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NBA Jam Review

4
  • Wii
  • X360
  • PS3

NBA Jam is positively killer... provided you've got some like-minded basketball junkies around to compete against.


 The dunk animations look crazy and add to the excitement.
 The dunk animations look crazy and add to the excitement.
The primary way I can tell that EA's new NBA Jam game captures the spirit of Midway's originals is the way it makes me curse. When an outside shot that shouldn't have any chance of falling passes through the hoop, I curse. When a player is knocked down as a pass is headed his way, I curse. When goaltending is called, I curse. It might say "Rated E" on the package, but by the time I'm done, NBA Jam is probably closer to AO... unless I'm winning, of course. This has remained constant since the early 1990s, when Jam was first released, and it's also a clear indicator that EA's take on NBA Jam faithfully captures the spirit of the original game and its sequels, making for an awesome multiplayer game.

NBA Jam, in case you don't already know, is a fast-paced, over-the-top, two-on-two basketball game that emphasizes your ability to run directly at the basket and hit the shoot button, which usually causes you to perform one of several crazy slam dunks. This time out, the defensive side of the game feels way more savage. Classic tactics like shoving the guy who doesn't have the ball to the ground just as a pass is heading his way still work, but it's also significantly easier to block jumpers, to the point where it's almost not worth trying them unless you can catch the defenders way out of position. In fact, blocking slam dunks seems easier than it's been in the past, too, which puts a greater emphasis on alley-oops, since those seem to come in higher and harder than the average slam dunk. This makes the game all about your ability to change up your timing and not rely on the same trick again and again, since it's easy to stuff any particular type of offense if you're looking for it. While it's all still governed by mysterious shot percentages--which invariably lead to you yelling at your TV when a three-pointer doesn't go down like you think it should--it feels like a pretty balanced system overall.

With that foundation in place, NBA Jam becomes an incredible multiplayer experience that has the easy-to-understand feel of a basic party game, but offers enough nuance to reward players that take the time to figure out what's going on beneath the surface. If you've been a fan of games like NBA Jam (the original), NBA Hangtime, and NBA Showtime, this probably doesn't shock you too much. The classic formula that's swallowed quarters for years is still completely intact and crazy exciting. But at some point, the question about whether or not you should pick up NBA Jam becomes a value proposition. That's why the game tries to flesh out its basic arcade style with a variety of single-player modes that alter some of the peripheral elements of the action while keeping the same basic core.

I think, by law, I'm required to write BOOMSHAKALAKA in one of these captions. 
I think, by law, I'm required to write BOOMSHAKALAKA in one of these captions. 
Game types like "Smash" focus on breaking the backboard by giving each hoop a health meter that drops more if you land rim-rocking alley oops than if you go for layups or regular jump shots. There's also a remix mode that adds power-up icons to the court, temporarily pumping up players with better offense, speed, and so on. The more dramatic departures from the standard gameplay actually cut the game down to a half-court and switch the perspective, putting the hoop at the top of your screen, rather than the sides. Here, you'll play first-to-21 games or domination, which is a zone control mode that lets you take control of spots on the court by shooting baskets from those spots. Despite the changed perspective, the same controls and basic ideas still apply, though I found it a lot harder to line up shoves and blocks from the new angle.

These different types of games are combined into the remix tour, which clusters the teams together by division and gives you three challenges per team, each of which is one of the aforementioned game types or a boss battle, which pits you against a powered-up NBA player in a one-on-one confrontation. Magic Johnson, for example, can teleport around the court, allowing him to alley oop to himself. Karl Malone's shoves send you flying across the entire court. The boss battles are pretty interesting and each one requires you to figure out a specific weakness for each player and exploit it. And beating those players unlocks them for regular (meaning they don't have their crazy powers) use in normal games. Along with those unlocks, the game has a big in-game achievement system that lets you unlock, for example, Dennis Rodman, provided you can get 10 rebounds in a single game. Beating the remix tour gives you access to the Beastie Boys, who previously appeared in home versions of NBA Jam, but not the arcade games.

The way the remix tour pacakges up the various modes is fine, but it doesn't prevent NBA Jam from being a game best played in short bursts by more than one player. On the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, you can attempt to find players for online games, but the competition seems a little thin, and I've had trouble finding games. As such, you're probably better off playing with friends. The other difference between platforms is graphical, though it's a fairly standard deviation between the platforms. The PS3 and 360 versions have a crisp, clean look that really makes the player expressions and unique, almost marionette-like characters and animation pop out. The Wii version, running in a lower resolution and all, looks a little grungy when compared to the other versions, but that doesn't mean that it looks bad on its own merits. The art style is the "thing" about NBA Jam's visuals, and it works perfectly across all platforms. There are also Wii Remote control options in the Wii version, which lets you slam down the Wii Remote to drive dunks through. It's not the most precise thing in the world, but it's still pretty satisfying.

Dunks, dunks, and more dunks. 
Dunks, dunks, and more dunks. 
The audio also recaptures that classic sound, with longtime Midway sports announcer Tim Kitzrow returning to do all the announcing. That means your "boomshakalakas" are totally authentic. However, there's more repetition out of the announcing than you'd like, and the game often goes too far for a joke, making the game a lot more chatty than it was back in the day. Also, the commentary throws in lines like "no hoop for you" and other pop-culture-type stuff that feels a little too SportsCenter-y. Still, I suppose it's a step up from just hearing the guy yell "Pippen!" over and over again.

NBA Jam has always been a game that lives and dies by its core gameplay and your desire to play that game at length, and that part hasn't changed in 2010. The additional single-player progression modes are nice, and it's available at a slightly discounted price on 360 and PS3, but if you aren't already the type of person that would go absolutely crazy for an arcade-style basketball game, you're probably not going to find that the price matches up with what the package offers. That said, the standard gameplay in NBA Jam is insanely entertaining, and if you've got a group of players ready to play at your side, you'll easily get $50 of enjoyment out of it.
Jeff Gerstmann on Google+