For the last few years, NBA Jam, one of the most popular arcade basketball franchises ever created, has basically lain dormant on console platforms. In fact, the last non-handheld game to bear the NBA Jam moniker was a Nintendo 64 game. Now, four years later, Acclaim has released a new NBA Jam for the Xbox and PlayStation 2. The game sticks very close to familiar territory, trotting out all of the beloved mechanics and conventions of arcade basketball that the original NBA Jam made so popular. As a nostalgia piece, this new iteration is a great 3D representation of the classic NBA Jam experience, but when compared with recent arcade basketball offerings, like the NBA Street series, it doesn't quite measure up.
NBA Jam plays very much like early entries in the series, with some elements from Midway's NBA Showtime and even a little bit of NBA Street thrown in for good measure. This is a three-on-three game of basketball, and it uses basic shoot, juke, pass, steal, block, rebound, and turbo functions. Each basic move has an alternate version when you press the appropriate button for the move in conjunction with the turbo button--for instance, if you press the turbo button and the steal button together, you'll shove an opposing player to the ground, and if you press turbo and shoot together, you'll do a more-impressive aerial dunk.
The gameplay relies heavily on exaggerated, cartoonish action and in fact rewards you for executing crazy moves and dunks by building up your team's "hotspot" meter. Performing tasks such as stealing the ball, spinning away from opponents, and setting up ludicrous-looking alley-oop shots will eventually build your meter to its peak. Once it's maxed out, you can activate a hotspot on the court, and if you stand in that spot and press the shoot button, you'll perform a special, completely insane shot, with some cool-looking moves--your player might, for example, do an Egyptian dance while hanging in the air, or he might go into a Matrix-inspired martial-arts stance. Players also have the ability to catch "on fire" by landing three baskets in a row without the other team scoring in between. Once a player is on fire, he will be much better at shooting and defending, and he won't be called for goaltending.
While NBA Jam does a very good job of re-creating the essentials of the classic arcade gameplay, there just isn't much variety to it. Aside from the hotspot special moves and a decent array of dunks, pretty much all of the in-game action revolves around alley-oops and knocking over your opponents. There's too little variety when it comes to alley-oops; the only way to really change things up is to see how many times you can pass the ball off in the air to a teammate before eventually slamming the ball through the net. Defense is tough at first, but once you get the hang of the blocking and stealing mechanics, it's pretty much a breeze to blast through any of the CPU opponents. In fact, the only real long-term challenge the CPU has to offer is in the way of the infamous Midway-inspired "catch-up code," which effectively causes CPU teams that are losing toward the end of a quarter to suddenly become significantly overpowered so that they ultimately somehow find a way to catch up, or come close to catching up, no matter how big the point deficit. Granted, none of these complaints keep the game from being fun overall (especially in multiplayer), but they do hinder the experience.
In terms of game modes, NBA Jam is a little slim when it comes to available options, but it does have all the basics. Aside from the standard exhibition mode, you also have jam tournament and legends tournament modes at your disposal. Jam tournament is a basic progression through all of the NBA teams in the game, where you'll have to beat each and every one with your chosen team. Legends tournament is similar in nature, but instead of NBA franchises, it pits you up against a series of era-specific legends teams. Eras in this mode include pre-'70s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. There's a pretty wide roster of classic players in the game, including old-timers like Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird. Each legends team you beat is immediately unlocked in the regular game, and each player can then be accessed in the game's create-a-team feature. The Xbox version of the game supports downloadable content via Xbox Live, though at present, it appears the only available content is a roster of bizarre teams, such as a team featuring a number of Halloween characters, like a mummy and a witch.
NBA Jam also features a mode called "Jam store." In this mode, you can unlock a huge number of different items using points you earn playing the game. Available unlockables include hidden arenas, clothing and other attributes for the game's create-a-player mode, cheats, random gameplay changes like "no goaltending" and "always on fire," and even concept art for some of the marquee players in the game. While not every unlockable item in the game may seem immediately useful, there's a whole lot of stuff there, so you should be able to find plenty of items worth getting.
The game's graphics aren't consistent; they have some good aspects and some not so-good aspects. The newly designed 3D player models in the game are an interesting blend of a realistic look and a more cartoonlike, overstated look--like the big-head mode of the original NBA Jam. At any rate, each player does look pretty representative of his real-life counterpart in his own peculiar way. Animations are sort of all over the map--many of the special hotspot shots look very impressive, as do some of the specialized dunking animations. Unfortunately, while these specialized moves look great, the more basic movements are far more problematic. When simply running up and down the court, the players look very stiff and disjointed, and they don't flow particularly well between different movements. The game does have a number of great little visual touches, though, such as the black-and-white color scheme of the pre-'70s court and the faded color filter used on the 1970s-era court, that give the game's graphics a bit of a boost. Although the Xbox version of the game does look the best, with the predictably cleaner textures and brighter look, technically, both games play extremely smoothly, without any frame rate issues to speak of.
Most of the game's audio fares quite well. The bulk of NBA Jam's commentary is provided by Tim Kitzrow, the commentator of the original NBA Jam. His commentary is nicely done, and in some of the era-specific courts, he changes his voice accordingly, and the result each time is quite amusing. The only court he doesn't appear on is the '70s-era court, and that's because '70s funk legend Bootsy Collins is on hand to give you the play-by-play. Amazingly, his commentary is really, really good, and it is entertaining as all get out to listen to while you play. The only issue to take with the commentary is that, due to the slightly limited list of available actions, it can get very repetitive during a game, and you will hear many of the same comments over and over again. Bootsy also provides a number of tracks for the in-game arena soundtrack. Other artists include Cameo, Chuck Berry, Chaka Kahn, and even Bel Biv Devoe. Unfortunately, you generally only get snippets of the songs in between play, but they do add a nice level of atmosphere to the game.
As a stand-alone game, NBA Jam is definitely fun to play, but it lacks the gameplay depth of pretty much every other major basketball title on the market, arcade or otherwise. Regardless, the game is a solid effort all around, and it does a nice job of bringing the license to modern-day consoles. If what you want is the best arcade basketball experience out there, then you'll probably want to look elsewhere, because NBA Jam doesn't offer it. However, if you're looking for a good way to remember the days of arcades past or are just a basketball fan looking to have some over-the-top fun with the sport, then you'll definitely want to check out NBA Jam.