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 is back and is just as crazy as ever.
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.
The game features all the classic Jam conventions, like players who catch fire and the ability to out and out mug opponents for the ball.
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.