NBA Jam holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers. Considered the ultimate arcade basketball game that both casual and die-hard fans of the real sport can enjoy together, NBA Jam simplified basketball to its barest essence. It’s been a long time since there’s been an NBA Jam title, and this year EA has taken the reins in an effort to revive the once classic franchise. Complete with a slew of new, if uneven, game modes, as well as hidden characters, and the tried and true gameplay that endeared the title to so many, NBA Jam has officially returned. Too bad it’s just a good game instead of a great one.
There’s actually a lot to like about the new NBA Jam. In addition to the more traditional campaign mode, where you’ll play each regular team once, as well as a few special classic teams, there’s a whole new batch of game modes under the Remix banner. While the more classic campaign mode will have you progressing through the actual NBA divisions, one team at a time in a rigid unlocking bracket, the Remix modes offer a wealth of different opportunities. Remix Campaign is a combination of all the new modes, where you’ll play each team three times, with different win conditions for each game. Unfortunately, there are only two Remix styles that aren’t insanely frustrating. There are two modified 2-on-2 matches to play. Smash, where you and the other team must continually dunk on one another’s rims to see who can shatter whose first, is a lot of fun, and gives gamers what they want in an NBA Jam game: dunks, dunks, and more dunks. The other team play mode is Remix 2-on-2. There, you’ll play a standard game with the exception of power-ups like super-speed and super-strength randomly dropping on the court. It’s a slight twist on what you’d normally expect, and while the power-ups don’t really change the game that much, they do provide a slight change of pace.
Where the game starts to lose its shine is in the other Remix modes. Moving the perspective of the game from the broadcast angle (side of the court) to a zoomed-in half-court isometric-style angle, each of the four other game modes loses a bit of that NBA Jam magic. Taking away your teammate, like three of the four modes do, adds insult to injury, as team play is what NBA Jam is built around. Elimination (last man standing point scoring race) and 21 (be the first to score 21 points) take the teammate away, and pit you against two other computer opponents. It would almost work if every time you blocked a shot or swatted the ball away from one opponent it didn’t fly right into the hands of the other one. Domination (control hot spots on the court by making shots), which still allows you to play with a teammate, doesn’t fare much better under the half-court camera, cluttering up one-half of the court. The worst new mode is without a doubt Boss Battle. Pitting you alone against another NBA player, you’ll be tasked with defeating them with no help. That doesn’t sound so bad at the start, but the opposing player will always have some sort of power or ability to make your life hell. LeBron James automatically heats up when you take the lead. Dwayne Wade is blessed with super-speed. Larry Bird will eat your soul with threes. The boss fights remind you that no matter how great you think you are at this game, you’re actually nothing. In fact, you’re less than nothing. Instead of being challenging, the boss battles are incredibly frustrating, and though they’ll help you unlock more classic players, are almost not worth the effort.
Fortunately, no matter how you decide to play the game, you’ll be unlocking players, skins, and extras like Big Head mode. There’s a litany of in-game achievements you can earn like getting ten blocks in a game or getting “on fire” four times in one game, and trying to earn them all will be worth the effort for the unlockable obsessed. Playing with a friend will move things along much more quickly, but all the multi-player involved is of the offline variety. On one hand, it’s a shame EA and Nintendo couldn’t get an online plan together, but on the other hand, Nintendo’s online is extremely shaky at best, so I’m not really all that torn up about it. What strikes me as the most odd omission from the game is any sort of real stat-tracking. Sure, the game does keep note of how many points you score, or blocks you get in a single game, but during a season, there are no scoring leaders or assist leaders, which really would have been nice to see.
I’ll admit being skeptical about the game’s motion controls before giving them a shot. If you’re playing with motion controls, you’ll use the nunchuck for movement, and use simple gestures for shooting. Passing and turbo, as well as jukes, are all handled with buttons, so the only real motion you’ll be making is up and down for dunks and jump shots/blocking. You can use the Classic Controller as well, which isn’t a bad idea, but trying to use the Wii remote by itself is actually the worst control scheme the game has to offer. Passing and shooting are on the 1 and 2 buttons, but turbo is relegated to the B button underneath the d-pad. It’s awkward enough trying to hit the B button occasionally, but in NBA Jam you’ll be using it with such frequency that your fingers will start to hurt trying to hold the controller. EA made the smart move by not making the motion controls all over the place for swipes and spins, and it’s easily the most optimal control style for the game.
NBA Jam has a great style, even if it does remind you of watching a South Park basketball game at times. By using still shots of a player’s face for different moments on the court, the game adds a bit of humor while playing tribute to the original arcade game. Courts look great, and the visual tricks like shattering backboards and being on fire have never looked better. Many of the animations are familiar, and haven’t been tweaked that much, though there are more than a handful of new dunks to view. The game looks just like you would expect a current day remake to, which is to say it doesn’t look amazing, but it’s still a good looking game. Of course the game’s biggest returning feature is the announcing work by Tim Kitzrow. Needless to say, the man does not disappoint. Familiar favorites like “Boom-shakalaka!” and “He’s on fire!” still haven’t lost their luster, but it’s new calls like “No hoop for you!” and a nod to Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” that really push the voice work in this game to elite status. Had another person done the announcing, or EA just decided to remaster the original recordings, I don’t think the effect would have been as special. Fortunately for everyone involved, the decision was made to re-record everything, and add in some new soon-to-be classics. Perhaps Gus Johnson could take a lesson or two from Kitzrow. I know I’d appreciate it.
Fans that have been clamoring for this NBA Jam’s arrival since its announcement will be absolutely thrilled with the end result, in spite of the game’s unevenness. To everyone else, the title will be nothing more than a slightly updated 16-bit era game that cashes in on memories of a day long gone. Though NBA Jam could have been so much more, I’m happy with what EA has done with the franchise. It’s nothing spectacular, but if you were looking for more NBA Jam with modern day rosters, the game delivers in spades. While I’m not a very big fan of the new Remix modes, there’s definitely enough here to keep me coming back for more.