EA Sports did not get around to releasing its "EA Elite" basketball series (based off of its longstanding "Live" series) this year. For the last several years, 2K sports has been releasing an NBA series that has been receiving better reviews and sales. Thankfully, EA had another NBA game in the works, and while it does not try to contend with 2K as a realistic sports simulation, NBA Jam is a game that brings back a lot of memories while being a whole lot of fun.
NBA Jam has been around for aged - I remember it from late high school/early college. It was a quarter muncher in the arcades, and it was a blast when it was brought to home systems. We still have a version of it bouncing around on one of our Nintendo systems - I want to say our Super Nintendo. I may have to look that one up for my Retro Reflections this weekend.
I imagine most people have at least seen or played a round of NBA Jam in one form or another over the years, but for the uninitiated it is an over the top 2 vs 2 arcade hoops game. Defense consists of soaring ridiculously high in the air to block shots, or to try and steal the ball - or to simply shove the ball handler in an effort to knock them down and take the ball, or maybe knock them out of the air on a shot or dunk attempt (which sort of reminds me of Arch Rivals now that I think about it).
Offense consists of dribbling, passing and shooting. Oh, and dunking. Lots of ridiculous, high-flying dunking. You can amp these options up, doing some fancy dribbling to try and ankle-break your defender. You can throw elbows to clear space around you (Bill Laimbeer and Charles Barkley would be proud of these swinging limbs) and are capable of flipping behind the back passes to your teammate. This is all well and good, but you play this game for the insane dunks and hope to hit 3 shots with one of your players while the defender does not score. Do this, and the insanity ratchets up a few more levels as you hear the announcer let everyone know that your player is "on fire!". You gain a tremendous bump to your shooting percentage, allowing you to rain down three pointers and perform roof-scraping dunks that leave the net burning when the ball passes through it. Flying alley-opps, summersault dunks and more are not only fun to watch, but something you see occur in almost every game as well.
There are some other modes as well. You can play the classic game, but we have a remix mode where it is NBA with Power-ups (like ones that make you really strong, really fast or really small for example). There's a backboard smash where the goal is to deplete the basket's 'health' and the win. Obviously picking high flying dunkers over three point shooters or nimble guards works best. There's 'boss battles' where you play against NBA legends like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird - I thought these were cool, but a bit frustrating at times, 21 - which is three guys doing what they can to be the first one to reach 21 points. So, how does the entire package hold up?
Graphics - 8:
The visuals themselves are fairly throwback - but I loved that about the game. There are Photoshopped heads tacked onto the bodies. No fancy 3D rendering of heads here - you get faces that are looking this way or that way; they're comical and fun (especially in Big Head mode). There's plenty of things going on in the background, and while none of it is rendered in incredible detail, the graphics all animate very smoothly. I am sure from a technical standpoint it's easier to craft an engine that only has four players on a court instead of ten like an actual NBA sim, but the quality was excellent all the same. The game oozes style, and it feels like one big highlight reel.
Sound and Music - 6:
You know, I don't recall most of the music. I recall a few tunes here and there that were okay, never really heard anything that made me go: wow - that doesn't fit. But the sound effects were good and the announcer was a treat. In the old games he rattled off comments and one-liners and they still did not get old for me. The enthusiastic presentation kept me grinning and I was looking forward to certain catch phrases - knowing they would inevitably occur. Obviously it's not amazing tech on display here - it's not as detailed as the kinds of audio you find in a game like NBA 2K11 or Madden, but it gets the job done and helps set the mood. Still, a bit more variety wouldn't have hurt, especially given how many games you do play to get through a 'season', and it really does not have the depth of a game like NBA 2k where you get a lot of color commentary about a player's background.
Gameplay - 8:
You can navigate the menus easily enough. There's several modes here. Still, none of it works if you don't have a smooth controls and a fun game to play. Luckily NBA Jam delivered this. The pacing is fast, and sure - sometimes it feels a bit cheap when you get laid out near the end of the game and the cpu hits a near-half court shot to win the game *ahem*, but pulling off huge dunks never gets old and watching a basketball that's on fire swish through the net, setting it ablaze from beyond the three point line is a great feeling. There are a few different control schemes too, for people who just want to use the Wii remote on its side, or use a more active scheme that takes advantage of the motion, or a classic controller hooked up to the Wii remote (I usually used the last option myself, but all of them worked quite well in my opinion).
Intangibles - 7:
The game is a hoot. When I first put it in, I played for nearly 3 straight hours. All three of my kids stopped to watch and ask questions. My oldest, who doesn't really care for sports or play many video games sat out on the sofa chatting with me and getting excited at some of the bigger dunks for nearly an hour. My son doesn't really play sports games, but he enjoys this one too. He's not interested in a post game that mirrors real life, or if Blake Griffon's dunk ability is an 80 or 90 or how his players will progress. Games like NBA 2k11, as well as they are made, have never piqued his interest once, but he wanted to play this - on his own and with/against me. This game really plays and feels like the classic game - right down to having a bunch of unlockable content, which is a lot of fun to find as well.
That said, there are some limitations here. The game does not offer a great deal of depth to the core game. There are obviously differences in the players, but really Lebron James never felt that much different to me than using Wade. Bed Gordon and Rodney Stuckey were just fine, but not much different either. The additional modes are interesting, but don't live up to the primary game for the most part. Playing locally is fine... but there's no online, and that feels like a tremendous missed opportunity. That would have added a ton of life to this title in my opinion.
Overall - 7.25:
I've really been enjoying NBA Jam. It was a Christmas present that I've finally had a chance to sit down and spend some time with, and overall I have to say it is one that I am going to enjoy playing through another season or two with. But, I suspect it will wind up in my trade-ins pile before spring, and that's a shame because a few more decisions would have furthered its value - like adding online support. However, when it's said and done, NBA 2K11 will be getting put back into my 360 sometime this summer when I get an itch to play some basketball again, because the year by year progression and online options will be there. Then again, consider the audience I suppose. None of my 3 kids will playing NBA 2K11, but at least 2 have played NBA Jam. It facilitated some discussion between my daughter and me about the NBA, some of my favorite players - and that probably would not have happened without this game. That will no doubt keep me thinking favorably about NBA Jam for the Wii, much as I have fond memories of it from the arcade and Super Nintendo days.