When it appeared for the first time in 1993, in the midst of a basketball craze that somehow took our shores by storm, NBA Jam served as one of the defining pop culture moments of its time. As hip hop and Boys II Men music videos filled our non flat screen CRT TVs with images of American excess and parachute pants, this was also the time when digital dinosaurs captivated movie going audiences in Jurassic Park - as well as make a leather jacket-bound Jeff Goldblum pretty upset about the natural order of things. This was also the time when Robin Williams deemed it necessary to dress up as an elderly English nanny in order to see his kids in the equally bizarre and somewhat hilarious Mrs. Doubtfire, and a group simply known as Tag Team exclaimed “Whoomp!” when they discovered where it was, in the pop single “There It Is”.
It’s worth noting where this series was born because it was a product of its time, and back then gamers preferred the larger-than-life basketball players of the era like Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, and countless others in the equally larger-than-life setting of NBA Jam as opposed to a realistic simulation. After all, this was a time when white teenage basketball fans went to see a film called “White Men Can’t Jump” and left the theatre not upset in the slightest; instead excited to go outside and shoot some hoops or live true to that film’s namesake.
So it’s not surprising that this new reimaging of NBA Jam features a classic roster of players like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Magic Johnson, in addition to the current line-up of NBA stars like Le Bron James and Kobe Bryant. This is a release where the value is as much in the nostalgia it offers fans of the series that played it on their SNES or Mega Drive after school or on weekends as it is in the fast-paced arcade nature of the gameplay. This then begs the question as to why this was released on a retail disc, as opposed to the preferred digital distribution method of bringing classic games like NBA Jam into the HD era.
Originally a Wii exclusive, this new HD version of NBA Jam was set to become just that, a digital release over Live Arcade and PSN as part of the latest entry in the rebadged NBA Live series, called NBA Elite. And if you watch any of the YouTube videos covering the gameplay found in the NBA Elite demo, it’s not surprising that the end result of having a retail version of this HD NBA Jam is essentially the by-product of a poor basketball game being cancelled and a publisher looking to turn a modest bonus release into a flagship title. And with the addition of numerous modes to pad out the core 2-on-2 gameplay, featuring a fleshed out campaign and various remixes of staple multiplayer offerings, on paper at least, this transition sounds pretty good. That is of course until you fire up the disc and realise that the staple 2-on-2 gameplay of NBA Jam is basically the only reason to invest in this game.
Sure new modes like Elimination which pits players against each other are a lot of fun, but their inclusion doesn’t really extend the value of the overall game.
Thankfully, presentation-wise, seeing the cartoonish representations of NBA players dunking the ball in wildly exaggerated animations that disregard the conventional laws of gravity and the known universe will bring a smile to the face of many gamers. And when you couple in a huge list of characters to unlock, from classic players from the 90s to current and ex-presidents like Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton, the on-court presentation and variety is definitely commendable. And the inclusion of the now very dated commentary featuring words and phrases both made up, like “boom-shaka-laka”, and timeless, like “from downtown”, help further rekindle the feeling of playing a classic game of NBA Jam.
So it’s a shame that everything around the actual presentation of the gameplay feels both rushed and nowhere near as fun as it should be. When the halftime report simply throws a static list of player stats without any of the flair you’d expect from a game built around you know, being ‘fun’, by including any sort of commentary or animation of any sort, you get a distinct feeling that this release may have been a bit rushed. Even a pre-recorded video or two as seen in the arcade original would have sufficed, or even better, modeling the menus and presentation based-off what was deemed cool or hip in the early 90s – like hypercolour t-shirts, parachute pants, Starter caps, and Nike Air Jordan sneakers. Instead we get some pretty poor beat loops, some images, and a bit of text. A wasted opportunity, as the timing feels pretty much perfect for a new NBA Jam release.
But the real draw card here of course is the multiplayer, where the simplistic controls come into their own for some great 2-on-2 match-ups. And apart from the pre-requisite shoot, block, steal, and shove, the addition and simplification of the alley-oop mechanic helps add an additional layer to the multiplayer that actually instills a better sense of teamwork. This of course is at odds with the deeply engrained instinct most gamers have, and that is to become what’s referred to as a ‘ball hog’. And although this instinct will never waver, it’s great to see a game do its very best to point out that co-op used to stand for ‘co-operative’ as opposed to co “I’ll help you out after I steal this kill and hog all the gold and loot drops” op. Back to basketball!
Ahem, and to keep things nice and close, the losing team gets the benefit of catch-up logic (yep, that old chestnut) which obviously has an adverse effect and pretty much makes the single player game a bit of a chore. And sure, there’s an on-line mode which seems like a no-brainer, the real reason NBA Jam works as a classic arcade and console multiplayer title is the fact that back then the only way you could play this game with four-players was by huddling around an arcade cabinet or by sitting in the same room, controller in-hand. Consequently NBA Jam works in ways most modern multiplayer titles don’t, as a four-player, trash talking, and controller swapping, scream-filled good time. And even though this new NBA Jam feels like a missed opportunity, the classic gameplay still shines through to make it a minor victory. So in the end, “he’s sort of on fire!”