NBA Jam XXX, an in-house version of the Super Nintendo classic that features raunchy voice-over calls, made waves online after I unearthed the game on a development prototype board last summer. The subsequent article that I wrote and corresponding YouTube video that I recorded has since resulted in over 100,000 people hearing Tim Kitzrow, NBA Jam‘s iconic announcer, shouting outrageous lines like “He’s on fucking fire,” “Grabs his johnson,”  and “Get that shit out of here.”

The public’s excitement over NBA Jam XXX soon turned into skepticism when Kitzrow called the recordings fake and the game a “hack job” created by an impersonator.

“I’m still friends with a lot of those folks from Acclaim and Iguana and no one knows who is pulling your chain,” he told Kotaku. “A good imitation to be sure, but trust me Jam was too big to have ever messed around like that.”

After his dismissive remarks, many started to brush off the game as a hoax, an attention-seeking stunt.

By accepting NBA Jam XXX from a private anonymous industry source, I had effectively adopted and taken ownership of its legacy. The game’s future rested in my hands. As its new caretaker, I felt that I had an obligation to defend NBA Jam XXX‘s integrity as a real piece of arcade and video game history that deserves to be respected and remembered.

For the sake of the game’s long-term preservation, I set out on a mission to untangle the wild mystery behind NBA Jam XXX.

 —

To get the ball rolling (so to speak), I began tracking down and contacting as many of the original NBA Jam team members as I could reach to try to piece together the story.

Cary Mednick has 30 years of engineering experience and is credited for developing the hardware on NBA Jam and many other Midway arcade titles including Terminator 2: Judgment Day and NFL Blitz. Mednick was the first to respond to my quest for answers, but he unfortunately could not shine any light on the subject of outtake versions.

“I was on the Electrical Engineering side of arcade games so I have no insight into the home side.”

Mednick did, however, provide me with a tip to go on: “[you] need to find… Jon Hey.”

Shawn Liptak, the lead programmer on NBA Jam as well as a programmer on Total Carnage, repeated Mednick’s advice.

“Sorry, but I was not involved with the recording sessions of Tim and don’t remember anything about alternative audio,” Liptak said. “Jon Hey was our sound guy and should know.”

More than just a “sound guy,” in addition to designing all of NBA Jam‘s music and sound effects as the sole audio producer, Jon Hey also wrote the game’s script and worked as a programmer on the title. Before NBA Jam, he wrote and composed Smash TV and provided the voice of Raiden in Mortal Kombat.

Nobody would be more of an authority on NBA Jam‘s recorded lines than gaming’s original Thunder God, himself. His in-depth answer did not disappoint:

“Back when Midway had successfully re-launched the video game department, I had been involved in the production of pinball and then video games. While NARC wasn’t a financial success, that was the game that got the Williams/Bally/Midway video production back up and running. I had been the announcer on Arch Rivals. I composed and did all the sound for the big hit game Smash TV. That game really did make some money.

“So when the Smash TV team became the NBA Jam team, we had quite a handle on our technical skills by then. John Tobias had gone from Smash TV to work with Ed Boon on Mortal Kombat. I was the voice of Raiden.

(Image source: State of The Art and Music & Sound December 1993 Volume 5 Number 3)

“During those days, my office was just left in the corridor past our sound recording studio. It (the studio) hadn’t been anything except the bottom closet (a big one) underneath the air-conditioning ventilation shaft for the mainframe which was up on the second floor. So when we got to use the room, I insisted that we needed an isolation booth to record the voice overs and other ‘Foley.’ The 60-cycle hum was much too much noise. After a bit of persuading, I convinced management that the 7 thousand dollar expense was absolutely necessary.

“It was in that space we then added the iso-booth, behind a glassed-in partition and a recording console with various gear. We had an 8-channel snake running between the console and into the isolation booth.

“At that time, Ed Boon (Mortal Kombat creator, still leading MK development at Netherrealm Studios, the remnant of the old bankrupt Midway) had his office just on the right side of the studio in that same corridor.

NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat were basically developed at the same time. So we had people in and out of the studio to do the MK voices. We were also, usually after lunch, hanging in Ed’s office trying to name what became Mortal Kombat. As in many male-dominated industries, there was no shortage of off-color jokes – naming characters, giving them nicknames, trying to name the game itself, etc. ‘Ideas’ were written on a whiteboard in Ed’s office.

“About this time I spent several weeks recording my own Foley for the basketball rim, net, dunks, dribbling basketball sounds.

“I used chains, 2x4s, a real basketball backboard and hoop, laid out sideways, with the rim in the studio and the other end sticking out into the hallway. I also went through the entire building recording basketball dribbles off every surface, wood, concrete, carpet, everything – just to get the right sound for a very repetitive element of NBA Jam. And people laughed, but when they realized what an authentic part of a basketball game broadcast the shoe squeaks are, they were impressed by having those in the audio.

“I spent a great deal of time analyzing basketball game voice-overs; from Marv Albert to our local Bulls and college broadcasters. I kept adding to the NBA Jam script, writing things down when I heard a good phrase. I had hired Tim Kitzrow to do the voice of Mr. Howell in my Gilligan’s Island pinball game.

“It was decidedly better to have a voice talent such as Tim to work in the very-demanding role of hyped-up announcer for a ‘compressed’ in-your-face basketball video game. I knew this early on, as it was going to be too hard to ‘force’ a real basketball announcer into being over the top for every single phrase. Why does it need to be this way? We were creating games in a quarter-at-a-time arcade universe. It had to deliver right at the start and never let down.

“My script was long, and we spent many hours in the studio. Not just one day but several weeks. That’s because only a few hours could be done that way, over the top, at a stretch. When Tim’s voice would get fatigued, we would have to stop.

“Of course, others on the NBA Jam team would stop in, at least early on. I was in the habit of letting Tim improvise whenever he got an inspiration from the typed script. I would carefully monitor the pronunciations of names, the cadence of the language of the announcer’s sentences. We would usually do three versions in a row with a different, or slightly different, lilt. Sometimes I would have him do something again when I would noticed a ‘swallowed’ consonant or something like that. I had to encode all the announcer voice in a very primitive digital form for reproduction by an old WWII military chip, CVSD (Continuously Variable Slope Delta Modulation). Back in those days you nearly had to be an electrical engineer to do the audio in games.

“In the course of many hours in the studio, with both Mortal Kombat voices, with grunts, pain, agony, battle cries, and then the numerous hours with Tim, we would often insert some off-color things to lighten the mood. I have always said, ‘If you can’t have fun making games, you can’t make fun games.’

“When we would do the player names multiple times over it could turn funny sometimes. Garbled pronunciations or inadvertent ‘outtakes’ that would end up making us laugh. I’m pretty sure, with multiple basketball players with the last name Johnson, somewhere in doing those names the phrase ‘Grabs his johnson!’ came to be.

“Mark Turmell suggested, either in passing, or deliberately requested ‘Get that shit out of here!’ We were going to insert a ‘beeeep!’ over the word ‘shit,’ and that actually made it into the sound EPROMs, only to be rejected by the NBA. So we went with ‘Get that shot out of here!’ All of the attempted dialogue that got recorded and then chosen and edited for the game was stored in a sub-folder of the game’s audio build. Often there was another sub-folder, just for organization, of dialogue (we called it ‘speech’) that went unused, or replaced with a better version. There was only so much space in the EPROMs to store the dialogue. The days of storing to large disk or other device hadn’t come yet.

“When we realized we had a sequence of events that made your player ‘on fire’ we had to, of course, incorporate announcer speech into the stages of getting to be on fire. ‘He’s warming up,’ ‘He’s getting hot,’ ‘He’s heating up,’ ‘He’s on fire!

“I’m quite sure that in those slightly later recording sessions (after doing all the team and player names), we were pretty relaxed and sure by then this was all going to work. So I believe we were laughingly recording things like ‘He’s on fucking fire!’ just to have fun, be humorous, and keep that fun of creating going.

“Only a few years after, in the new sound department area, we would stop working at 5:30 to 6 or so, launch a nasty round of networked Descent, and yell foul language at each other from within our offices, with the doors open, when we would blow up someone’s ship. Something like ‘I gotcha, you XXXX XXXXXX!’

“And I was no different than anybody else, having fun at Midway. As I invented tools to automate our audio production, I would name them with abbreviations. The automated playlist generator was UTB (‘Up The Butt’), the automated ‘cleaner’ (removing unused code, source material) was DTL (‘Down The Leg’). Naming things like that was fairly normal operating mode throughout Williams, Bally, Midway.

“So in that sub-folder of NBA Jam rejected or unused or replaced announcer speech would have contained any of the NBA Jam arcade team’s ‘swear language,’ intact and capable of being used in the multiple versions getting ported by outside developers. I have no doubt that some of the phrases eventually were ‘faked’ in console versions once people started experimenting. But the original ‘swear ROMs’ came from those sessions with Tim Kitzrow, myself, and the rest of the NBA Jam arcade team. Nothing ever got into the arcade releases but ‘Get that shot out of here.’ For some reason, the NBA let that one be. We never had to fly a script by the NBA until after it was pared down to what got installed in the game. I believe ‘Get that shit out of here!’ was the only swear phrase that was actually typed into the script and printed for our recording sessions. Somewhere, I may still have word documents of the original NBA Jam script.

“Well, I hope that is a little explanation of the time of the creation of NBA Jam and how that ‘swear’ stuff originated.

Tim Kitzrow and I recently created a quick highlight video for ESPN’s Unite. After all these years, we are still having fun with BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

So why had Kitzrow publicly denied any of the “swear stuff” if it was all in good fun?

“I believe Tim was caught off guard,” Hey said. “I don’t believe he ever had an idea that any of the recordings that were done at Midway that had ‘swear versions’ were available to the console developers. And since they never were in the arcade game, he would not have known that. So he was asked before he had a chance to ‘clear’ anything with Midway, Mark Turmell, me, or anybody else. Since he still earns a part of his income from doing ‘The NBA Jam Guy,’ he certainly wouldn’t want to jeopardize his ability to continue doing so. At the time, he was just ‘protecting’ Midway’s intellectual property and relationship with the NBA, not having any guidance from Midway (which may have already entered bankruptcy at the time). It’s understandable he wouldn’t want to say he did the swear stuff if it was supposed to be invisible to the public, and generally a secret. So he took a logical path of explanation, that the console developers had created those. You have to remember, as a contractor to Midway, and wanting to do a good job, he was asked to utter some of those phrases and complied. So their existence isn’t an ‘improv’ or creation of Tim’s but of Mark Turmell, Sal DiVita, myself, and others. You should attribute the existence of ‘swear versions’ to the NBA Jam team, not single out Tim. That would be unfair.”

 —

Turns out, not only did Kitzrow have problems recollecting the 20-year-old unpublished outtakes found in NBA Jam XXX, he had difficulty explaining how he came up with a few of the most famous lines in the actual released game.

“I forget that almost everything I do is off the top of my head, so there was a long time… where I was like, ‘How did I do ‘Boomshakalaka?'” he admitted in a 2010 interview.

According to Hey, “‘Boomshakalaka” was not the product of Kitzrow’s improvisation:

“Incidentally, I typed ‘Boomshakalaka’ in my NBA Jam script. It was originally suggested by an artist on the team: John Carlton. That is where proper credit is due. People sometimes think it came from Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” but that is “Boomlakalaka.” NBA Jam definitively was the original source for ‘boomshakalaka.'”

While on the phone for that same interview, Kitzrow agreed to recite some other inappropriate “Jam-isms” as a joke, including this cheeky call: “I’m quite aroused! …Is that wrong?”

After graduating from Chicago’s renowned Second City, a fertile ground for comics and future Saturday Night Live performers, Kitzrow made the jump from Midway pinball machines to arcade games thanks to Mark Turmell, NBA Jam‘s original creator and designer, who personally gave him the job of providing all of the in-game commentary.

Turmell told GameTrailers the exact same story as Hey.

“I can confirm that in the early days we did record tons of off-color stuff,” Turmell said, specifically naming “Get that shit out of here” and “He’s on fucking fire.” Just as Hey said, Turmell tried to include the former line into the game by bleeping the cuss, but the NBA objected and forced its removal.

Hearing both Hey and Turmell mention the NBA’s rejection of the outtakes reminded me of the note that NBA Jam XXX‘s source left me. Possible retaliation from the NBA was cited as one of the reasons why his or her identity needed to remain a secret.

Turmell claimed that Acclaim/Iguana had access to all of the arcade’s audio archives, including Kitzrow’s rejected voice samples, while making the Super Nintendo port. That would explain how they made their way into an in-house copy.

“We all laughed at the various lines, so it’d be no surprise if they made a custom EPROM version,” Turmell said.

And that is precisely what NBA Jam XXX is contained on: EPROM chips attached to an official SHVC-4PV5B-01 development board that only licensed Super Nintendo developers had access to back in the day.

Turmell was convinced that NBA Jam XXX “is legit.”

It may be important to note that Turmell cut all ties from NBA Jam when he left EA back in July 2011 to join Zynga, the social games maker. Unlike Kitzrow, whose Linkedin reveals that he still contributes to EA Sports games as a “voice-artist/writer,” Turmell no longer has any vested interest in the series.

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NBA Jam XXX isn’t the only in-house Iguana Super Nintendo game to find its way into my mailbox. I have gotten access to other 16-bit Iguana assets stretching all the way back to the studio’s roots. More specifically, in May 2012, I backed up and preserved two never-before-seen Iguana Super Nintendo game demos: Jeff’s Shoot’Em Up and Shooter.

 

Jeff’s Shoot’Em Up displays the trademark Iguana logo before the demo begins. “Jeff” refers to Jeff Spangenberg, the studio’s main founder.

 

When Shooter boots up, the name “Punk” appears. Before forming Iguana Entertainment, Spangenberg ran Punk Development under the controlling interest of an Oklahoma City-based publisher called RazorSoft.

John Carlsen, one of Iguana’s original co-founders, helped authenticate these games. Carlsen began as a contractor at Punk in January 1991 after working for Media Vision, Mediagenic (Activision/Infocom), Atari, and Nolan Bushnell. He stayed employed at Iguana up until 1996 as the studio’s lone engineer, analyzing/reverse-engineering the Super Nintendo to create a cross-development ICE interface and designing circuit boards and additional hardware whenever needed.

“I recall the shooter game, which Jeff Spangenberg created as a test/demo while at the Punk Development office,” Carlsen told me. “I believe that the graphics were created by the late Matt Stubbington, who was another of Iguana’s co-founders, and who I saw paint the original Iguana logo (acrylic on canvas) at the Punk offices on Weddell Avenue in Sunnyvale just before Iguana got its first offices in Santa Clara. (It then moved back to Sunnyvale before we moved it to Austin.)”

He seemed delighted to see that someone cared enough to document the now-defunct company’s history.

“I’m very pleased to see that you got some of our old EPROMs. They are extremely rare, as I had created proprietary RAM-based emulation systems that allowed us to iterate and test versions of our games about 60 times faster than burning sets of EPROMs. I had created a first-generation system for the SNES for Punk Development, and these became the subject of a lawsuit brought against Jeff by Razorsoft, which apparently had been the parent of Punk Development. (I was deposed as a key witness in that case.)”

Upon further inspection of the prototype hardware and “rare” EPROMs, I noticed that a few of the development boards that I had shown Carlsen contain crude marker handwriting on the back.

Jeff’s Shoot’Em Up, for example, has “SN-1” written on it.

A Super Nintendo DSP-1 tech demo that came out of Iguana’s former Sunnyvale location also shows near-identical writing with the same “SN-X” labeling.

The backside of NBA Jam XXX is no different, exhibiting a similar style.

The evidence that the game came from Iguana goes deeper than a shallow cosmetic comparison.

Taking a microscope to the binary file reveals that both the curses and the “clean” voice-overs exist in the game code, demonstrating that NBA Jam XXX is much more complicated than a homemade ROM hack because it does not simply swap audio samples.

 

Version 1.0, Version 1.1

In fact, NBA Jam XXX actually shows a work-in-progress halfway between the 1.0 and 1.1 retail versions: Charles Barkley’s portrait and stats are shown on the player select screen while Dan Majerle’s sprite and name appear during actual gameplay.

 

NBA Jam XXX

Iguana removed Barkley from later copies of NBA Jam and replaced him with Majerle because the player signed on to star in his own video game called Barkley Shut Up and Jam!

This once again lends credibility to NBA Jam XXX being made internally at Iguana, as the build captures the game undergoing a well-known revision at the time of its creation.

 —

While speaking with John Nagle, a former software engineer for Iguana, he mentioned that the studio’s art director Matt Stubbington would have been “one of your best sources” in unraveling even more of the Super Nintendo port’s development history but “is unfortunately no longer with us.” He died in 2011 at the age of 39.

Having already more than satisfied my pursuit of the truth, I thanked Nagle and officially ended my investigation.

I came away from the experience with a sinking realization that as more time passes, more gaming history is lost forever. It’s an ever-losing battle. NBA Jam XXX was a happy fluke in the grand scheme of things.

“Good job documenting and archiving these ROMs,” Nagle said, browsing through my small collection of saved Iguana demos and prototypes. “I think they are important historical artifacts, and in 100 years they will be as treasured as anything by Van Gogh or Rembrandt is today.”