Arch Rivals is a 2-on-2 arcade basketball game from Bally/Midway that first saw life as a coin-op in 1989. The game features lots of scoring from in close and from long range, high-flying dunks, and strong defense through rough steals and shot blocks. If this formula sounds kind of familiar… well, it should. Many of these same gameplay ideas were finely tuned and put to fantastic use in a 1993 arcade game that you’ve probably heard of: NBA Jam. Far fewer people remember or have even played Arch Rivals, though, and that’s too bad.

This ref looks nothing like me.
This ref looks nothing like me.

For the uninitiated, here’s a brief overview of Arch Rivals. After choosing a team (from a selection of generic city names and funny school names), each player selects one of eight different athletes to control. Each athlete has his own area of expertise; Hammer, for example, is a great rebounder while Lewis is a skilled shooter. Once the athletes have been selected, the game consists of four 4-minute quarters and plays mostly like standard basketball. There are two-point and three-point shots, and players can either keep the ball and dribble across to the other basket to score or pass to the other teammate.

There are two key differences in Arch Rivals that make it interesting (and more fun). The first difference is that there are no fouls called. This means that stealing the ball from an opposing player is as easy as punching him in the face and picking up the ball when he crumples to the ground. The other difference is the inclusion of on-court debris, such as trash or even a team mascot. Running into these on the court causes the player to fall down and lose possession of the ball.

That had to hurt.
That had to hurt.

The first home console port of Arch Rivals was published for the NES by Acclaim in 1990 and developed by RARE. The Genesis port arrived two years later, published by Flying Edge (which was Acclaim’s publishing arm for SEGA). The NES port will get its own review down the line; this one is all about the Genesis version– for better and for worse.

What stands out about the Genesis port right away is how the game looks. It’s a very close copy of the arcade game, graphically. The player models look good, the cutscenes between quarters are spot on, and the game never slows down or flickers. One minor complaint is that the players in the Genesis port may look a little more cartoonish than their coin-op counterparts, but it doesn’t sour the overall look of the game that much. The transitions between screens from game start to team selection to player selection do tend to go on a bit too long and can’t be skipped. Aside from those gripes, though, Arch Rivals looks just about as good as the arcade original.

This port looks great. But...
This port looks great. But…

While this port looks great on the Genesis, there are some problems. The game moves fast– almost too fast. It’s easy for players to run past where they want to be on the screen because the players seemingly glide across the court, as though they are on ice. This is especially noticeable when going for steals or trying to grab a loose ball. The dunk animations seen in this port are also, well… not very good. The dunks are not slowed down enough for effect, so they’re not as impactful as they should be. Even more disappointing is the sequence of shattering the backboard, which should be a high point of the game– but is just another two points with little fanfare here.

The speed of the players and of the on-screen action plays havoc with the gameplay in the Genesis version of Arch Rivals. There are odd sequences where passing the ball to a teammate can miss the target. It can be too difficult to avoid debris on the court because players run so fast. It’s also tough to maneuver around defenders and avoid their punches as they go for the ball. The NES port and the coin-op original both ran a bit more deliberately without sacrificing the intensity of the action, and both games were better for that. This version simply moves too fast for its own good.

"Cleanup on the near court. Bill!"
“Cleanup on the near court. Bill!”

Sadly, Arch Rivals doesn’t have any kind of Season mode or ladder play where players can square off against the other teams in the game. This omission didn’t affect the coin-op, but the NES port and this port both suffer from a lack of replay value. Aside from entering your initials if you score enough points after four quarters (and you will), there isn’t any kind of battery backup or password system to keep your best efforts saved… unless you keep a running written (or typed) log of games played.

There’s also an issue with the relative ease of CPU opponents, if you play by yourself. In my first game on the Genesis, I beat the CPU by 101 points. Arch Rivals is best experienced with a friend, especially one who can supply a decent challenge. Otherwise, playing against the CPU is as easy as taking advantage of noticing patterns in opposing team movements, anticipating them, punching the player in the beak, stealing the ball, and driving the lane for a jam. Human opponents are usually less predictable, and therefore should require a bit more effort to get past.

Lewis has a deadly outside shot. Pick him for massive damage.
Lewis (lower left) has a deadly outside shot. Pick him for massive damage.

Of the available ways to check out this forerunner to NBA Jam, the Genesis port of Arch Rivals is not the best way. The NES port from RARE runs really well and does a great job of bringing the arcade home. Emulations of the coin-op original are available on compilation discs, including Midway Arcade Treasures 2 (PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube) and Midway Arcade Origins (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3), and bring the arcade home without owning a cabinet. I’d recommend these versions over the Genesis version; however, if a SEGA Genesis is the only console or the main console that you’re getting your retro fix on– especially for sports games– then Arch Rivals is worth a look… for the right price.

Collector’s note: As of this writing, PriceCharting has Arch Rivals for the Genesis valued at around $5.00 USD for a loose cart and $10.00 USD for a CIB (complete in box) item.