In the midst of cutting-edge products that are destined to be big sellers this holiday season, there is a way to reclaim a lost piece of the past: play NBA Jam . Those who remember the glory days of gaming likely recall this name with a smile on their faces; those patented high-flying dunks and prevailing lighthearted atmosphere were irresistible. About as fun and addictive as games could get, most entries in the series – especially the first few, including the Tournament Edition for the SNES – will always be remembered with a certain fondness. To its credit, this new entry feels a lot more like a remake than a new game, and that’s because this is almost exactly like the Jam we all remember and love. Take the old-school format and add a few more modes, spruced-up HD graphics, and online multiplayer, and this is what you get. There’s just one problem: $50, EA?
I’ll get back to that issue in a minute but for the moment, let’s talk about the pleasing graphics. They’re not designed to blow you away; they’re simply designed to be an obvious upgrade, one that maintains the old-fashioned style and palette while still delivering a brighter, cleaner presentation. And man, they did a darn good job. The game explodes with color and liveliness, as any good Jam game should. The characters have good detail and clear, hilarious expressions on their faces, the special effects are more than satisfying, and EA even paid close attention to the background. Just stop playing for a minute – if you can – and check out the sportscasters, cheerleaders and fans…if that doesn’t scream clean, nostalgic happiness, nothing does. Sure, some of the courts aren’t too impressive but overall, I’d say the devs nailed it.
The sound is even better thanks to the comical, fitting commentary, and the stellar effects that accompany everything from a ridiculous dunk to the ambient sounds in the background resound nicely. It adds the appropriate amount of flavor to a game that has always thrived on just that: flavor and attitude. The balance can be a little off at times as some effects do tend to get lost in the shuffle, but I almost want to give the flaw a free pass because it’s consistent with the series. Yeah, one could argue the entire production should be updated to the gills but if we want to retain all elements of what we remember, shouldn’t we actually leave the smaller drawbacks alone? Wasn’t that part of the charm? Anyway, the sound really is updated, for the most part, and the effects, kickin’ soundtrack, and genuinely funny (if a little overbearing) commentary will keep you coming back for more. On the whole, the technicals are bouncy and fun, which is just right.
Obviously, back in a time when technical elements like graphics and sound were even less important than gameplay, it was Jam ’s classic control setup and underlying mechanic that hooked an entire world. We needed that simplicity and accessibility back, in my eyes. If they had tried to make an all-new entry with an entirely overhauled and reinvented style of play, they would’ve missed the target audience and I’m almost convinced the game would’ve been a failure. But contrary to the burning developer desire to leave the past behind in more ways than one, this particular team did with NBA Jam what we’ve been asking from other designers and other beloved franchises: they changed almost nothing about the gameplay and merely upgraded the surrounding presentation. That’s it. This is almost exactly the way the original Jam titles always played and that’s just…awesome.
Remember how we had the turbo? The “on fire?” The shoving? The alley-oops? The multiple crazy dunks executed from various points on the court? The classic 2-on-2 format with three players per team (one could be switched for another before playing)? The smooth, rapid pace where the players just sort of glided across the court? The easily accomplished blocks? Yeah, well, it’s all here, and with very little in the way of additional frills. They tossed in a way to throw elbows and there are far more animations than ever before but other than that, this is unmistakably a fancier-looking version of the game we adored way back when. Even that unreliable AI is back; where you set up your teammate for something sweet but they just don’t respond in time. Yeah, that’s here, too, so we do have to take the bad with the good…just the way we did back then. Some may not like this, though, which I can certainly understand.
Of course, we also get the benefit of a bunch of new modes and a ridiculous number of teams and players. For the modes, we get the Classic Campaign which is exactly what it sounds like, the Remix Tour which is unassailably cool (crazy Boss Battles with huge names abound!), the Smash option (destroy your opponent’s backboard first), and Domination (make shots, accumulate points, “own” the court). Now, the Remix Tour doesn’t feel much different than the Classic Campaign – besides the Boss Battles – and I suppose that without anything in the way of customization at all (something we’ve become so very used to), some people could find the experience lacking. In fact, it does feel a little bland, but that’s mostly due to the unwarranted $50 price tag. Granted, there are tons of challenges to take on and the game’s addictive quality will keep you playing, but the price is a little too high.
Remember, this was initially going to be available as a downloadable title on the PSN and XBLA, and I believe it was going to retail for $19.99. It was also going to be included in NBA Elite 11 , which has now been canceled; when that happened, EA announced that NBA Jam would be a full Blu-Ray release. Now, I’m aware the developers added stuff they wouldn’t have been able to include in the downloadable version – or so I’ve heard – but it still doesn’t justify that price of admission. If this came in at an appropriate $30, I’d be inclined to give this bad boy a 9 because there’s really nothing wrong with it. Better yet, it’s exactly what the fans desire, and that’s plenty worthy of recognition. But when your product is only $10 cheaper than the standard full-budget titles like Gran Turismo 5 and Call of Duty: Black Ops , and your game isn’t even in the same universe…well, the problem is obvious.
Also, I should probably add that the multiplayer isn’t perfect and you might notice a few issues when you give it a shot. But damn, we need multiplayer for the game, don’t we? Isn’t that what Jam was always about? Humiliating your buddies with the most impressive dunks ever seen? If you break it all down, the bottom line is clear: NBA Jam is designed specifically for the long-time fans, who have pined for a HD iteration of one of the most addictive franchises of all time. There are a few minor additions here and there but the gameplay has remained mostly unaltered, and the multiple modes give us the benefit of more longevity. The control is great, it looks and sounds just right, the on-court action is gonna make you grin, and the effects and atmosphere are just perfect for the situation. But it’s just too expensive for what it is, those modes don’t always feel fleshed out, and the AI still seems dumb.
Perhaps the best way to end the review is to say this- if you loved the old-fashioned 2-on-2 style pioneered by the very first Jam titles, and didn’t like any of the series departures since then, you’ll love this one. Yes, regardless of price.
The Good: It’s a slick version of the beloved classic. Effects and commentary are great. Control is just about right. Addictive Jam nature preserved. Multiple modes add lots of longevity.
The Bad: $50 price tag is too high for what’s here. A few modes lose their appeal rather quickly. Multiplayer can have issues.
The Ugly: Okay, so anything can be blocked at any time?