NBA Jam Review

NBA Jam, or more specifically, NBA Jam Tournament Edition on the SEGA Mega Drive was one of the few games that we played to death during our formative years as a young basketball fan. So, when we heard that it was making a blazing comeback on Nintendo's Wii, we got a bit annoyed that it wasn't coming to HD consoles. Since then, the game has been touted as a freebie to be bundled with the now-canned NBA Elite 11, before being confirmed as a fully-fledged retail product in a box and that.

"I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it!"

First things first then. Does NBA Jam justify its existence as a boxed game? Well, we'd be getting a bit ahead of ourselves if we were to answer that now, so here's some of the obligatory review stuff before we address that.

NBA Jam’s 2010 setup is as you would expect, lifting a lot of leafs out of the early 90s NBA Jam playbook. It presents you with several game modes to choose from, with 'Play Now' giving you a quick game for 1-4 players and the 'Game Modes' menu being broken down further into several game types all worthy of delving into.

Classic Campaign is the crux of what NBA Jam has to offer in terms of a single-player experience, presenting you with the task of working your merry way through 36 NBA teams (yes, we know there are only 30 actual NBA teams. Go figure) to become the supreme king of all things Jam. However, there's more fun and variety to be found in NBA Jam's Remix Tour, which as the name suggests, plays with the game's basic formula by adding power-ups and unique twists to the standard proceedings.

In the Remix Tour, you begin with a map of the United States, divided into the six NBA divisions, each with five teams to defeat three times in order to gain bronze, silver and gold trophies and enough Remix Points to unlock the next division. Each of these three trophy matches assigned to each team gives you a different Remix match type to conquer before you move onto the next, and they can be completed in any order.

One minute you can be hitting the court with a straight-up Remix 2v2 game laden with game-changing power-ups before moving onto a spot of Domination, wherein you tussle for control over a series of hotspots by scoring from the designated areas. Then there's the frantic – and occasionally infuriating - back and forth of Smash, which gives each backboard an energy bar and you need to whittle down your opponent's board with big dunks before they smash yours. Nothing beats summoning a shower of shattered glass when you win, whereas losing on the last dunk is truly rage-inducing.

"Hey ma, I can see my house from up here."

Other Remix modes - which incidentally can be played outside of Remix Tour alone or in multiplayer – include Elimination, which is a half-court game where the lowest scoring player after 2 minutes of violent, prison rules basketball is excluded from the game. Again, this is maddening if you lose out by a slender margin, but hey, you just have to suck it up, right? The final Remix mode is 21, which again is self-explanatory: first to 21 points wins. Simple.

And simple is essentially NBA Jam in a nutshell and therein lies its beauty. It's deceptively straightforward and uncomplicated, but all the more addicting and entertaining for it. This is less the case in single-player of course, where your teammate is virtually useless and barnstorming dunks being stopped in mid-air by your opponents is a regular occurrence. NBA Jam is best played with friends, and for four players either locally or online, there's a great deal of fun to be derived from the fairly generous spread of game modes on offer.

That said, there is impetus to indulge in single-player and indeed, the lure of Remix matches, Campaign and Boss Battles is an ever-present one, especially when you factor in the dozens of in-game 'Jam Challenges' you can attempt to complete in order to unlock some of the quirky and offbeat secrets hidden away in NBA Jam. From the politician characters to the classic NBA Jam alumni such as Dennis Rodman with his post-Spurs, Bulls-era multi-coloured barnet, the always daft big head mode, bonus game balls and much more, there's always something worth unearthing among Jam's treasure trove of silly treats.

But how does the game play, you ask. Well, it's vintage NBA Jam, which is good... and bad. What's good is its pick-up-and-play intuitiveness, tongue-in-cheek daftness, OTT dunks and the same great commentary that made “boomshakalaka” something worthy of inclusion in the dictionary and part of the video game lexicon. Bad is the slightly fiddly controls, where the left bumper or trigger is turbo, despite every other sports game mapping its sprint function to the right side of the pad. We can see why it's configured this way, but we'd still like the choice to change it. Sadly, you can't.

"Physics? Pfffft, I can jump this high in real life... fool!"

Also bad is how intrinsically shallow NBA Jam feels in this day and age, which is perhaps the most damaging aspect in the game. Running back and forth, end-to-end constantly pulling off wild and crazy manoeuvres was great back in 1993, but 17 years on, we require a little more from our games. But then, it's all part of NBA Jam's retro charm: the very fact that the same old sense of enjoyable arcade fun has been preserved and in multiplayer – especially local – it's still a blast with friends.

NBA Jam's achievements meanwhile are perfectly fine, if a little pedestrian. The important thing is that they encourage you to explore everything that the game has to offer and in some cases offer up a fairly stiff challenge. Winning a Smash game in under 2 minutes will quite possibly have you grinding your teeth down to the gums, whereas scoring 50% 3-pointers in a game seems counter the whole razzle-dazzle of NBA Jam's signature dunks. Frankly, this list could have used a lot more imagination.

In spirit, this is pretty much the same great game of arcade 2-on-2 basketball that we fell in love with all those years ago, but a lot's happened in that time, making NBA Jam feel a lot more shallow than we originally remembered it being. Remix Modes inject some much-needed variety, but as a single-player indulgence, NBA Jam is potentially rather short-lived. Rope in some friends however and you have the makings of a raucous, laugh-filled evening.

There's no faulting that classic NBA Jam commentary, the squeaky floors and the roar of the crowd, but the music is repetitive and grating. Turn. It. Off.

They shouldn't work, but they do. Player faces, while bizarre, do the job in being humorous to look at, whereas the courts and the arenas are packed with activity, including the team mascot, grinning cheerleaders and a gurning coach. It still needs more fire though.

Fun, if a little repetitive, NBA Jam is best enjoyed with friends. In single-player, frustration can set in as your AI team mate is pretty useless and the opposition excels in sabotaging your most flamboyant dunks with a slight flailing in the air. Remix is almost always enjoyable though.

There's enough to do here to keep you going for a fairly substantial amount of time, with Classic Campaign and Remix Tour offering some real meat in terms of longevity. However, the real draw is being able to take the action online or battle with friends in standard or Remix Modes locally.

A fairly uninspired list that could have been filled with tongue-in-cheek challenges and silly objectives. Instead, it's the standard play a ranked match, win a ranked match, do this, do that list, which makes it a missed opportunity.

NBA Jam just about deserves release as a proper boxed retail product, boasting a fairly hefty array of modes and other content. What's important is that it preserves the gameplay and spirit of the original games, giving it a nostalgic cachet that makes it almost irresistible, despite its frustrations. It's worth reiterating however, that you'll get much more out of the game if you play it with friends. So, is NBA Jam on fire then? Not quite, but it's certainly heating up.

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