Some things never change. Over a decade after Midway’s arcade basketball franchise faded from the limelight, EA Canada have faithfully restored NBA Jam for a new generation. The latest installment does just about everything you’d expect from a Jam game, retaining the fast-paced, jittery brand of 2-on-2 basketball the series is known for. Beyond that, the same over-the-top announcer, cutout art style for characters, and general penchant for nonsense will set your nostalgia sensors on fire.
The only thing that’s truly changed is our expectations. Things have become more complex and there have been significant improvements to the arcade-spirited basketball scene. Simple things like switching to another player on-the-fly and a create-a-player option would make a big difference. These things were included in Jam’s spiritual successor, Hangtime, back in the ‘90s, and have since become standard for sports games, so it’s a shame they haven’t been included. On the other hand, there are some artifacts of ‘90s sports games that feel significantly dated, and need to go, like the infuriating rubber band AI and the emphasis on learning to exploit computer-controlled players.
Thankfully the focus remains on the multiplayer. This is where NBA Jam capitalizes on the winning formula established by previous iterations and makes a compelling argument for picking up the Xbox 360 version over the preceding Wii release, with the inclusion of online play. The dynamic of 2-on-2 basketball is perfectly suited for multiplayer. The back-and-forth intensity of the experience, along with the series’ tendency of playing it fast-and-loose with the rules, simply makes for great competitive play. Throwing down with friends on the hardwood brings a huge layer of replay value that will make it a shoe-in for local competitive play, until the announced follow-up is released.
Your rose-colored glasses will take on a more crimson blood-fleshed tint online, where constant disconnections and generally poor server support sully the essence of the game. Players constantly drop out of games early, with wins often being distributed to the wrong person. Title updates are badly needed, with some kind of repercussion for dropping out (this needs to happen across all sports games, not just NBA Jam) and a better system for finding and creating matches being the most pressing issues. An incentive for trying out some of the less high-profile teams beyond earning new logos and title cards would also be beneficial, as nearly every match ends up featuring the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, or Orlando Magic.
The single-player side of things is fairly standardized. You’ve got a classic tour, where you pick a team and proceed through every NBA division. As only wins are counted, it can take a while to progress through the 30 NBA teams, but there are some great character unlocks at the end of each division that almost make the grind worthwhile.
In the remix tour, things get a bit messy. A map divides the teams by their regional divisions, with each of the NBA teams having three challenges. The problem is in the repetition of the challenges. While there’s an assortment of content here that ranges from an elimination mode to a kind of awesome mini-game where you destroy the opponent’s backboard (its condition displayed by a health bar straight out of a fighting game), the time investment in clearing all of the regions isn’t worth it. There are some decent attempts to make accommodations with boss battles challenging your expertise at exploiting each aspect of the “drone AI” (as the game aptly refers to it), but some of the battles are far too time consuming. You can spend an hour going toe-to-toe with Larry Bird, only to find you have made zero progress, with his 3-pointers counting for 9, or find that Magic Johnson’s literal magic abilities will put your blocking skills to task. Having defeated all the bosses, you’d assume that the final boss battle unlocks – but it isn’t so! The game is a bit insufficient at telling you these things and providing useful updates about how far along you are in unlocking challenges. Some basic milestones that remind you of what you’re working toward with the “Jam Challenges” would do.
NBA Jam feels hampered significantly by its troubled development path. Having originally released as a standalone game on the Wii, it was intended to be a stripped-down version of that release, a freebie that would come with every copy of NBA Elite 11. When that went arms-up, crucified by the now infamous videos of the demo glitches, NBA Jam transitioned into EA’s alternative boxed release and EA Canada quickly supplemented the initial version with online play and HD visuals. While the Xbox 360 version is a better looking game, it’s smaller than quite a few Xbox Live Arcade games and falls short of necessitating a boxed release, considering it was originally intended to be downloadable. It’s a bit rough for a retail release – the controls feel the way you’d imagine a motion control-to-gamepad conversion might feel, a bit imprecise and automated, much less involving than the fun gestures employed in the Wii version. This is one of the few cases where a multiplatform game might actually feel more at home on the Wii than it does any other console.
If you’ve ever gotten caught up in a multiplayer game of Jam at the arcade or experienced the console conversions during the mid-’90s, this NBA Jam reboot is likely the closest anyone’s come to getting it right since Midway’s Hangtime series. Sprinting down the hardwood, twirling into a crossover, and past a friend’s defenses and flying into the air only to slam the ball into the net and shatter their backboard is too satisfying an experience to pass up. If you have the right level of nostalgia, NBA Jam is easy to recommend, but if you’re expecting any sort of significant depth, or longterm single-player value, you’d be better off sticking with NBA 2K11’s fantastic simulation style of basketball and leaving NBA Jam where it probably belongs – in the past.