If you have any kind of history with video games at all, chances are you have fond memories of dueling it out with a friend in NBA Jam. The high-flying dunks, the 30-foot verticals, the pushing and shoving, and the sheer rush that came from hearing the announcer bellowing: “He’s heating up!!!” These moments defined NBA Jam, and we haven’t had a comparable experience since the original.
Now, in 2010, we are finally getting a rehash of the classic basketball dunk-fest. NBA Jam brings with it modern teams and players, fresh animations and effects, and fluid HD graphics. It can’t be ignored that though this title is a stand-alone game, it was originally built to be bundled with EA’s NBA Elite 11. In other words, if you bought Elite, NBA Jam would be “free.” Now, with the cancellation of NBA Elite, NBA Jam is, on its own, a $50 game. Though it’s very difficult to ignore that fact, my intention is to review the game in its own right. I’ll save price considerations for the conclusion.
Let’s start with the most important and noticeable item – the HD visuals. While the game does not look fundamentally different than the original (in fact it looks basically the same), everything has been given a glossy, crisp, HD coat of paint. Courts, players, and faces are crystal-clear. It’s a blast to watch the facial expressions of the players change as they soar through the air for a dunk and then get tackled mid-flight. It’s also very cool to watch the backboards shimmer in the light as they sway back-and-forth after a rim-rattling dunk. The visuals don’t change the experience, but they do improve it significantly.
The sound can also be considered an upgrade of what we already know from the classic. Tim Kitzrow, Midway’s famous color guy, has redone all of his phrases and even added some new ones. “He’s Heating Up!” sounds better than ever. Stadiums are alive, players grunt hilariously, and the same sounds effects we remember are here in stereo sound. Now, eyes and ears aside, how does the game play?
NBA Jam is simply a blast to play. Starting with what is the same, everything that made the original an edge-of-your-seat experience is still here and even improved. The dunks, the alley-oops, the announcers, and the overall feel of the game are something to behold. You can still hop into the “career” mode in which you’ll take on every team until you get to the custom teams in the finals. The players still have cartoonish looks and friggin’ huge heads – only now their goofy facial expressions are in sparkling HD! You’ll still heat up and be on fire, and you can still lose it with one miss or rejection. Also, the “1st Place Shell Effect” is very much here as well (Mario Kart fans understand). The AI gives the trailing team noticeable advantages until the game becomes closer. Some dislike this, but hey – it’s more exciting to play a close game than a blowout. It really does FEEL like NBA Jam, and this is what makes the game great, in a nutshell.
It’s not all copy and paste, however. There are plenty of new opportunities to make the experience fresh. Included this time around are several new game modes. In Domination, you’ll try to claim different spots on the floor by making shots from that area. In Elimination, one of my favorites, the person with the lowest point total after certain time increments is eliminated, similar to the racing game formula. 21 is, well, it’s 21. My favorite mode (and I’m guessing the favorite of most players) is Smash. In Smash mode, you’ll have to rattle off powerful dunks in sequence, mixing in alley-oops for flavor, until you finally succeed in destroying the backboard. There really is no point, but it’s simply a blast. The new stuff is fun, but ultimately you’ll find yourself coming back to the classic gameplay.
One opportunity the modern era of gaming affords is the use of analog sticks. In NBA Jam, you’ll have the option of using face buttons or the right analog to control your players. While I can’t get away from using the face buttons, mostly due to nostalgia, the analog controls will certainly appeal to some. In short, the controls are not too dissimilar to the original. They didn’t try to add in a ton of new features, and that is a good thing.
Another feature expected in today’s games is online play. While online multiplayer is included in the package, it leaves something to be desired. There are no game modes or online lobbies to be seen. You simply hop into a game, and you get assigned an opponent. It’s impersonal, short, and not worth a lot of time. Perhaps EA understood that the best way to play NBA Jam with others is to have them right there in the room with you, talking trash and yelling and screaming. Still, it would have been nice to have a more robust online community with rankings, lobbies, tournaments, etc.
Though this game is a visceral and grand experience, I can’t get away from the fact that it was supposed to be a free pack-in, and instead they’ve slapped a $50 price tag on it. It would’ve surely been the best pack-in of all time. As a stand-alone retail game, I can still recommend it, but only for fans of the NBA Jam series. If it becomes a downloadable title on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, I say download it without thinking twice.