NBA Jam Review

By on December 7, 2010

Time to jam again, if only for old time’s sake.

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First Impressions
My reaction is

Remember NBA Jam?

The first game to really popularize arcade-style action sports games back in the mid-90s? The game that immortalized catchphrases like “boomshakalaka”, the game that tried and failed to make a comeback on the PS2 and XBox?

Well it’s back but whether it’s better than ever is open for discussion. The problem with reviving old game is that they face the challenge of bringing gameplay from simpler times into our current more refined and highly competitive gaming environment. In my opinion, this is NBA Jam’s main hurdle and ultimately, as I will elaborate on throughout this review, its central deficiency.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise of NBA Jam, I will summarize it briefly. NBA Jam is a campy 2v2 full court basketball game. each NBA team is represented by 3-5 authentic players of which you can choose any two at a time. The basic basketball rules remain the same such 24sec shot clock violations and goal-tending violation but unlike real basketball NBA Jam is a full-contact sport. A lot of the game involves pushing down opponents and snatching the ball of them or throwing elbows to keep the opposition back. If you are familiar with EA’s Street series (NBA or FIFA) then you are already familiar with caricature-ish nature of such games. The old arcade NBA Jam (also available on 16bit consoles) is perhaps the most memorable pioneer of this style of game and core to its appeal and subsequent fame is its emphasis on the audacious and (literally) over-the-top dunks. Players can leap several meters into the air and perform a variety of monstrous dunks, usually accompanied by snappy commentator catchphrases. Razzle dazzle!

So how does this new NBA Jam iteration match up? For all intents and purposes, it’s virtually the same game. The core has not changed very much, barring roster changes and a some new modes. The Wii specific control schemes allow users to decide between using the classic controller (or Gamecube controller), using the Wii remote (held horizontally) or utilizing the Wii’s motion control scheme by using the Wii remote tethered to a nunchuk. Though the latter of the three provides the most varied experience, it is also the least pragmatic. It involves you swinging up and down to jump and perform either a block, a shot or a dunk. It is definitely worth trying but if you play the game often, you may find yourself reverting back to the more basic control schemes (especially if you own a classic controller). As mentioned before, the gameplay mechanics are virtually unchanged so if you were a NBA Jam fan back in the day, prepare for a solid dose of nostalgia.

The game looks and sounds almost exactly like it did back then (taking into account the gap in technology). The visuals push the caricature nature of the game, blending still photos of the players with animated bodies. Even the memorable voice of the commentator is back with all the old favorite catchphrases (and some notable new ones as well). The campy feel of the game is also retained well and is even exaggerated with the inclusion of the lauded ‘Big head’ mode (unlockable after finishing the Wii control tutorial). There are some new gameplay modes as well (Remix modes). One such mode is ‘elimination’, where up to four players battle it out in half court basketball (switching the camera to a half court view). While the variety is welcome, this mode gets boring quite quickly and you may very well find yourself reverting back to the classic, tried and tested, mode. In fact, all the Remix modes seem half-baked from conception through to execution. There doesn’t seem to be any real effort put into ‘mixing up’ the core gameplay mode nor is there any intention to. This game is all about bringing back NBA Jam’s old-school arcade multiplayer fun to a new generation of gamers or older gamers looking to reminisce. In this respect, the game is a success.

The problem, however, is that nostalgic appeal doesn’t garner much mileage and the classic formula for fun just doesn’t hold up as it used to. After just a few hours the game can get rather stale, especially if you are playing alone. Playing with some friends can extend the experience but the novelty that kept the game fresh back in its day has lost more than a fair share of its potency. Perhaps it would have been interesting to incorporate a little more complexity via a move list of sorts. As it stands, shooting and dunking depends predominantly on use of turbo in relation to the players movement and position but a ‘combo’ system may have added an extra layer for those who seek to showboat their skills. Such a system may have provided some depth, which the game so desperately needs.

Nevertheless, with regards to the question of whether or not NBA Jam succeeds in reviving the forsaken arcade classic the answer is yes. The gameplay holds up quite well considering the original NBA Jam was released some 15 years ago but this is testament to the quality of the original…the NBA Jam of 2010, now developed and published by EA, flies on borrowed wings and does not provide any compelling reasons to spend long hours on the court. With retro appeal as its primary gambit, NBA Jam seems content to bank on nostalgia and not any real merits of its own.

The Scorecard
Rudimentary. As are the new Remix modes. This is where most work was needed for NBA Jam to reclaim the arcade sports throne.
Good work to restore that distinctive NBA Jam look. Smooth animations make the game flow nicely.
While the music is nothing at all special, the the catchphrase spouting commentator is as good as ever.
Many modes and unlockables. None are really interesting but may be worth the effort if you’ve got a friend willing to join in.
Quite fun, for the first hour...gets stale rather quickly. New modes are lackluster at best.
For those with fond memories of the original, this game give you a chance to briefly relive those moments. However, it misses the opportunity of really evolving the series. It is in itself a backcourt violation, looking back instead of forward.


As an opinionated young gamer many years ago, I made three predictions: 1- Sega would dominate the console wars for 50 years. 2- Simon's Quest would be remembered as the definitive NES game. 3- I would be gaming even more as an adult. I suppose one out of three isn't bad.

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