If you followed the release of the first Bitronics pinball machine (Super Hoop) you will notice that the couple pinball/sports theme (and a fortiori, Basketball) still crosses the ages despite this perfume of tough love that floats in the air…
Whether we like it or not, pinball and sports are a bit like “I love you, I love you not”. A few attempts, a few failures and in the middle of it, some real successes which, however, have always been more or less shunned by the general public (at least in Europe). The reason for this is probably the ephemeral nature of sports licenses, which are often limited to a single period (or even a single season) and quickly become “has-beens”. This is an element that pinball shares with video games. Take for example a soccer game: You won’t see anyone raving in 2022 about a FIFA released in 2020. It makes sense, the license has become outdated.
And yet, when you see the gameplay of a pinball machine and its little ball, you can only imagine the obvious parallel with a whole bunch of ball sports that would perfectly find their place in the middle of a playfield.
Fortunately for us, in 1997, our very American leisure activity was offered to the most famous basketball federation, the NBA. With the ambition to create a pinball machine that would immerse us in the atmosphere and technique of one of these Basketball games that only Americans have the secret! NBA Fastbreak was born.
Masterpiece for some, real turnip for others, the least we can say is that this machine divides the players. So to try to see a little more clearly in this game, let’s put on our Air Jordan’s and check the coach and hop! Straight to the floor! Follow me!
Ah, 1997, the sweet smell of nostalgia… That of a time when the names of Jordan, Pipen, Rodman and Barkley made young teenagers dream who didn’t give a damn about basketball (of which I was one). That time when we were embarrassed by Michael Jordan’s acting performance in Space Jam movie and dazzled by Tupac Shakur’s in Above The Rim…
Well, in this era, Bally decided to create the NBA Fastbreak pinball, which would be (without knowing it) one of their last machines…
And a talented designer takes the lead of this project: George Gomez himself (Monster Bash, Corvette and Johnny Mnemonic at that time). His goal: a fast, nervous game, which reproduces the speed of a basketball game, with action, beautiful gestures, technique and the impression of playing with a real ball, all this on a wooden board!
And you know what? The worst part…he did it…
Wow… It is beautiful…
Well, on the other hand, we won’t lie to ourselves, the visual aspect of this NBA Fastbreak is not the slap of the century! At the same time, given the license, it’s complicated to produce an artwork that is totally crazy.
As a result, Bally throws a fluorescent color through a gradient of colors that have nothing to do with each other: yellow and purple. They add small stars to remind the USA (or would it be the allegory of the rising stars of the sport? hmm? No, it’s not that…), a player in action in a golden/bronze color and NBA logos all over the place and hop! Packed, weighed.
The advantage is that this machine can be spotted from far away in an arcade and that there are no two others like it!
On the front, a transparent translite lets appear a mechanical system in the backbox, with a flipper, a ball and a tangle of plexiglass pieces (we’ll come back to this later). The artwork in the foreground is quite nice though and you can easily recognize some of the stars of the good old days like Detlef Schrempf, Clyde Drexler and Nick Van Exel.
Small detail: This machine was available with a rather original topper which was used as a front panel outline, a bit like the one of Cirqus Voltaire table.
Divided in 3 parts, it listed the teams present in the game on the sides and included the main logo on the top, except that it was offered as an option when it was released (some NOS models with assembly instructions were found in boxes a few years ago). A totally uninteresting option for the operators at the time (it’s expensive and takes up space), which explains the very low number of models that were equipped with it. If the NOS models are now very rare, not to say unobtainable, one can find reproductions to scale and of the same quality, which allow to give back the original look of this machine, as proposed in the promotional flyer.
On the playfield side, it’s colorful, provided and the artwork takes what will be the basis of the gameplay: a half basketball court. In terms of readability, all the elements that will make up the missions to be carried out can be found through a multitude of inserts on the first half of the board.
The second half (high) is loaded with several ramps whose curves suggest dynamic game phases, where the ball may go in all directions (and that’s nothing to say), including this huge ramp on the left that ends in a central basketball hoop.
Another detail: a digital display reproduces those present above the real baskets and allow, among other things, to time the game phases (in real life, as in the pinball machine by the way…).
From the small ball to the size 7 ball
Well, if we summarize, visually we are dealing with what looks like a real basketball court, but what about the gameplay?
Believe it or not, George Gomez made a huge bet on this machine in 1997, that of putting aside one of the elements that has become almost indispensable to any pinball machine: scoring. Or rather high scoring.
Forget the billionaire scores of an Attack From Mars after 5 minutes of play, here you score like in a real basketball game (with the exception of a few multipliers that will allow you to inflate certain shots). In other words, in NBA Fastbreak, as soon as you pass the 100 points mark, you are almost sure write down your name at the end of the game. If we can’t blame George Gomez for staying in the theme with this “realistic” approach, I can guarantee you that it didn’t help popularize this machine.
NB: some updated roms allow you to switch to a classic scoring mode. But quite honestly, the gameplay loses all its interest.
Once you know that, you select a team among the 29 available and you start to playing a match with, instead of the ball, the silver ball!
In order to score a minimum, you will have to complete a whole bunch of missions which, in fact, are mostly actions of a real basketball game: Shoot, defense, slam dunk, 3 points, fastbreak etc.
The inserts are relatively clear, so you won’t have any trouble knowing what to do. On the other hand, hang on because this game is devilishly fast and the middle ramp, if it guarantees you a magnificent basket as enjoyable as in real life (the little ball that spins in the basket like a ball in the net always has its little effect), won’t leave you any chance if you don’t have enough speed to take it in one go. In that case, the ball will go straight down in the middle!
The game is fast-paced and the timer puts constant pressure on you to finish every action you start. That’s the fun of this machine (and its difficulty): play fast, but play accurately.
Don’t worry though, it is still very accessible. The many ramps and corridors offer you many possibilities to complete the first objectives quickly. For the rest, you will have to juggle with the multipliers and the different game modes that offer you significant bonuses.
The first one is the left scoop. It allows you to play the 4 mini games of the “Crazy Bob” stand goodies, respectively :
- Pizza Power Shot: This mini game is played in the backbox, vertically. The game on the board is cut and each press on a button activates a flipper located in the front. The flipper sends a plastic ball through a fixed stage located in the pediment. A basket is hidden on the left, and you will have to send the ball at the right time to win 1, 2 or 3 points. As soon as you have the technique, you will be able to score 3 points at lightning speed.
- Hot Dog Mania : This mode guarantees you an automatic shot in the backbox (of 3 points if successful), as soon as you take a ramp or an orbit.
- Trivia Quizz: Probably the most complicated mini-game since it is a quiz about the NBA of the time. A good answer gives you 10 points in one go, you’ll have to write down the answers in a corner of your head!
- Egyptian Soda : Same principle as Hot Dog Mania but without the orbits and with a timer.
The second game mode (we could even talk about the main feature or “toy”) will be played on the bottom of the board during the attack phases.
Each player represented by a plexiglass figure hides a scoop in which the ball comes to rest, simulating a player who keeps his ball. From then on, you can shoot by pressing the button on the lockbar and the ball will be propelled into a metal ramp that guides it to the central basket. Simple, you say?
Not so much, because a defender will automatically come and try to block your shot. So you’ll have to make passes between the 4 players to try to feint the defender who is constantly moving and thus guarantee a shot that will hit. Otherwise, your ball goes back into the game, towards the bumpers and you have to restart your action.
Seriously, isn’t something like this pure genius?
At first glance, these different game modes may seem to break the rhythm of a game, but they correspond to the “split” nervousness of a basketball game. You run, you stop, you pass, you dribble, you shoot.
In NBA Fastbreak you will find exactly the same rhythm: we’re stressed, nervous, we apply ourselves, we try, we miss, we rage, we try again, we score and we go on watching the timer that reminds us at every moment. Enjoyable!
A pinball machine scattered in small pieces
Even if I paint a very personal picture of this pinball machine with an obvious lack of objectivity since the beginning, many people have heard about NBA Fastbreak for other reasons than its gameplay qualities.
Indeed, this machine is known to have been used (and still is) as an organ bank for many years, especially to make “fake” Medieval Madness tables (or conversions if you prefer).
And yes, a bit like a cartmod in the world of retro video games (editor’s note: a cartridge of a cheap and easily found video game “hacked” to end up with the rom of a rare and expensive game), many NBA Fastbreak machines have been stripped to keep only the generic elements (case, door, feet etc…) but also and especially the cards present in the front panel, the latter being common between all WPC95 models.
This pinball machine was relatively ignored at the time in Europe (the NBA was not as successful and promoted as it is today) and did not cost much. So little, in fact, that it was more interesting to take one apart, resell the few remaining parts on the second-hand market and complete it with those of the king of pinball machines: playfield, set of scenery, toys, remaining mechanical elements, game rom, case decals and there you go! After many hours of transformation, an NBA Fastbreak machine came out as a Medieval Madness one without paying a high price or spending an infinite amount of time to find a seller of this cult model on the second-hand market.
This practice has become less popular in the last few years, especially because of the price of the machines in general (NBA Fastbreak being no exception), there is no doubt that the initial number of machines has been reduced by a few models, whereas it has artificially increased for Medieval Madness game.
One is good, two is better!
As if this machine didn’t have enough special features, this teasing George Gomez decided to push the envelope by answering the question “how can you play multiple pinball games differently than taking turns on the same machine?”
Answer: By connecting two identical models together of course!
As long as you choose a team at the start of each game and play on a board shaped like a half basketball court, you might as well go all the way and offer two players to play against each other, each on their own machine, but both connected to the same game!
And so a “link kit” was born, also as an option. It allowed the most ambitious operators to propose to play this machine through a new experience, with two players, each with one’s own machine.
Needless to say, as daring as it is, this feature has been very little used and is now rather proposed on pinball shows and events, in a purely demonstrative purpose. This is obviously a rarity even if custom kits also exist and allow you to have this configuration, if you have two NBA Fastbreak at home 🙂 .
This kit included the wiring, the roms and a marker similar to the one of a two player arcade. Very nice!
Welcome to NBA JAM ! Uh… Fastbreak !
If, like me, you are sensitive to the mythical voices of the video game universe, like Andrew Anthony’s and his famous “EA Sports, it’s in the game!”, you couldn’t miss the legendary voice that composes all the call-outs of this pinball machine!
It’s obviously that of Tim Kitzrow, otherwise known in the 90s for having been the legendary voice of the games NBA JAM and NBA JAM Tournament Edition. Remember: “He’s on fire!”, “Ugly shot!”, “No good!” or that famous “BOOM SHAKALAKA”, it was him!
Well, here, this is the same delight for our ears because we have the right to mythical phrases such as “Ohhhh, that’s gotta hurt!”, “back to school, baby!” or “It’s showtime!” with the same energy and the same musical samples as in a real NBA game. Atmosphere guaranteed and couldn’t be more in line with the game. It is clearly a faultless on this side.
Regarding the animations, same observation! They are fine, detailed and transpose on the small screen your different actions in game. Succeed in a slam dunk and you will see a member of your team fly towards the basket to crush the ball in the hoop. Lose your ball and you’ll see that same team member get violently knocked down in full defense.
To top it off, each animation is reworked with the players of the team you have chosen at the beginning. You will recognize without any difficulty some NBA celebrities who marked their time, like Dennis Rodman for example.
An attention to detail that speaks volumes about the initial ambitions of this machine.
And the winner is….
In the ranking of under-the-hood pinball machines, NBA Fastbreak often ends up at the top of the league… And that’s a shame when you see the flood of good ideas that make it up. We’re dealing with a real daring machine, original, with a well executed theme, for which the main critics will only reproach its fidelity to the theme it tackles (low scoring, based on the NBA, attack/defense game mechanics that breaks the rhythm…).
Admit that it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?
Objectively, we can’t say that it’s a bad machine, far from it. It’s an atypical pinball machine, dynamic, with an incredible atmosphere, which takes risks by proposing a gameplay that is both innovative and very close to a real basketball game. This aspect alone is a small feat.
Of course, the theme is not a revolution, we already had Shaq Attaq from Gottlieb in 1995, Space Jam from Sega a year earlier or even Harlem Globetrotters On Tour from Bally in 1979. But none of these models were as innovative as NBA Fastbreak in its conception.
And it is with this kind of machine that we remember with nostalgia the talent that Bally & Williams had. The talent to offer us real little jewels, whatever the theme. George Gomez signed an excellent pinball machine, which will unfortunately find the success it deserves only many years later.