My introduction to NBA Jam was through a local Putt-Putt Golf location in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. When I was a kid, my friends and I went there mostly because it was the only arcade spot left in town. I was a budding fan of basketball, coming out of a near obsession with baseball prior to catching the 1992 NBA finals. I had played through some console basketball titles and generally enjoyed them, but NBA Jam was an eye-opener.
For those who aren't familiar with the series, NBA Jam was one of the first exaggerated realism sports titles on the market. We have a ton of them now, from the more recent Backbreaker football titles, to other classic selections, like Midway's Blitz series or NBA Street. NBA Jam was pretty unique at the time, and I still hold the belief that it's the best arcade sports titles on a console. I dropped a bunch of quarters into that machine, and when the series was later ported to the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, I spent a ridiculous amount of time with the games.
A couple of years ago, there was the announcement that a new NBA Jam was being developed for the Nintendo Wii. When it released, it was remarkably similar to its predecessors, featuring the same two-on-two matches, exaggerated character features, incredible dunks, smarmy one-liners from the announcer, and more. All in all, it was a pretty good game. Then NBA Jam was announced and released for the Xbox 360 and PS3, and playing that same game with an HD makeover was almost like a little slice of gaming heaven. I definitely enjoyed it, despite not digging all the Remix additions, and I would've been pretty happy if that had been it for a while.
Now we've got NBA Jam: On Fire Edition for XBLA, and man, oh man, is it good. It's a roster update and stripped-down version of the Xbox 360 and PS3 retail release, but since I didn't find myself caring for the extra additions in the retail game, I'm fine with that. This feels more like NBA Jam from the arcade days. The "On Fire" in the title refers to a player's status after he makes three baskets in a row; at that point, he is "on fire" and can shoot better, can't be goaltended by the opposing team, and has unlimited turbo. The "On Fire" mode lasts until the opposing team scores.
You have your two-on-two teams and a slew of unlockable characters, some of whom are unlocked by beating their teams. You'll get a mix of current players, mascots and legends. Shaq finally makes his way back in, along with all-time greats like Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler and Dennis Rodman. You even get the Bulls and Spurs version of Dennis Rodman if you want. Sadly, Michael Jordan still doesn't make the list, but that's kind of expected since he's never been featured in the series.
In addition to the real-life players, you'll have a few fictional faces from EA franchises (but I won't spoil them for you) and teams featuring current Democrats and Republicans (I thought that was a nice touch). Slamming it home with Obama and Clinton as your backup is entertaining, and regardless of which way your politics lean, the expressions on the faces of these otherwise serious candidates are pretty funny.
There are also some special inclusions here, like a Beastie Boys-focused team and the Seattle Supersonics, along with a handful of international teams and teams comprised entirely of mascots from various divisions.
In addition to the unlockable characters, there are more modes to check out, such as Big Head mode and a special black-and-white "noir" mode. You also have a number of icons and backgrounds that can be used to outfit your online profile, which is used specifically for NBA Jam's online versus modes. There are just a lot of things to unlock; some unlocks occur through regular gameplay, but you'll need to purchase a majority of the unlocks with the in-game currency, Jam points. You can earn Jam points by winning games and performing certain challenges, which can range from getting X number steals in a game, landing Y number of three-pointers, or canceling your opponent's "On Fire" status. There are various challenges, so just about every game will earn you bonus points as you work your way through them.
I haven't had much of a chance to sample the online portion of NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, as there have been very few people online before the game's release date. The portions that I have sampled have run remarkably smooth, and it's easy enough to join matches when they're available. The online mode, dubbed Online Arena, allows you to jump into matches with others and play either against or with player-controlled characters. There's another set of challenges to accomplish here, along with a timer that counts down your remaining days to earn platinum status, which is based on your amount of Jam points. It's unclear what the reward might be, since I haven't found enough online matches to come close to gaining that status.
There are a few things in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition that aren't exactly "on fire." For one thing, the menu is atrocious to navigate. There is so much stuff crammed into the screen that it can be difficult to find the desired information. You have a handful of challenges displayed, your Gamertag and in-game label with current level, accumulated Jam points, current leaderboard standing, and, depending on whether you're in the Road Trip (campaign) or Online Arena, even more info will be on display. It looks extremely busy, and I'm not a fan of it.
There's also some unnecessary need to hit the A button twice when you've selected Road Trip or Online Arena. Don't even get me started on the Jam Central screen, which does an extremely poor job of detailing the content that you're unlocking with Jam points. There's no way to tell who makes up a team that you're currently unlocking, for instance, and that seems unnecessarily vague.
One final complaint is that the enemy AI gets ridiculously aggressive and cheap on anything other than the Easy difficulty setting. Since you can only switch between Easy and Real AI, you're kind limited to finding a good in-between. If you ratchet the difficulty up, be ready to deal with constant shoves from the other side as soon as you lay your hands on the ball. And since you're so limited in how you can defend against it, it ends up being pretty aggravating.
Aside from these issues, I really enjoyed NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. It is certainly reminiscent of old-school NBA Jam, which is what I'm looking for. The updated rosters are nice to have for hardcore basketball fans, but the additional fictional characters from EA franchises, along with the NBA legends, are what really sell the roster to me. The focus on traditional NBA Jam-style modes is a welcome change. I definitely think this is an XBLA release worth picking up, and I look forward to seeing you on the court.
More articles about NBA Jam: On Fire Edition