NBA Jam Review

By Jeff Mattas, Nov 24, 2010 10:30am PST Midway released the original coin-op NBA Jam into arcades back in 1993, treating players to frantically-paced games of 2-on-2 basketball. Over-the-top commentary, cartoonish representations of the day's top round ball superstars, and hilariously in-your-face slam-dunks gave the matches their unmistakable style. Seventeen years later, EA Canada has taken up the NBA Jam mantle in an attempt to recapture the shoulder-to-shoulder trash talking and "boomshakalaking" that so many of us enjoyed in the arcades of yore.

This high-definition remake of NBA Jam looks better than the series ever has, while retaining or enhancing much of the presentational hoopla that fans will expect. The original announcer (Tim Kitzrow) spouts bombastic (and mostly entertaining) commentary, and players' heads that look like they were cut from photos sit atop their cartoon-like torsos. It's highly-polished visual nostalgia, with modern flair.

NBA Jam includes top ballers representing all 32 of the real-life teams for 2011. As in the past, only each team's best players are included (the Lakers' lineup includes Kobe, Gasol, Artest, and Odom for example). Each player has his own strengths and weaknesses on the court, lending a slight element of strategy to deciding who to play in any given situation.

Besides Classic 2v2 mode (and its associated campaign), a slew of "Remix" modes inject some gameplay variety. Remix 2v2 mode is just like "Classic," but includes random power-ups that make players super-fast or super-powerful, for a limited time. It's fun, and a bit less vanilla than "Classic" mode, but given the game's over-the-top ethos, the types of available power-ups fall a bit short of their potential flash and excitement.

"Domination," "21," and "Elimination," which can be played 2v2 or 3-player free-for-all, utilize a half-court camera perspective that's new to NBA Jam. "Domination" has players attempting to land shots from designated spots on the floor that will continuously accrue points until the spot expires or another player takes it over. "21" is just about being the first player/team to score 21 points, and "Elimination" drops the lowest scoring player after timed intervals until only one hoopster remains.

Of these three modes, "Domination" proved to be the most fun, although I found the half-court camera less than ideal. NBA Jam's ultra-fast player locomotion feels more akin to skating around the court than running (which is nothing new), but effectively representing court depth has never been a strong point of the series. The half-court camera exacerbates this issue, particularly when it comes to blocking shots near the hoop, which are easy to misjudge.

"Backboard Smash" is the new Remix mode that feels like the best fit for NBA Jam. It's just like Classic 2v2 mode, but instead of playing for points, your objective is to be the first to destroy the other team's backboard. Only alley-oops and dunks will cause damage, making for a quick and frantic slam-fest of attrition.

The "Remix Tour" blends all of these modes together, as players complete tiered challenges for each team and division. Special "Boss Battle" levels are also on tap. Despite the fact that each one really just amounts to learning how to counter some kind of ridiculous special move (Magic Johnson throws the ball above the rim just before teleporting and slamming it, for example), they can be quite challenging,

Ironically, the faithful resurrection of classic gameplay is both NBA Jam's greatest achievement and its greatest weakness. Despite the new game modes (which add quite a bit of variety) and the graphical overhaul, NBA Jam controls the same as it ever did. Jukes, elbow-flailing, pushes, and spin-moves all return. The action moves very fast, and the computer opponents will often mirror or stonewall your moves in a way that feels kind of cheap. It's nothing new to the series, but I expected more significant improvements after seventeen years. As such, the wealth of unlockable players, courts, and bonuses outstrips the depth of the core experience, and likely won't be enough to keep all but the most stalwart Jam-fans from playing for hours on end.

Like its coin-op predecessors, NBA Jam is best suited to brief play sessions. Some of this problem is alleviated by co-operative play, which also speaks to how the original game was meant to be experienced. Those looking for something to play with a group of friends in a party setting could do a whole lot worse. Online play is also included, but the few times I attempted to find a random match to play, I found no results.

Of course, NBA Jam was originally supposed to be included as a free bonus with NBA Elite 11, before that game was unceremoniously cancelled a week before its scheduled release. Had EA Canada decided to release NBA Jam as a downloadable title, rather than a full-priced retail release, it would be a lot easier to recommend. It's a very good remix of a classic game, and local co-op can be a blast in short bursts, but even the huge amount of unlockable content doesn't add much longevity to what is a fun, but ultimately shallow, arcade basketball experience.

[NBA Jam was developed by EA Canada and released for Wii on October 5, and PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on November 17. Review based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version provided by the publisher.]

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