Arcade classics are a difficult thing to reintroduce to the mass market; the challenge plays out like a balancing act of nostalgia and innovation. NBA Jam honors its source material with the utmost amount of efficiency without straying far from the original formula, but by ultimately doing so it misses some opportunities.
Fast Break Quarter Eater
Gameplay is largely unchanged from its forerunners. The experience is no different than before: accessible, easy-to-control, over-the-top arcade basketball insanity. Looking back to the quarter-rationing days spent in arcades or the hours upon hours spent with the home console version, one thing stands about NBA Jam’s appeal: the social experience. I would argue that most people’s memories with the original game revolve around hilarious sessions with a group of friends.
EA’s new version of NBA Jam does everything that it needs to do to cultivate social play that’s familiar to returnees and accessible for new players. The lack of online multiplayer is still leaves most of us scratching our heads. Still, NBA Jam is ripe for an impromptu gaming party. And even despite a lack of modern refinement, NBA Jam still manages to entertain in a group setting, albeit for a limited time. While not overly engaging, it’s still a thrill until the novelty wears off.
The players animate smoothly, and the overall appearance is certainly pleasing, but as the nostalgia wears thinner and thinner, the weaknesses of the control mechanics become glaring. The entire scheme is missing a gear or two; the constant jolting and delays combined with the lack of real momentum make it nearly impossible to play intelligently.
NBA Jam has a number of unpolished control mechanics that drastically reduce the level of gameplay depth; there’s an uncanny amount of invincibility granted to a high-flying dunker – once your opponent has slipped past you it’s impossible to catch up to block the shot, and the defensive shove often feels like it lacks range. Shoves and swipes cause an absurd and annoying movement delay that often makes defenders look inept. Players who fail their attempt at jumping up for an alley-oop get stuck in an out-of-context rebounding animation. The gameplay is functional enough in the pick-up-and-play sense, but with a number of annoying quirks, NBA Jam lacks the kind of depth that moves the relationship beyond a one or two night fling.
Why am I playing 21 with Bill Laimbeer?
In terms of fleshing out an interesting single-player experience, NBA Jam misses the point. Specifically, the Remix Tour forces you into an awkward series of basketball-themed mini games (unintentionally named after Charlie Sheen’s pitches in Major League). The titular remixed court that looks like offspring of Tron, Space Jam, and the outside of a gentlemen’s club. That’s not a compliment, either – the Remix Tour is uninspired and out of place, even in an already-over-the-top setting.
Here, you’re hoaxed into competing in games that ultimately just want you to do the same thing you’d do in the normal mode: stop falling on your butt and score points. Progress is slowly staggered through the repetition the same chore-laden challenges over and over again. Eventually, you’ll rack up enough progress to unlock the Boss Battles, but despite the presence of some of basketball’s most recognizable legends, the additional boss challenges fail to inject any adrenaline into the single player experience.
The AI is less than forgiving in both the Classic Campaign and the Remix Tour, hawking your every move and countering all of your shot attempts with godlike precision. It’s hard to say that this by design either, often the players defending you are mapped to your button movement – they shove, steal, and block at the absolutely most advantageous moment. NBA Jam’s computer-controlled players act on a simple algorithmic path: do the opposite of what you do and eat all of the quarters that your mom gave you. The problem is, NBA Jam is supposed to be a legitimate full retail home release, not a quarter-eater.
Acquiring the rights to a classic such as NBA Jam presented the chance to do something special with an age-old property. The result, however, is average at best. EA capitalized on all of its potential throwback opportunities with the inclusion of stately hidden characters, a familiar semi-bigheaded style, and all of the signature boomshakalaka-esque moments we remember from the 1990’s. Yet it seems like the new NBA Jam clings too hard to its inspiration, and was a bit apprehensive in taking the franchise in a contemporary direction.