Mirroring the frenzied, back-and-forth matches that the series is known for, the fate of the high-definition version of NBA Jam has been especially turbulent. First announced as a scaled-down, downloadable pack-in obtained with new copies of NBA Elite 11, the title later became a standalone product when EA’s signature basketball title was canceled. Last month, we reviewed the Wii iteration of the game, finding the disk to be a proficient and enjoyable update to the venerable arcade classic. The 360 and PS3 adaptations of NBA Jam offer the same game modes, with a handful of notable supplements.
Whereas Wii owners could take it to the hole with an optional fling of the Wiimote, the now-gen versions shun the physicality of Playstation Move and Kinect. Instead, NBA Jam offers players the ability to snap the right thumbstick up and down to simulate the jump and release of the ball. While players accustomed to the dual-stick control schemes of many contemporary sports title may enjoy this input method, I found myself reverting to the face buttons which more closely emulate NBA Jam’s traditional play style. Beyond the ability to initiate ankle-breaking crossovers, all the beloved steals, shoves, and blocks are back and should be instantly recognizable to anyone who stepped into an arcade during the early 90’s.
The Wii version traded in the arcade version’s the antiquated spite-based graphics for a lively polygonal presentation; the 360 and PS3 iterations offer the same aesthetic with a higher resolution. As such, seeing Kobe Bryant focused concentration or Dwight Howard’s beaming smile is both consistently enjoyable and amusing, as each player’s face cycles through comical animations. Although the blurriness of coaches and the audience has been removed, NBA Jam doesn’t come close to the standard set by most modern sports games. Franchise vet Tim Kitzrow’s commentary is dependably spirited and quotable- expect a few chuckles during your first few games.
One of the biggest omissions with the Wii version of NBA Jam was the exclusion of online competitions- fortunately, that’s been rectified with this edition. While the game’s ‘net-based contests are reliably lag-free, playing against an Xbox/PS3 friend or stranger isn’t as gratifying as beating sinking a buzzer-beating dunk against a couch-mate. Without the benefit of a proper lobby or even reprimanding quitters for dropping out a match, NBA Jam’s online component can feel a bit rushed. As solace, the title does offer a Jam Card, which lets you crow about your accomplishments with earned icons and titles- there’s even a leveling system similar to Modern Warfare 2.
Beyond the game’s exhibition and online matches, there’s a quintet of modes to maintain player’s interests. Smash tasks teams with being the first to break their opponent’s backboard, while Domination challenges players to take possession of point-producing spots on the court. The game’s Boss Battles invite players to beat a succession of truly imposing champions- from a truly mystical Magic Johnson who teleports around the screen to Karl Malone’s shoves which have the power to push any of the Mailman’s opponents into another zip code. Learning each weakness requires a bit of trial and error, making the mode feel like Punch-Out recontextualized to a half-court.
No longer do gamers have to consider purchasing Elite 11 just for a crack of NBA Jam’s renewed rim-rocking antics. By offering the title as a standalone disk, EA is giving now-gen console owners a gratifying and all-inclusive experience which warrants the admission price. Now, if the developers can patch the game’s matchmaking blemishes, they’ll have a diversion which sets the net ablaze.