One of my all-time favorite games from my childhood years was, hands down, Midway’s classic NBA Jam. I spent countless hours playing both the arcade and home version(s) of the game in all of its iterations throughout the mid-90‘s. Sadly, the name “NBA Jam” has lost some of its luster over the past two decades as the series experienced its best success early on with the original release as well as the Tournament Edition in the arcade. Once the game started releasing titles exclusively on the various home consoles, the quality seemed to decline rapidly. Have no fear though, Electronic Arts has stepped up to the plate to attempt to restore the series to its former glory following to collapse of Midway.
If you are familiar with the original NBA Jam arcade game then you know exactly what to expect with the new NBA Jam for the PlayStation 3 (or Xbox 360). The premise has gone unchanged: over the top, two on two basketball where pretty much anything goes. Players can push each other, knock each other to the floor, and dunk from the three point line; there are no fouls and the players’ abilities have been “enhanced” to say the least. There aren’t any special plays or in-depth controls schemes to study or understand. You have 3 simple buttons: pass, shoot, and turbo. The gameplay is accessible to anyone who picks up the controller to try it out. The development team has ingeniously decided to keep things as simple, and in turn effective, as they were when the original arcade game launched back in 1993. The result is a gameplay experience that is fast paced and frantic, keeping you on your toes from the first tip off to the last buzzer.
The main mode of the game focuses on simple, two-on-two matches, either against a human opponent or the computer. You have the option of participating in a “Classic Campaign” where you will face off against 36 teams from around the NBA, battling for supremacy. As you move through each division playing against the current NBA roster, you will be forced to face off against a classic team from the original game in order to progress on in your quest. These teams include classic NBA Jam duos such as Patrick Ewing and John Starks for the New York Knicks or perhaps the Human Highlight Film Dominique Wilkins and Spudd Webb down in Atlanta. Defeating these teams unlocks their players for use in your future games. If you enjoy NBA Jam in its purest form, you will have a blast with this mode. The problem is that the game becomes repetitive after just a few matches in the campaign. While I found myself excited to see what legends would pop up in each division, I found myself finding it to be more of a burden than an enjoyable experience in the long run. On the other hand, when it came to playing against human opponents, I could play the game for hours on end and never tire of the experience.
In order to freshen things up a bit, EA has added a few additional modes to the game including the Remix Tour, Remix Modes, and Boss Battles. The various Remix Modes vary the gameplay and requirements of a game to more than just “score the most points in 4 wuarters”. Some of the options include: Smash, Domination, Elimination, as well as Remix. Smash mode gives each team’s rim and backboard a power bar which diminishes as dunks are performed on them; the more devistating the dunk (alley oops for example, the more damage is done. The first team to shatter their opponent’s backboard wins. Domination is a variation which switches things to a half court set up and players battle to make shots from marked spots around the court. Once a player sinks a shot from a spot, it becomes their spot which will accumulate points every couple of seconds until their hold on the spot either expires or is canceled by another player scoring from that same spot. Elimination is another half court ordeal where players battle it out over set periods of time and the lowest scoring player at the end of each round is eliminated from the game. The final mode, Remix, takes the classic two on two games and adds in power ups that appear randomly across the court which will either enable or inhibit player abilities for a small period of time. These power ups can do things such as speed you up, improve your shooting accuracy, and even shrink your player down to miniature size, making them vulnerable to even the slightest shove. You can either plays these modes individually or play through the Remix Campaign which incorporates them all into a season similar to the Classic Campaign mode. Whereas the Classic Campaign get old after a while, the Remix Campaign remains enjoyable for a much longer period of time. There are a ton of matches to be played throughout this campaign and the fact that the game type changes with each level, things remain fresh all of the way through the series. The Remix Campaign also proves to be a lot tougher than the Classic Campaign as well, which is a nice change of pace.Each of these modes is enjoyable and will provide a little bit of fun above and beyond the standard mode of the game, but unfortunately none of them are good enough to keep you coming back once you have finished them all aside from the multiplayer. The bread and butter of the game is playing the original game mode with friends (up to 3 other players) and that will be the mode that you come back to play over, and over, and over again. The game also features unlockable boss battles which are one on one confrontations with some of the NBA’s greatest players. Within this mode though, each opponent will have their own win conditions as well as special abilities that you have to contend with like Magic Johnson’s ability to teleport all over the court. I really like the premise of this mode but find it incredibly frustrating as most of the matches just feel downright unfair. The computer controlled opponent, when paired with special abilities, becomes incredibly tough to the point that a lot of the fun is sucked out of the game. Thankfully, EA included online play in the HD version of the game, something that was missing from the previously released Nintendo Wii version of the game. The online play of the game is as solid as I could have asked for and provides some great games with both your friends and random opponents around the world. There is a very slight hint of lag that can be noticed when playing the game online; it isn’t anything that ruins the game, but something that you can detect mainly when it comes to the passing game.
I should also note a couple of other aspects that the development team made sure to include in the game that make it as enjoyable as it is, most notably the extensive list of hidden characters and teams that can be unlocked and used in the game and the incredibly entertaining announcer (Tim Kitrow). In additional to the classic NBA superstars mentioned earlier, players will also be able to unlock various ESPN personalities, politicians, rap stars, and team mascots... just like the original. It is hard to put it into words but there is just something fun about controlling Hillary Clinton and launching for a dunk, while on fire, from the 3-point line. The charm that these characters bring to the game, just based on their physical appearance alone, remains the same almost 20 years later. It is the little charms like this that make NBA Jam as enjoyable as it is; the game hasn’t changed a lot since the first release by Midway and that is a good thing. It says a lot about a game that can still hold up after all of these years. The same charm is spread through the game’s announcer and his unending stream of one-liners spewed throughout your games. The original announcer from the series returns with not only all of the classic phrases we know and love, but a slew of new phrases that span the years in pop culture references (No Hoop for You!). All of this makes me feel as if I jumped in to a time machine and transported back to my local Putt-Putt back in 1993.
If nothing else, EA has proven that they definitely have the “chops” to carry on the NBA Jam franchise in the future. The new rendition of the game is as faithful to the original in terms of its presentation and gameplay as anyone could have hoped for, but unfortunately it does little to build on the foundation already laid in Midway’s classic title(s). Fans of the series will definitely enjoy experiencing the classic with a couple of small gameplay tweaks and an incredible (HD) graphical updgrade. EA has firmly planted their feet for the series, now let’s just see what they can do to make it their own. Personally, I cannot wait to see where they go with this franchise.