Sadly, the thrill in NBA Jam doesn't stretch on forever. The lure comes from the simple, immediately gratifying action, but that lack of depth is a double-edged sword. You can see just about every offensive and defensive permutation in your first match, which strips away any chance of being blindsided by shockingly awesome sequences in subsequent matchups. And once the anticipation of seeing something new dissipates, you're left with a flashy but shallow game. That's not to say the fun fades away completely, but that initial frenzy does settle into a comfortable lull before too long. This downward momentum is mitigated somewhat by bringing in a few friends. NBA Jam is at its best when all four players are being controlled by a group of fun-loving buddies because it's so much more exciting to nail a key three-pointer and let loose some wholesome trash-talking to your downtrodden pals. It's just a shame that a game so reliant on multiplayer to truly excel doesn't have an online option. The frenetic pacing makes it an ideal couch competition, but making it impossible to challenge far-reaching friends severely limits its long-term appeal.
Kevin Durant doesn't have any respect for the old timers.
There are at least a few unique modes to mix up the core action, though none of them are as fun as the traditional offering. Classic Campaign is the most engaging of all of the tournament options. Here, you select your team and go around the league to play against progressively more difficult opponents. There are seven matchups against vintage stars as well, so you have to take on the Bad Boy Pistons between games against the modern-day Raptors and Spurs. Even though the core action in NBA Jam becomes predictable before long, this is still the best of the modes. There are no gimmicks to distract you from your goal, so you have to be smart on offense, fierce on defense, and never too cocky when you build a lead. It's too bad the other options aren't nearly as engaging. There are two half-court modes, 21 and Domination, but they feel confining compared to the baseline-to-baseline blur that encompasses the standard fare. Boss Battles are aggravating. Your Hall of Fame foes are imbued with special powers, so Larry Bird is perpetually on fire, which is just annoying, and you have to rely on luck as much as skill to come out on top. In Smash mode, only dunks count, which makes a game that already struggles with sameness even less dynamic. Each of these modes can be fun once in a while, but they aren't nearly as interesting as the real thing.
NBA Jam doesn't have much depth, but there are at least hidden goodies to search for that extend the replay value. Unlockable players include Hall of Famers, such as Julius Erving, injury-ravaged could-have-beens like Danny Manning, and even the occasional forgotten nobody like Kenny Anderson. But controllable players stretch beyond the roster of NBA veterans. You can play a game as a sports host, mascot, or even some of the more athletic politicians if you want. And these wacky extras do a great job of exemplifying the core appeal of this venerable franchise. What NBA Jam lacks in depth, it makes up for in unbridled excitement that is just as fun now as it was almost two decades ago. It's a shame there isn't an online option and the new modes are little more than distractions, but the fast-paced action is overflowing with arcade charm. NBA Jam doesn't tinker one bit with the classic formula, but fun like this doesn't have an expiration date.