The original arcade version of NBA Jam was essentially lightning in a bottle. At a time when fighting games were ruling the space, this faster-paced, stripped-down version of a professional sport not only survived the era but also thrived in it. Everyone from hardcore basketball fans to those who abhor sports games were lining up to make the big NBA stars pull off spectacular, reality-defying dunks. The subsequent home release a year later proved that its popularity was no fluke, as it did well on just about every console it touched and paved the way for subsequent revisions, imitators from other companies and various spin-offs. Almost 17 years after the first cabinet was plugged into an electrical socket, NBA Jam returns to the spotlight, this time on all three major home consoles. Despite the updated roster and fresh coat of paint, EA Sports NBA Jam is the same as it was all those years ago.
For those unfamiliar with the classic, NBA Jam plays like a distilled, quicker version of basketball. The game is played on a full court, players still dribble the ball, and shots still range from two to three points. From here, the sport differs greatly from the professional version. Only two players per team are on the court at any time. There are still four quarters to the game, but each quarter is split into three-minute sessions. With the exception of goal tending and 24-second shot clock violations, no other rule from the rulebook is observed, and fouls are not only accepted but encouraged. While it is common to see players trade points back and forth, any player who makes three shots in a row without letting the opposing team score enters an "on-fire" mode, where his shot percentages increase and he possesses unlimited energy for speeding down the court or delivering shoves. The only way for the fire to be quenched is for the player to make five shots in a row or for the opposing team to score, whichever comes first.
NBA Jam employs two different play modes. The Classic mode is exactly as you remember, but you have the ability to change out your players at halftime. Also included in the game is Remix mode, which plays out a like the old NBA Jam Tournament Edition but with some big changes. The special point spots, which were responsible for shots worth more than three points, and hotspots, which almost guaranteed a successful shot, are gone. They've been replaced with both good and bad power-up icons that randomly appear on the court but disappear if no one grabs them before a shot is made. Good power-ups include resistance to shoving, faster speed, and increased strength, while the lone bad power-up shrinks your character for a short while. Both modes also have access to the infamous pool of secret hidden characters, including the Beastie Boys, 9th Wonder, series creator Mark Turmell, two ESPN broadcasters, and a few political figures.
Both of the featured play modes contain campaign modes that are also very different from one another. The Classic campaign mode has you selecting one team and marching through every team the NBA has to offer. For every five teams you beat, you unlock a match against a boss team, and beating that team unlocks the next set of opponents. Remix Tour is a bit more varied, as you not only select your opponents in a division but also have a variety of games to play. You still have the remix 2v2 play, but you also have various minigames like 21, domination (reach 100 points by making shots from certain spots and making sure your opponent doesn't take over those spots), elimination (where the lowest-scoring player per round is booted from the game), and smash, where the objective is to break the opponent's backboard. It's a much longer mode to conquer simply because there are plenty of challenges per team, and while it is grueling, it also ensures that a solo gamer will always have something to do.
Arcade-style basketball games have definitely evolved in the years since the debut of the original NBA Jam. Players now expect arcade sports games to employ playground tricks, let you build up meters for devastating moves, and allow you to switch players on the fly. NBA Jam sticks with old traditions, so when you pick one player for the match, you're stuck controlling him until halftime. The only tricky moves you can pull off are the alley-oop, and the spin and stats don't change as the game progresses. New fans will wonder why the game didn't take genre changes into account while the purists will love that the game is exactly the same as it was all those years ago. As long as you know that this is what you're looking for, you'll have no real complaints.
The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions contain one more mode over the Wii iteration, and that's online multiplayer. The standard offline multiplayer options are available, so players can choose between using the classic form of the game or going with the remix mode, complete with power-ups. Performance-wise, online play is flawless, as there was no hint of lag in any of the matches played during the review period. With the exception of the presence of voice chat, the game performed the same way online as it did offline. One difference in online play is the presence of player cards, which keep track of current win-loss streaks and rank. There are also icons and nameplates to unlock for the cards; the developers seem to know what online players expect, since these features are staples of other online fighting, racing and shooting games.
Like the Wii version, the 360 and PS3 SKUs offer up two different, non-customizable control schemes that are designed to cater to both old and new players. Character movement is handled with the left analog stick or the d-pad, while turbo is executed by holding down either the left bumper or left trigger, and the A button is for passing. From here, things differ a bit. Those who like buttons will use X to shoot and block while B is used to steal, shove and spin. For those who prefer controlling things with the analog stick, the right analog stick handles the aforementioned actions. The combined scheme serves both player types well, and while the old-school players will prefer and stick with the buttons for their actions, there can be an argument made for stick supporters since passing is rarely done save for multiplayer games and rare alley-oop instances. At the very least, both schemes feel responsive enough, so no action feels missed when executed.
There has been much talk of the game's new graphical style, and seeing it in action still makes you realize how good it is. The idea of placing pre-determined photos of each player's character models seems like it would stand out negatively, but you won't notice it during gameplay until you enable big head mode. Once you do, the looks are hilarious, and the style works well, especially when you see it on the audience, coaches, benchwarmers and even the cheerleaders. The animations are smooth, and the dunks look spectacular even after you've seen them numerous times. The courts look good as well, especially the remix courts, and you can see the reflections of the stadium banners and lights in each of them. The look is simple but effective, and it works well.
Aside from the gameplay, the series has always been known for its sound, and the game does not disappoint in that department, especially when it comes to the music and voices. The music is a nice mix of old-school funk and modern hip-hop beats — all done in instrumental form. All of it is original material, and while none of it is licensed, it matches up rather well with beats that would have come from a major producer in the business. The more exciting aspect of the sound comes from the presence of Tim Kitzrow, the original announcer for the series and the man who made phrases like "He's on fire" and "Boomshakalaka" part of the basketball lexicon. His delivery is still pitch-perfect, with just the right amount of excitement for every delivered line. While he brings back the classic lines, his new lines (including some fan-made submissions) also fit very well with the game. The sound fades for a bit as you take off for a dunk; it's a minor detail, but it lets you appreciate the acrobatics for a brief moment.
For better or worse, EA Sports NBA Jam abides by the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." At its core, it is still a fast interpretation of the game that follows the arcade version's execution to a T, issues included. The new modes and versions included are nice, but the fundamentals remain just as fun and engaging as they did all those years ago, and that speaks volumes for the quality of the original formula. It would easily be a purchase for those who enjoy a version of the sport that eschews everything but points. Because of the circumstances surrounding its release, it is difficult to recommend a title that was supposed to be a downloadable game but was transformed into a full game will a full, retail price. Even if the original plan had gone through and DLC was added to make the game what it is today, NBA Jam wouldn't likely reach the price it is currently commanding. If we didn't know about the original plan, then this would be an easy recommendation. As it stands, only those who don't care about the price will pick up this title; everyone else will probably wait for the price to drop before partaking.
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