I was over the moon when my slightly delayed Evercade VS console pre-order arrived two days before Christmas 2021! Not only was it less of a delay than I’d expected after being informed of one when production was due to start, but I knew several relatives had got me cartridges for it as Christmas presents, and it was going to be bad enough trying to explain what it was that they’d got me as it was, let alone it being for a phantom retro games console!

I’d only ever previously admired Evercade’s handheld console from afar, with my Nintendo Switch and Pocket Go S30 satisfying what are my relatively limited handheld gaming opportunities. The full-on VS home console was a no-brainer though, and the perfect justification to get at Evercade’s almost 300-strong list of well curated game collection cartridges covering the likes of Namco, Atari, Tecnos, Data East and loads more! It’s small by PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X standards, but its old-school top-loading cartridge flap (which takes two of them at once!) contrasts beautifully with the modern LED band wrapped around a minimal design with its new-fangled USB power and HDMI connections round the back. The controllers have a very NES feel about them too, despite having a few more buttons, but I have to say I’m not massively keen on having a wire attached to them – albeit a generous one!

Using it feels good too – fire it up and you’re presented with a sortable and selectable list of games on either one or the other or both cartridges inserted, each with a great-looking thumbnail that leads to an instruction and information screen on the game itself, as well as buttons to start from scratch or load last save from easy save-states. It’s also easy to customise the display from here, with loads of options for aspect ratios, scanlines and all that malarky if you fancy. It’s all networked up for firmware updates over wi-fi, and the one I did on first boot-up was quick and painless. There’s a few accessibility options and a cool menu item called “Secret” which alludes to secret codes, cartridge combinations (for example, load up the two Atari Lynx collections at the same time and you’ll unlock a bonus game, Raid on Tricity: Second Wave), and then there’s secret button combinations to unlock more games and easter eggs (check the credits!) and so on, all of which are gradually being unearthed by the internet as I write this!

I know we’re here for Basketbrawl and this has turned into a console review, but to get us to the point let me quickly mention the cartridges those relatives got me for Christmas (and a couple that might have been sitting in a drawer patiently waiting for the best part of a year…)! The two Atari Lynx cartridges were my very first port of call, specifically for California games, which, if you glance around this site, you may have noticed I have a fondness for! Okay, running these on my biggest TV at 1080p isn’t exactly what they were designed for, but I loved my brother’s Lynx almost as much as he did, and trying a couple of old favourites first like this and Blue Lightning was irresistible! From those, I decided that I’d go through every game on each of my eight cartridges one by one then decide on what to start playing through properly, and that turned out to be Dizzy the Adventurer on The Oliver Twins Collection, mainly because for all the Dizzy games I’ve played, I’ve never played one that wasn’t on a ZX Spectrum! This is the enhanced NES spin on Dizzy: Prince of the YolkFolk and it’s a really good one – progression is logical, the map’s not massive, which helps with Dizzy’s trademark back and forth, and it’s a real looker. That cartridge has got BMX Simulator on it too, and another NES take on a Spectrum favourite that I can’t leave alone!

I also got the two Piko Interactive collections, with the first spanning every genre you can think of including another old favourite, Way of the Exploding Fist, and Top Racer, also known as Top Gear, but either way a very nice 16-bit racer! Its sequel also appears on the second, which is more sports focussed, but does include my favourite NES obscurity, Eliminator Boat Duel, as well as Beast Ball – also known as Brutal Sports Football – which is a kind of sideways Speedball… For normal Speedball, and it sequel, and its PlayStation successor as well as Xenon 2 and The Chaos Engine, my next cartridge is the small but perfectly formed Bitmap Brothers Collection. I wanted Interplay Collection 1 solely for Battle Chess, but I don’t mind a bit of Earthworm Jim either! And finally there was the bundled Tecnos Collection, where I’ve enjoyed some Double Dragon sequels but have mostly been bashing my head against the ridiculously hard top-down racer / shooter Battle Lane Vol. 5! And all of those should now keep me going until my next pre-orders arrive, hopefully in the next couple of months, with Renovation Collection 1 that includes twelve 16-bit games I’ve never played and that obviously excites me, and also Gremlin Collection 1 because apart from Actua Soccer I don’t think I’ve played those either – not even Zool!

So far though, I’ve now played every single one of the 88 games I already own for Evercade VS, and even finished a couple, but out of all of those there was one that completely took me by surprise, and that was Basketbrawl on the Atari Lynx Collection 1. This one might not have California Games on it, but what it does have is a very generous 17 games and I reckon of all these cartridges, this is probably the one I’ve come back to the most, even aside from Basketbrawl. Jimmy Connor’s Tennis and Malibu Bikini Volleyball are both suspiciously good behind the slightly unwelcoming controls (and one of them is full of saucy Atari Lynx bikinis from 1993)! Super Skweek, Ishido: The Way of the Stones, Crystal Mines II: Buried Treasure (a take on Boulderdash) and Loopz are all crazy addictive puzzle games, and so is CyberVirus, an impressive first-person shooter, all things considered!

Loads of good stuff, but Basketbrawl just grabbed me so hard and so fast! We’re talking no-nonsense prison yard combat basketball from 1992, but thanks to another Christmas present from exactly the same place as this cartridge (my in-laws) I can tell you that the story actually begins two years earlier on the Atari 7800, and although I’m still to get the Evercade cartridge with it on, I have now played a fair bit of that too elsewhere! We’ll come back to this version, but let’s quickly refer to that present, Bitmap Books’ marvellous Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium, also reviewed here recently, which sets the scene with the late eighties and early nineties craze for violent sports games, and the likes of the aforementioned Speedball and Beast Ball or my dear, dear Mutant League Football proving very popular. Atari wanted in on the action and came up with Basketbrawl, a tournament between teams of two violent thugs across a series of backstreet basketball courts. Of course, this is not to be confused with Midway’s 1989 basketball fighter Arch Rivals and its tagline “A basket brawl!” but, together with Atari’s other attempted cash-in, Ninja Golf, it was one of the very last games released on the 7800 before they binned it off.

We’re going to head back to the Lynx for the full story though – and what a story! In fact, I’m going to give it to you word for word from the manual! “When city leaders started a basketball league to try to stop gang warfare, they never expected to see plays like this: Slash takes the ball and passes to Bubba. Bubba dribbles down court but loses the ball when he is hit by a knife thrown from the sideline. Vinnie grabs the loose ball. Slash punches Vinnie but Vinnie manages to pass to Simon. Simon aims for the basket and shoots, but a well-timed kick to the the head by Bubba sends the shot wide. Vinnie gets the rebound after knocking Slash out cold. He shoots. The ball bounces off the bent rim, hits the backboard, and drops for two points!” And that, my friends, is a perfect description of a typical game of Basketbrawl!

To become the baddest gang in town you need to win three games against each of its five gangs, and things ramp up each time with more opponents and more powerful weapons littering the court. The games last six minutes, and with two points on offer for each basket scored, the team with the most at the end progresses, meaning game over if it’s not you! A tie when the clock hits zero means a stressful bout of overtime where the next score wins, though one of my favourite bits of the game is how often it seems to come down to a last second throw before you get there! Another cool feature is the password system, where each time you start a new level you get a level code so you can pick up from there next time you play.

Both the combat and the basketball are an absolute cinch to control, with everything mapped to two buttons and depending on whether you’re doing offense or defence, and tapping or holding them. For example, in offense, a quick tap of A will shoot at the basket where holding will pass it to a teammate (if you have one), or B will chuck it in your opponent’s face to stun them! In defence, B will then become your flying kick, while A will either punch or use a weapon if you’ve got one to hand.

As you play, various items appear on the court. Things start relatively friendly with just a plain old knife to stab your opponents with, but you’ll soon be progressing through dirty hypodermic needles, not-sexy whips, sledgehammers and even machine guns! Just remember that if you’re not using them, your opponent will be! Same for the power-ups that appear, like milk to increase your health, a lightning bolt to increase your shot accuracy or a fist to increase your punching power! These and more will stay with you for the duration of the level but your character will go back to default on the next gang’s court.

You’ve got a choice of characters at the start of each game, with each one accommodating different play styles through their power, skill, speed and life stats, each of which are high, low or okay. First up is Simon, who we’re told is a real nerd that prefers homework to basketball, but he’s quick! Slash is a punk who isn’t called Slash for nothing, and has a decent life bar. Then there’s Biff, Slam, Vinnie and Busterl each offering different pros and cons, or you could just pick Dude who’d rather be surfing and is average across the board, but probably better than average across the surf board! None of it seems to make that much difference, and you’re just as well going with your preferred stereotype, or you could enter MJ23 in that password screen and you’ll get a secret character with Michael Jordan’s heady attributes!

The whole thing might be no-holds barred, but there is a referee who’ll make his way onto the court from time to time to join in the fighting as he sees fit, and also watch out for gang members looking on too who’ll either be on the court whacking you two at a time or lobbing a knife in your direction from the side, which can do you serious damage! When you or an opponent loses all of your health, you’ll go down unconscious, becoming another obstacle on the court. You can mash the buttons to recover a bit faster, and you’ll want to do that as soon as possible if its you on the floor because while you’re down it becomes a scoring free-for-all!

For a game that’s so simple, there’s loads of ways to approach it. You could spend your time beating down your opponent then going for loads of points once he’s out cold, but while you’re doing that his teammate will probably be scoring points down the other end of the court, though as long as you’re conscious a score will result in a ball change, so you’ll reset under your basket. When you’re in a game with a teammate rather than solo, passing becomes not just a strategic option but also a necessary one because if you get him mad he’ll start fighting with you too! In parallel you need to be thinking risk-reward when there’s the option of grabbing a power-up or weapon rather than the loose ball, and all the time you’re watching the clock and weighing-up where the points you need to get or defend are going to be best won.

At the end of each game you’ll get an overall score that doesn’t mean a huge amount because all that matters is winning, but it will give you a gauge of how well you’ve played. You’ll get ten points for each basket you’ve scored plus ten points for each game point you’ve got above your opponent’s score, then a level bonus depending on how far you’ve come, and finally a brutality bonus for knockouts! Make it right to the end and you’ll get a final score as you’re worshipped on a pile of dustbins by your fallen foes, though I’m not sure it’s then recorded anywhere, so even using an Evercade VS save state here isn’t going to do you much good if you’re replaying for score.

There’s a hell of a way to go before you’ll be worrying about replay value though! I guess you’re clocking in at just under two hours to go all the way through in one go, but it’s just so chaotic and unpredictable that even in the early games there’s no guarantee you’re winning even when you’ve got to grips with everything. I think that’s part of why I’m enjoying it so much, and that bodes well for its longevity because it’s exactly why I’m also still playing Destruction Derby 2 on the original PlayStation decades after the fact!

This is a good time to quickly jump back to the Atari 7800 version because rather than being the dumbed-down port you might expect of a game moving from console to handheld, it’s actually the complete opposite! While it’s just as much fun to play once you’re in a game, it’s winner stays on after you’ve chosen to play one-on-one or two-on-two, then game difficulty and length. When playing two-on-two games solo you do notice that it’s been built for actual two-player co-op, even though it still plays fine that way and offers some new tactical depth, but there’s also the option to play against each other if you do have another human. The biggest difference you’ll notice otherwise is that the Lynx really benefitted from more detailed court environments, although I still love how it looks on 7800 – it really suits the system!

Back over on the Lynx there’s a bit of variety in the urban decay of the five different courts you progress through. We begin in a regular fenced playground court that might have seen better days, with some lovely detailing where it’s starting to fall to bits through disrepair, but it still looks like a basketball court with all the right markings. Less so as you move on to hoops attached to heavily graffitied building walls surrounded by piles of rubbish, but the colours here are great all the same and the whole thing is so atmospheric! Then you’re in an abandoned school with all kinds of new decay to play around in before moving to some kind of junkyard with a comfy old sofa dumped in the middle, and tufts of grass dotted about the place trying to reclaim the playing surface, such as it is. Finally, you’ll be back on crumbling concrete with the hoops propped against the kerbs of what looks like the kind of car park you don’t want to park your car in after dark or any other time of day for that matter! Huge improvement on the 7800 version that really puts you in the fictional Bronx-like hard city streets it’s all playing out in.

Player characters are a little more primitive, especially when they start moving, but apart from some of the stereotypes they’re not offensive in any way and everyone is just about recognisable when the ball’s in play, though you can easily lose track of your player when there’s a bunch of players and spectators and refs all wrapped up in a frantic bundle of fists and flying kicks! There are a few nice touches in them if you look closely though, like the air being knocked out of an opponent when you power-throw a ball a them or them seeing stars when you land a punch, and there’s a text commentary at the bottom of the screen that generally encourages more violence, with a few nineties words that would be about as likely to appear as some of the player characters if it was made today! There’s a few indistinct blips and bleeps as you play, but the only real sound of note is the title music that plays up to character selection – it’s Atari Lynx does straight-to-video eighties action movie music, but it’s doing it’s best and I’ll happily leave it playing in the background!

As much as I’ve loved California Games for a very long time now, I wish my brother had got this for his Atari Lynx too because as much as I also love the immediate impact this thing had completely out of the blue when I got my Evercade VS, I can’t help feeling I’ve been missing out on another all-time favourite for the last thirty years! That said, isn’t it incredible that you can still make these discoveries after so long, and Basketbrawl’s chaotic simplicity won’t be going anywhere anytime soon from here onwards!