It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was anxiously awaiting the release of the arcade smash hit basketball game NBA Jam for my Super Nintendo. In actuality, that was over 10 years ago, and the NBA Jam franchise is far from the king of the console basketball game, uhh, hill. Titles like NBA Street have come along and shown gamers just how fun hoops can be on a console, meanwhile Acclaim’s game has laid dormant for the better part of a decade, surfacing on occasion with mediocre re-hashes on systems like the N64, Saturn, and Game Boy Advance. Well, don’t call it a comeback but it seems Acclaim has finally went to the effort of giving the NBA Jam series a much-needed buff and shine for current-generation consoles, and the result is decidedly slammin’.
Fans of the previous NBA Jam games will feel right at home with NBA Jam 2004 on the Xbox as the play mechanics and overall feel of the game is pretty much identical. Taking a few pages from the book of NBA Street, NBA Jam 2004 adds some significant additions to the established game play. Not to be confused with a deep and robust basketball experience, Jam 2004 sports three-on-three action and utilizes the standard shoot, juke, pass, steal, and block functions.
While NBA Street players may think that the turbo function, which speeds up your player and allows them to pull off crazy dunking stunts, is specific to their game of choice, they may be surprised to learn that NBA Jam started the whole thing. Unsurprisingly, NBA Jam brings this game play mechanism back in 2004: by holding the turbo button, your basic commands will perform alternate actions. For example, holding turbo as you run up the court to slam the ball will execute an over-the-top, stylized slam dunk. While playing D you can hold turbo and press the steal button to initiate a shove, oftentimes knocking the ball carrier flat on his ass.
The action can best be described as frantic, though not so much that it dissolves the concept of strategy entirely. Think old-school NBA Jam, except not so stilted, mixed with NBA Street, except far less involved. Giving a nod to NBA Jam T.E., 2004 features “hot spots.” But unlike past games in the series, hot spots do not randomly appear on court. Instead you must first build your hot spot meter by performing vicious dunks and daring jukes and then hit the R3 button to summon a hot spot. By standing on a hot spot and shooting, your player will execute an incredibly stylish and insane-looking dunk, each consecutive hot spot you hit will increase in points. This adds quite a bit to the strategy of the game since large point differentials can quickly be made up.
“He’s on fire!”
The most famous words ever uttered by an arcade style basketball game. By scoring three consecutive shots without the other team scoring will allow your player to catch on fire. While on fire your shot percentage will increase exponentially, your turbo meter will be unlimited, and goal tending will be fair game. As nearly every ball possession results in a made shot, catching on fire is not very common, but when it does happen you’ll definitely want to take advantage of your newfound abilities, goal tending till the cows come home.
As solid and entertaining as NBA Jam 2004 can be, especially in multiplayer, you’ll quickly realize that there just isn’t much to it. Games will inevitably boil down to dribbling down court, calling for an alley-oop or simply finding a weak spot in the defense and slamming the ball through the hoop. The hot spots and the ability to catch on fire are conducive to different styles of play but much of the game is much of the same. The trick system could certainly benefit from a more in-depth roster of dunks and the lack of focus on defense is a disappointment, though perfectly in form with previous Jam entries.
Luckily, the different single-player modes go a long way to keep you busy. Jam tournament mode allows you to progress through all of the NBA teams while the Legends tournament allows you to play the game chronologically from the pre-70s to the 90s. Plenty of legendary ballers are included, such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy, and to further add to the illusion of old-school basketball games, different visual filters are used depending on the era you are playing in. For example, the early years are represented in stark black and white, graduating to a somewhat blurry mid-70s filter and finally full-on color. It’s an interesting addition that surprisingly adds to the level of fun you’ll have with the Legends mode.
Since regardless of which mode you play, the action remains much the same, it’s a good thing that Acclaim included the “Jam store.” Here, you’ll be able to unlock an assortment of different goodies using the points you’ve accumulated in the rest of the game thus far. Unlockables such as new arenas, players, jerseys, create-a-player attributes, cheats, and game play alterations are all in the Jam store for the taking. This focus on replay ability is exactly what the franchise needed to contend head-on with other games of the same ilk.
Visually, NBA Jam 2004 is very much upgraded from its previous forms, though permeates with the same style. The 3D player models no longer run around with the grace of a stilted stick figure and now interact with their surroundings in a realistic manner. Though complaints will inevitably be lodged towards the player models since they only vaguely resemble their small-screen counterparts, those who are just looking to have a good time probably won’t even notice. The hot spot animations are some of the best, most original dunks ever seen in a basketball game, you simply have to witness them to understand.
The audio presentation is pretty good. The commentary, voiced by the original NBA Jammer Tim Kitzrow, is certainly the most appealing aspect in terms of sound. It’s quite common to hear the same commentary multiple times during a game, though it’s no where near as noticeable as it was in previous games. The sound effects and musical clips that play between quarters are nothing special, but get the job done and serve their purpose admirably.
Overall, it’s really hard to fault NBA Jam 2004 for being so simplistic, given that the action is undeniably entertaining. The single-player modes will keep most occupied for a few hours a day while the multiplayer games are always very fun. If you’re a gamer that has grown up on the NBA Street games and are looking for something equally deep and entertaining, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But if you’re a fan of past NBA Jam games and are anxious to get your nostalgia on, look no further.
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