for His Airness is armed with an unlimited supply of basketballs at which to hurl at these baddies. To the game’s credit, they didn’t give him guns or laser eyes or have him performing flying roundhouse kicks. His abilities are mostly rooted in that of a basketball player, down to jumps that all look like dunks. These are more than just for show, though, as performing dunks at all of the oddly placed basketball hoops floating throughout the game world yield power ups, such as basketballs that take on elemental properties like fire and ice. Backboards in the Egyptian exhibit of a museum don’t make a lot of sense obviously, and the mechanic is needlessly difficult to pull off, but I found the dunking to be a creative variation on the classic game trope of breaking things to get rewards. There are actually a few other fairly clever little touches, like Wheaties boxes as collectibles, and a power up that turns your basketball into a baseball for a limited time (though all believability goes out the window here as the baseball power up is actually an improvement to MJ’s skills).

Other than a recurring L train level, the rest of the game’s stages take place in typically cliched platform environments: a laboratory, a factory, and…wait, what’s this? The final area is Riverview Park? Wow, nice work, guys!  Setting a level in a very iconic place in Chicago history definitely scored some points with me, enough that I’ll forgive the fact that it looks nothing like the real Riverview and is essentially an excuse to use a few more overused game environments (haunted house, circus).

So what about the game itself? It’s not unplayable, and it’s certainly not the worst licensed platformer of its time, but that was the time when licensed platfomers were arguably at their worst so maybe that’s not the highest compliment. Jordan’s involvement was obviously minimal beyond a few photos and a couple of sound bites – he says “Time out” when you pause, and I THINK that’s his grunt when he’s hurt, but that’s about it. I don’t expect his in-game character model to look photo realistic considering the hardware of the time, but I do feel that his close-ups in the cutscenes look unforgivably bad, almost as if the artist didn’t actually know what he looked like and just took a guess. If you’ve never played it and are curious, you can obviously go the ROM route if you choose (though I’m going to C my A here and say that I don’t advocate that), or you can get on Amazon for less than just about anything else in existence with Michael Jordan’s name on it. It’s not quite as bad as people make it out to be, but it’s definitely sub par. It being a Michael Jordan game is a double-edged sword for its legacy: it’s the only reason anybody paid attention to it, but it also made people run it through a stronger microscope than they would have if it were just some nondescript platform game and landed it on far more “worst of” lists than if it were called “Bobby Baskethoops: Chaos in the Windy City”. Either way, it’s better than Shaq-Fu.

(An interesting bit of trivia about this game is that the lead designer was Amy Hennig, who would go on to be a major creative force behind the Legacy of Kain, Jak & Daxter, and Uncharted franchises.)