When assessing a new game in a franchise, whether as a reviewer or a consumer, it’s nearly impossible to do so without comparing it with previous iterations. The same can be said about games that are ported from one system to another. This makes it doubly hard to review NBA Jam for the Xbox 360 without referencing its similarities and differences to both the original NBA Jam from 1993 and the Wii version of the 2010 release. Fortunately, this version fares well in comparison to any of its predecessors, offering the best NBA Jam experience to date.
NBA Jam is to basketball what the WWE is to hand-to-hand combat; a vastly overblown exaggeration of the real sport that emphasizes flash and style over strategy and patience. Just like the original Midway classic, this NBA Jam features fast-paced 2-on-2, full-court action with players who pull off insane feats that no real life player could ever simulate. NBA superstars perform multiple front-flips and twenty-foot vertical leaps on their way to the basket, and are allowed to shove each other to the floor with impunity. While all of these aspects are found in the original NBA Jam, there are a few new gameplay wrinkles that modernize the experience. Drawing inspiration from the NBA Street series, NBA Jam allows players to perform high-flying alley-oop plays. With bodies flying toward the basket awaiting timely passes, the game is much more vertically oriented than previous versions, and more fun as a result. Fans expecting their AI teammates to follow their every command, as in previous NBA Jams, will be surprised to find a more autonomous partner. Players can ask for passes, and will usually receive them, but AI players will sometimes choose to ignore your requests, and take the ball up themselves. Luckily, the AI is pretty smart about when to take control on offense, though they do often struggle to defend against their opponents.
Like the Wii version, the HD release of NBA Jam includes several modes that weren’t present in the original. Remix adds power-ups like improved accuracy, strength, or speed to the standard 2-on-2 experience, and can be fun, but players will often feel cheated by power-ups that constantly show up in places where the computer opponent almost can’t help but grab them. Smash mode challenges players to be the first to destroy their opponents’ backboards. This mode doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, and feels almost identical to the standard play style. After all, who the hell shoots jumpers in NBA Jam?
The other modes switch from two-on-two games to solo matchups between 2 or three players, and change the perspective from the sideline to a straight ahead view. 21, the well-known three-man pickup game, Domination, challenging players to score from specific spots on the court, and Elimination, which takes out the lowest-scoring player after a certain amount of time, are all flawed modes that offer more frustration than satisfaction. The new camera angle feels out of place for an NBA Jam game, and computer-controlled ballers are way too aggressive, often yanking the ball from players’ hands before they can take a step. Boss battles keep the same vertical camera angle, but reduces the team size to a single person, and pits them against a powered-up NBA legend. These games are perhaps the most frustrating, with bosses that can blow by you with super speed, drain every 3-pointer they toss up, and get “on fire” as soon as they lose a lead. At one point, I was tasked with defeating Magic Johnson in a one-on-one match. During this matchup, Magic is able to throw alley oop passes to himself, then teleport around the court to grab them. If there’s a way to defend against him, I have yet to find it. Remix Tour forces players to play through these modes repeatedly, and feels more frustrating than it needs to be. Fortunately, the core game mode is untouched by these ill-fitting changes, and challenges players to defeat every NBA team and a few legends teams.
The biggest omission from the Wii version of Jam was online play. The HD versions of the game, however, offer online net play for all modes except Boss Battles, and they’re the best part of the NBA Jam experience. Playing standard 2-on-2 matches against an online opponent is a blast, and the netcode is extremely solid, boasting a nearly flawless online experience. Other game types that are hampered by unfair computer AI in single player mode are greatly improved online, thanks to a more even playing field.
While NBA Jam has seen an improvement in visual presentation in the transtion from Wii to Xbox 360, it’s in no way a graphical powerhouse. Then again, it doesn’t have to be. The use of 3d character models with digitized player faces gives the game a quirky, retro look that absolutely fits the NBA Jam formula. Players do look a bit crisper on the 360, and the crowd and courtside mascots looks significantly nicer, giving a nice bit of polish to the stylized game. For such a highly stylized game that doesn’t rely on high end visuals, NBA Jam has some surprisingly nice character animations. Players flip, twist, and contort themselves in fun ways on their way to the basket, and it’s always entertaining to watch great dunkers like LeBron, Andre Iguodala, and Dwight Howard throw it down. Tim Kitzrow, the signature voice of NBA Jam, returns, and brings all the famous lines from the original game and a few new ones. Kitzrow’s tongue-in-cheek commentary further enhances the NBA Jam experience, adding another layer of fun and silliness.
Even with its multiple unlockable and secret playable characters, many gamers have complained that NBA Jam shouldn’t be a full retail release, and should have been a downloadable title. While I’m somewhat inclined to agree with this position when it comes to the Wii version, the addition of online play elevates the HD versions above that status. That said, it still feels a little light on content for a $50 purchase, especially when one considers how frustrating and unbalanced many of the single player modes are. Online play is a lot of fun, though, as are two-player local matchups, and should provide fans with hours of frantic hoops action. The HD versions are undoubtedly superior to the Wii’s offering, and the core gameplay represents the best in the franchise. It’s just a shame that the secondary game modes are so poorly executed, as better implementations of them would have added a lot of replayability, and made for a much better value.