STAFF REVIEW of NBA Jam (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010.
by Matt Paligaru

NBA Jam Box art Nearly 17 years ago, I went to a local arcade for a birthday party and saw my Grade 5 classmates crowded around an arcade machine playing something and screaming at each other every few seconds. "NBA Jam," as it was called, seemed to be this 2 on 2 basketball game featuring the day's stars, except they were allowed to foul, cross the time line even if in the opponent's zone, and you couldn't step out of bounds. This game was the runaway hit of the birthday party, and into the next couple years, where many of us attending the party purchased some form of the game (whether it be the original or the future released Tournament Edition) for our Super Nintendos, Genesis, Game Gear or Game Boy systems. Everybody had their favorite team, and even the non-sports gamers got involved. The upcoming years would see releases of terrible competitors like Shut Up and Jam and Rapjam Volume One. Still, nothing could beat NBA Jam for the top spot. Eventually, Midway found ways to make stale a once mighty franchise, and games like NBA Jam Extreme, NBA Hangtime and NBA Showtime: The NBA on NBC started to slowly put to sleep the once mighty giant. They weren't bad, but at the same time -- They just weren't that same NBA Jam.

Earlier this year, Electronic Arts announced a rebirth of NBA Jam, with a release date for the fall. While EA Sports' Vancouver campus hosted a open beta test party for fans in the Spring, the first time the all but finished product was seen by public eyes was this year's Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle. The Wii product was basically done for its standalone release, and the 360 and PS3 versions were a bare bones, yet playable version that would be given away free with NBA Elite 11.

Elite was delayed due to poor reception of the demo, and its many glitches and bugs. The game was later shelved altogether, likely due to the success of NBA 2K11, which is easily one of the greatest start to finish basketball games in the history of video gaming. NBA Jam was then announced for the 360 and PS3, with the promise that the bare build would be filled out and released as a full game close to the holiday season. The end result? NBA Jam threw down on shelves November 17th in fairly limited quantities (in Canada anyway) for a reduced shelf price of $49.99. A collector's edition by no means, many gamers had difficulty finding it on release day, especially after the delay of shipments to some stores. The EA representatives at PAX promised many surprises which would keep the old school fan entertained for hours.

The first thing you may notice is that the game falls prey to whatever delay problem all EA Sports games since World Cup South Africa have. The title screen and selection screens will hang, almost giving off the essence that the game has locked up. This seems to be problematic only on systems, however, with more than a few gigs worth of content on the hard drive. EA's recent games (with the exception of NHL 11) for whatever reason seem to have problems finding saved files and settings in a reasonable amount of time. The controls do also take a bit of getting used to, so it is worth heeding the advice of the game and playing Jam Camp mode, with the incentive of Big Head Mode upon completion.

The Jam Camp reward is one of dozens of in-game rewards given to you for everything from playing a game with a friend, to getting 10 blocks, to scoring 100 points in a game. Each reward (called "Jam Challenges" in-game) unlocks something, whether it be players from the former NBA Jam games, to different basketballs, to different powerup modes. The rewards are fairly random in the way they're seeded, so don't expect that scoring 100 points will unlock a prolific scorer, or shooting 10 3-pointers will unlock a prolific outside shooter. Winning 100 games, for example, unlocks Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, who I don't believe was a part of 100 winning games in his entire career. It's a neat way for extras to appear in-game, and adds incentive to continued gameplay.

It is also worth noting here not to go looking for gameplay options (such as quarter lengths and difficulty) in the options tab. Since there are a few different gameplay modes, each type has specific gameplay options which are found by hitting Y when prompted for options. In most cases, game mods will be available to you where you enter your initials. Once the game loads up, you're welcomed by the friendly voice of Tim Kitzrow, the original voice of NBA Jam. The Tonight's Matchup screen is replaced by him simply stating the matchup at the tip, and off you go.

The "Play Now" game follows the basics of basketball and NBA Jam. There are no tournament edition-esque powerups, bells or whistles. You and your friends just engage in a simple game of shove and shoot 2 on 2 basketball for courtside supremacy. You will notice right away how good the game is graphically. That is, if you've left the game in an HD View.

There is a second mode dubbed "retro" which I would only recommend for owners of small screen CRT TVs. If you have an HDTV, and a big screen at that, the retro view (which is supposed to look a bit like the original NBA Jam I guess,) actually hinders gameplay. On a larger screen, it looks like Leisure Suit Larry left the 1987 CGA World of the Lounge Lizards and took up pro basketball. This mode itself will provide hours of fun, however, you will notice right away that the shooting engine might be a tad broken, which I will touch upon a bit more later on in the review.

After the Play Now mode, there is a career mode, dubbed "Classic Confrontations" mode. Sadly, this mode is not hosted by Alex Trebek, nor does it give you the opportunity to solve rebus puzzles for a car. Instead, you select a team, and play through 30 regular games (broken down by division) and 6 challenge games to unlock NBA Jam Legends. This is fairly simple and straight forward. It should take about 8 or so hours to complete one playthrough in total, which brings us to saving. Saving in this game is done through your hard drive this time around, and not through the use of passcodes or PIN numbers after initials like some of the latter Midway incarnations. There isn't much more to this mode, however the next mode is where the game gets its new edge of diversity.

Dubbed "Remix Mode," this gameplay feature is very similar to NBA 2K11's Blacktop Mode (sponsored by Sprite!) There are a series of mini-game challenges, along with the Remix 2 on 2 mode, which is the classic game with powerups. Similar to Tournament Edition, powerups appear on the floor to collect, however, there is only one total as opposed to one on either side of the court. You can shrink, gain speed, or shoving power amongst some of the options available, Sadly, the floor hotspots and the "dunk anywhere" powerup does not make an appearance here.

The other inclusions of Remix Mode are:

21. Somewhat different to traditional 21 in the sense that this is basically a halfcourt basketball where the first to 21 wins. after scoring, the game resets behind the arc, and you might compete for the next basket, rather than starting with a free throw.

Domination. Hot spots line the court that you must shoot from and claim as your own. Each zone will give you points the longer you hold it and this is the only way to score. Typically, the first person/team to 100 wins.

Elimination. This mode pits you against a timer, and the objective is simple: Outscore your opponent before the timer runs out to eliminate them. There is nothing more to it.

Smash. This follows the "put enough stress on something and make it break" idea played on the remix court. You must dunk, alley oop and shoot your way into breaking the backboard. Status is tracked with a lifebar for the backboard at the bottom of your screen, and the first one to shatter the backboard completely wins. The game is obviously slam dunk supported, and while you do get some credit for jumpshots, the real damage is done with violent rim-rocking.

In Remix Mode, you pick your team and set out division by division for a mix of these challenges. Along the way, you will find yourself playing not only today's stars, but many of yesterday's as well. Some of remix mode can be really fun, but some of it can be downright frustrating. In all of the remix mini game modes besides Smash, it is played on a top down view on a half court. This makes gameplay somewhat difficult once you have adjusted to horizontal life, and some of the modes are done in very poor execution. It becomes too difficult to keep track of how to get a ball sometimes, and bearing in mind how easy it is to block shots, increase that by however many players could appear on the court at once and you may find yourself slamming your controller down and walking away in frustration. I know I did a few times. Remix Mode requires more nerves of steel and patience some times rather than skill and dedication.

You can't really skill your way out of being shoved by 3 players in a corner over and over again until you no longer have the ball followed by the next cluster of action. The only thing missing from the corners of pain is Dhalsim sliding over and over again in that perfect moment where you can't block and fall prey over and over again till you're done. Keep at it, however, and you'll find yourself pitted against legendary basketball Hall of Famers like the Beastie Boys and the Stickmen.

You will likely find most of your in-game time, and the most full you will have is in the remix 2 on 2, and the classic 2 on 2 modes. After all, that is what NBA Jam is all about, and unlocking more players along the way is always a nice bonus. I assume EA took the time to have to contact each of the retired players (or their estates) to obtain permission to use their likenesses, which is applause worthy. It's nice to see many of the early NBA Jam faces like James Worthy and Kevin McHale, and even the return of the late Drazen Petrovic, who was believed to be haunting the spirit of the original game. Petrovic tragically passed away in a car crash after the release of the original arcade game, and a sound bug coincidentally caused the game to trigger Tim Kitzrow's voice to yell "PETROVIC! PETROVIC!" randomly. The bug was later fixed, but anybody with an original build has probably been caught offguard by it a few times. Either way, getting all these players must have been a mammoth undertaking since I assume the NBA player's association retains no responsibility to a player's rights once retired, much like the NHLPA.

EA was all about bringing old friends back to the party. They famously hired Mark Turmell (the creator of Jam) to come back to breathe life into the franchise again. However, even he seems to have forgotten much of what made NBA Jam so fundamentally perfect in the first place. There are many things wrong with the final product that are both puzzling and unusual, and should have been caught or tweaked during beta testing, and I hope can be addressed in future patches, or in future releases if this isn't a one and done deal. Some of the many shortsightings of this game include:

Unbalanced computer assistance in peer to peer play. It tends now to penalize the winning team more than benefit the losing team. The winning team can't make their shots, but at the same time, the defensive team does not benefit from the computer helping them score, nor do they have any heightened defensive awareness. Basically, if there's a 30 point difference in score, it's just as hard to come back as without CPU assistance. You can tell it's there because the computer sure benefits from CPU assistance because their defence is so mechanically perfect, it is difficult for you to move up court, let alone take shots.

Awkward controls that you cannot customize. This is one place where I will give Electronic Arts proper due for at least perfecting for the Nintendo Wii version. Every sports game since 1996 has placed turbo controls on the top right side of the controller, but this one goes top left, and then doesn't allow you to change them for your comfort. The shoot and pass buttons are also transposed from the norm of old games (this again normally isn't an issue if you have the option to change controls,) and we found a few people were still jumping on defense when they meant to try to steal because it was what they were used to from past games.

Poor defensive mechanics. Compared to the originals, it's too easy to steal a ball and block a shot, and way too unforgiving to shove (basically, if you miss a shove, there's no recovery and an automatic free shot for the offence.) The difference between goaltending and blocking is just as inconsistent though, and must be the hardest thing in the world to get 100%, so I don't fault them for this. Goaltending can be called when the ball is still on an upward arc right after release, however, late blocks are just as prevalent.

An awkward jump shot engine. You would expect a basketball player in video games nowadays to release the ball when you release the button. This seems to be fairly straight forward. NBA Jam's jump shot engine has turned the basketball into a fly, and the basketball player's hands into tar paper. The ball releases at the apex of a jump when the player is close enough to the hoop, however, in almost all other cases with the exception of edge and top of the arc 3 point shots, it is released halfway into the player's descent. As previously mentioned, it is too easy to block shots in this shot. This is the reason why. This is a huge falter in my opinion, and deserves some sort of mechanical improvement or patch before even roster updates. This creates a huge gameplay problem in some of the multiple-player remix modes, as the cranked up ability to block shots means it is very difficult to get a shot to the hoop to miss, let alone score.

Uselessness of fire. Being on fire was one of the greatest feelings in the NBA Jam world at one point and time. Tim Kitzrow drove home the fact that yes, you had the world laid out in front of your in one 94 by 50 hardcourt slice of heaven. You were capable of doing anything you wanted. You could dribble into oncoming traffic, close your eyes and feed a child his baby food while you stood on one foot and karate kicked a skyscraper as you shot a 3 pointer from half court. Flashbulb upon flashbulb popping to capture the majestic moment you soared above the rim and slammed that basketball after doing 27 front flips beforehand. You were indeed on fire. This version makes fire little more than a flaming basketball, a few noises and a fancy set of elevated slam dunks. Your shot percentage otherwise does not increase, nor is it beneficial in any other way. In fact, I would suffice to say I shot more airballs and missed more shots while I was on fire than when I was not.

Almost Unplayable mini game modes. The vertical halfcourt layout for games like Domination and 21 add a degree of difficulty. Domination, especially, requires the use of many jump shots, and with two simultaneous defenders at all times, getting a jump shot through the hoop, let alone scoring one is challenge alone. The best approach to these modes seems to be to let you opponent do the defensive work and for you to get the ball that way if you are on defense. It is a guarantee that almost 100% of the time that you block a shot in these modes, you will not get the ball. To that extent, more than half of your successful steal attempts will end up in somebody else's hands in this mode. This often results in quick and easy victories -- for the other team. 21 is easy enough to figure out after a playthrough or two, however, the fun of Domination is bogged down by the inability to get anything through to the basket.

With this in mind, don't get me wrong. This is still a great game. A 4 player game between friends cannot be beat. This game is easy enough for anybody to pick up and get good enough at after a few playthroughs to be able to compete with friends amply. The same rim-rocking, jaw-dropping basketball experience is still here. It's just a bit different, and besides, when you play your friends, nobody goes for outside perimeter jumpers or 3 pointers. Everybody wants to jam, and this game provides more than a few ways to dunk a basketball in your opponent's face so hard he will still be trying to rub the Spalding logo off their foreheads. Electronic Arts recognizes that this isn't necessary a complete basketball game out of the box, and the price tag reflects it. In Canada, the game is between 20-30% cheaper than your regular retail title, and you will quickly get your money's worth out of the regular game. Just remember to tread lightly when it comes to Remix mode and the add-ons it provides.

Graphics: 10/10. There is no questioning the graphics in this game. The eyesore that is Retro view aside, this game showers you with colorful graphics in the highest of high definition. Everything is crystal clear, and EA has even done a fantastic job of restoring photos of some of the legend players, and incorporating them into the game. Longtime NBA Jam addicts will smile watching players like Bill Laimbeer and the late Drazen Petrovic stand alongside their current teammates. Midway had graphic glitches they just could never fix up before, and EA has made those a thing of the past. The remix mode courts all look gorgeous, the arenas themselves are detailed and the clean player sprites are exactly what NBA 2K11 was missing. You can continue to wander your eyes around the courts weeks after you've been playing, and can find something new you probably did not notice before. The only oddity is the fact that the cheerleaders and dance squads in the background don't seem to move at all in the slightest. Still, this takes nothing away from the game itself.

Sound: 8/10. There are little things that you may not pay attention to that will catch you offguard, making the sound in this game that much neater. For example, the air raid sirens every time the home team scores a three pointer in Utah, or the royal ditty that plays to start off the 4th quarter in Sacramento. Some of it may be missed because of the in-game music, which is best just turned off from the outset and left alone.

This game also can't be done with anybody besides Tim Kitzrow calling the action. If you want to see what NBA Jam is like without Kitzrow, go play some of the original NBA Hangtime. It just isn't the same. It is such a relief that EA and Kitzrow were able to work together on this project. The only criticism I have of Kitzrow isn't with the man himself, but with the fact that in this day and age of gigabytes of storage, there should be more than what seems to be a few minutes worth of one-liners and lead-ins recorded. Granted, it must have taken Kitzrow and EA's recording tech Terry Calico days, if not weeks to perfect the speech patterns of calling names and incorporating them to sound natural with a line afterward, but upon the odd slam dunk, I was hearing the same one-liner 7 or 8 times a game, and it seemed like I had cycled through them all after a handful of games. All that aside, you will get the odd sound glitch here and there, but nothing so severe it throws you off the game.

Controls: 7/10. The controls are awkward, but easy enough to accustom yourself to, especially since you cannot make modifications to them at all. The crossover button can be both a benefit and a pain, as you can just as easily dribble into, and out of trouble. This button will, however, be your best friend in the late stretch if you are ahead playing the CPU, and computer assistance has kicked in. The only way you will be able to dribble past your defender is utilizing the crossover button to get around them. Be weary of the dunk zones around the court as well. You as the controlling player have a small area in which to begin your dunks, and the mechanic is not as forgiving as before. Learn where your player is effective from to use your crossovers and shot buttons to get that much better.

Gameplay: 7.5/10. I spent at least one whole summer playing NBA Jam Tournament Edition. I even logged at least 100 hours into the absolutely awful Game Boy version 15 years ago. Not once did I ever not want to play NBA Jam when presented with it. All of that changed the first time I played Remix mode, and the first time I started playing Classic Mode and realizing that not only was I blocking 40 shots a game with the greatest of ease, all my shots were getting blocked. In what is easily the highest scoring basketball game in history, I took an 8-6 lead into halftime one game, and not for a lack of trying to score. I watched helplessly as Bill Laimbeer scored 6 3 pointers in a row in a game of 21, and I airballed a 5 foot jumper while on fire.

At times, this can be the most frustrating basketball game ever released for the 360 (The NBA Elite 11 demo does not count since the full game never made it to shelves,) yet can be the most fun when dipping into multi-player games. For a change, XBox Live isn't your burial ground where players playing day and night will keep you from even having the ball, let alone scoring. NBA's Jam's simplicity means that even with a bit of practice, my video game hating father could go online and have a go at winning.

Still, there are no words to describe some of the garbage that is the remix mode. One of the EARLY division challenges requires you to win a 4 person game of 21, in which you may not even possess the ball for more than half a second at a time, let alone find time enough to score 21 points. You can scheme to win many of the 1 on 1 challenges though. One challenge, for example, pits you against Julius Erving in a game of Domination, where if he gets on fire, he automatically lays claim to all 7 zones. Winning this challenge is going to seem frustrating at first, especially when he gets the ball back once you've claimed all the zones and he proceeds to run circles around your efforts. The easiest way to win? Claim 6 zones and ride dunks while on fire until time expires. All you have to do is have more zones than he does.

All in all, this game it was what it is. NBA 2K11 still is your actual basketball game of the year, but that game will never NBA Jam. Nearly 17 years after I fed my first quarter into an NBA Jam Arcade machine, my love for the franchise is still just as strong, even if this version does not love me back as much. I only wish and hope for good things in the future now that this rests in EA's capable hands. Patching the troubles, and creating a bit of diversity in gameplay would make this game even better, and development wise, would be much easier now that the foundation and groundwork have been laid for the road ahead. NBA Jam fans should definitely spend the purchase price and get themselves this game. Those on the fence may want to wait for the game to dip slightly in price before taking the leap, but whether you enjoy basketball or not, NBA Jam has been as much about the sport as it has been an amazing and fun video game experience.

Besides tightening some of the gameplay screws, maybe a faux HD version of the retro view playable on larger screens? It's just a mess as it is right now, and can't be played on HD TVs larger than maybe 19 inches. Maybe more hidden characters that aren't NBA Legends? It would be neat to throw down with today's pop culture legends just like we did DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince way back when.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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