Review: NBA Jam (XB)

I’ve spent more money playing NBA Jam in the arcades than any self-respecting person should spend on one video game.

The sad part? I don’t really like it THAT MUCH. Don’t get me wrong. When it came out it was the digital equivalent to crack, but if I really want to play a rock-em-sock-em basketball game give me an old Arch Rivals machine. The novelty of it was the inclusion of actual NBA players, digitized faces and all. I’ll never forget the first edition of Jam, not only for the furor it caused, but for having the rather macabre distinction of having the two players from the Boston Celtics that no longer played for the team. Perennial All-Star power forward Kevin McHale had retired shortly before the game’s release, and teammate Reggie Lewis died of heart failure (God rest his soul).

Man, I still can’t talk about that without getting bummed out. I found out something like three minutes before my parents and I were about to leave to drive from Kansas to Hampton Roads, Virginia to see my brother. I drove the first leg in a daze. I just couldn’t deal with the fact that one of my favorite players had just pulled a Hank Gathers.

Anyway, that has nothing to do with Jam, but this does: When the game came out, me and my fellow Celtic-phile friend Ken would take on all comers. I would always play post, so I’d take McHale. He liked raining in 3s, so he always took Lewis. So we started referring to ourselves as “The Big, White Retired Guy,” and “The Small, Black Dead Guy.” The joke is that both of us are 6’1″ and of an almost Lugosian complexion.

Anyway, as the game evolved, I became less and less interested in it. I considered the alley-oops cheap and gimmicky, although I liked the larger team rosters. It probably had to do more with my shifting fandom from basketball to hockey than anything else (I still LOVE NHL Open Ice, if just for the Neely/Borque factor), but there was one beef I ALWAYS had with the game.

I’m sure a lot of you already know this, but NBA Jam is the gold standard by which ALL cheap game A.I.’s are judged. Those of you that know can testify. The game was set up so that, the bigger a lead you got, the worse your players performed. If, by some miracle, you got up to a 15-point lead, you would start missing DUNKS. Not A dunk, MULTIPLE dunks. In a row. That is, if you got the ball across half-court because your opponents would suddenly have the pickpocket proficiency of a young Harry Houdini in high tops. What’s worse is that the break-even point didn’t seem to go through zero. If you ran up a lead, the computer didn’t seem happy until it had not only erased your lead, but also built up a small one itself. You never wanted to go on a scoring run in the 3rd quarter, because that would invariably lead to a huge comeback by the CPU in the fourth quarter, leading to a close yet utterly frustrating loss.

NBA Jam was the source of one of the most heavily-used game-related phrases in my circle of friends: “The GLS Chip.” GLS, in this case, stands for Good Luck, Sucker; and it pretty well described the average experience playing NBA Jam.

So, now that EA Big has started moving in on its turf with the excellent NBA Street franchise, Acclaim has decided to reassert itself and come up with a brand new NBA Jam for the console market. One major change: It’s now 3-on-3 instead of 2-on-2, and this has a bigger effect than could be predicted.



Game: NBA Jam
Platform: Xbox
Developer/Distributor: Acclaim
Number of NBA Jam Boston Celtics that are still on the NBA Boston Celtics team as of this week: 3 (out of 5).

STORY

In the new “411 Main Event Style” reviews, the ones with 10 categories instead of the original four, we have this section for story, but that doesn’t apply directly to a lot of games. However, by decree from Big Daddy Cool Bebito Jackson and The Heartbreak Kid Alex Lucard; “Story”, when referring to a sports game, means things such as career modes or tournament modes. Just so you know.

Jam has three main modes of play: Exhibition, Jam Tournament, and Legends Tournament. Jam Tournament is the modern equivalent of the old Jam experience: play and beat all 28 NBA teams, have a nice day. Legends tournament is much like that, but instead you play against teams of, wait for it, NBA Legends.

While I can’t begrudge them these modes, it had the feeling of being a little thin, but then again, how much CAN you do with a basketball game?

GRAPHICS

In keeping with NBA Jam tradition, the character figures are just a big cartoony in shape. I’m mostly talking thinner-than-actual waists and longer-than-necessary arms and legs. Kind of what your standard basketball player caricature would look like. It’s not distracting, but I can’t help but wonder if it was really that necessary. You can’t tell it at all during gameplay, anyway; you only notice in static shots like the game menus.


The environments are well-done, but since most of them are just NBA courts, that’s not saying much. You don’t see much beyond the floor, so it’s not like they went to great pains to model the stands from each NBA arena or anything. The unlocked courts (Rucker Park) are well-done, but again, it’s not like the environment guys had a lot to do in the first place. Even the special graphics (like the Hot Spot dunks), while entertaining, weren’t anything special in terms of graphical ability.

SOUND

They make big hullabaloo about the original voice of NBA Jam coming back to do the commentary for this game. Problem is that it only vaguely sounds like the same guy. This version isn’t nearly as HYPED ALL THE TIME as in the original. There was a time when I could tell that I had finally iced a game of Jam when the commentator screamed, “THE NAIL IN THE COFFIN!!!” Now”¦..he’s just not as exciting. That’s all there is to it.

Game sounds are as they should be and the background music throughout the game isn’t annoying. I’ll give them one bonus point for the effort of getting the original commentator; but, otherwise, it was a very average sound performance.

CONTROL

Longtime Jam fans will have little problem mastering the controls. Trigger for Turbo, a button for pass, a button for shoot on offense. They’ve added a button to direct one of your teammates to attempt an alley-oop. On defense, a button for steals/shoves, a button for blocks, and a button for switching defenders. All is as it should be in this regard.

On the top of the screen, where old-skool Jam players would expect to find the Turbo bar, there’s another bar. This is the Hot Spot bar. The fancier your dunks are, the faster you fill up that bar. Once it gets filled and starts flashing, you can click the right thumbstick to bring up the Hot Spot. The Hot Spot is a spot on the floor that lets you make an unblockable dunk, accompanied by some funny animation while your character is in the air. The first Hot Spot you get is worth 3 points, the second 4, the third 5 and so on; so it’s in your best interests to at least keep up with your opponents regarding the number of Hot Spots scored. All-in-all it plays very much like NBA Jam is supposed to play, but there’s now a problem with that.

Now, the game is 3-on-3 (forgive me, I can’t remember if any of the later Jam or Hangtime games were 3-on-3. I didn’t play much if any of those, so I’m going into this with the assumption that this is a new feature). The problem with that is a pretty obvious one. With the 2-on-2 format, it was pretty easy to defend. You could shove one guy down and immediately switch to the other player and have a good-to-fair chance of at least getting in his face for the shot. It was easy to follow the ball and easy to switch defenders and thus easier to keep from getting blown out. Now, with 3-on-3, it’s not only harder to cream the guy with the ball, it’s not always obvious which defender you’re going to switch to. More than a few times playing this I found myself tapping the change defender button madly trying to get control of the one guy one the floor who could defend the play, which seemed to be the one guy on the floor the CPU didn’t want me to have. Also, the floor is bigger, so it’s harder to line up on opponents to shove them down or steal from them. Also, the 3-on-3 format makes it more difficult from a purely strategic point of view to defend against scoring (of course, you computer teammates are just as inept at defense as ever, so you get no help there).


Add all of these changes, which all point to a very tangible advantage to the CPU, to what’s widely regarded as the cheapest A.I. in the history of video games, and you have a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, my defense leaked like a sieve, my teammates were clueless, and the CPU had a nasty habit of stealing the ball. I lost all but one game that I played without entering cheat codes, and that game was an exhibition game, not a tournament game.

The A.I. was certainly back to its old tricks. Once it crossed into the offensive half of the court it magically initiated multi-level alley-oops that I couldn’t stop with all of the jumping and hand waving in the world. The computer also had a trick where it would bounce the ball off the backboard to itself during dunks, and NOWHERE in the game controls did it explain how to do that. Nothing frustrates me more than CPU players that can do something that human players cannot.

REPLAYABILITY

Acclaim went to some effort to give this game some replayability above and beyond the game itself with the inclusion of the Legends tournament and mini-games, as well as the cost-based create-a-player mode. See the “Miscellaneous” section for a detailed rant on that.

In short, it SHOULD have good replayability factor, but it doesn’t. The only case where it would is if, by some miracle, you were able to win the game and unlock all the goodies and then your friends could come over and pound on each other playing Legends vs. current players and such. The problem with that is that it requires being good at the single-player game to get to that point and”¦.oh, just wait. That’s a rant for another section.

BALANCE

So what are we calling balance? Is it balance of gaming experience? Because if it is, this, like most other sports games is awash in tedium. That’s not exactly true. A well done sports game will make you adjust your strategy to deal with opponents with different strengths and weaknesses. This? Feh. It’s NBA Jam. There is no variation of strategy. The strategy is to score points and hope that you can stop the other team enough to end up having scored more points than them. Pretty much everybody plays the same style.

Is it learning curve or increase in toughness of opponents? Well, the nice thing about Jam is that every team is just about as good as every other team, regardless of what the numbers tell you (again: cheapest A.I. EVER), so the learning curve isn’t so much a curve as it is a flat line. It may take you a bit to be able to step up to that line, but once you do, you’re set.

Balance? It has some, that’s all I can say.

ORIGINALITY

I’ve really tried to keep from comparing this too much against NBA Street 2. I really have, but here I have to speak my mind. This game really reeks of, “Hey, we did that first! Why are they making all of the money from it!” 3-on-3 basketball, Legends teams, Rucker Park, you have to admit that the similarities are not trivial.


What’s worse is that they not only lifted the novelties from Street, they lifted the original concept from themselves. Okay, so it’s their concept. That’s why they get as many points as they do here. If some of the things didn’t seem blatantly ripped off from the competition, they’d get a straight 5 here for that reason. As it is, I have to ding them for being reactionary and putting out a below-average game in the process. It just seems really thrown together.

ADDICTIVENESS

The original Jam was, as I said before, the equivalent of digital crack. The A.I., though ultra-cheap, was designed to keep everybody in the game until the final seconds, but the new format changes kill that concept dead. Even without Tournament Mode I would fall behind by 20 regularly and never catch up. If there was a difficulty setting that worked across all modes, it could have salvaged this into an enjoyable experience. However, as it is, the only people I could see playing this for long periods of time are bored teenagers playing each other (if they don’t already have Street) and people with acute obsessive-compulsive disorder. (In fact, this game or Backyard Wrestling would be an excellent test for OCD. All you’d have to do is put them in front of the game, hand them the controller [after thoroughly cleaning it in front of them], and see how long it takes for them to get frustrated and leave.)

APPEAL FACTOR

Well, they do have a niche and I can’t fault them for exploiting it. There are legions of people who have played one of the Jam/Hangtime variants who will be interested in this game. I have to admit that I was until I played it. Adding the Legends, the custom courts, and the over-the-top Hot Spot jams would make this a fine update if the gameplay wasn’t so difficult. I’m sure there’s a segment of the population who will have no problem with the gameplay, and they will enjoy this game. Besides I can’t ding them for gameplay here, too; that would be double jeopardy.

MISCELLANEOUS

I was very, very disappointed with this game. I know that I said that I never liked the original all that much, but it did carve out a big piece of nostalgia in my life. This didn’t even live up to that. The graphics were okay but the atmosphere was less exciting, not to forget that the game itself had become almost prohibitively difficult. And to tie in the create-a-player with your performance was the last straw. Basically, you aren’t allowed to have any fun with this game until you can beat it with the stock characters. Once you’ve demonstrated dominance, THEN you can create jacked-up personal characters and unlock cheats and such. I use the Sisyphus analogy way too much, but it almost applies here.

What it all comes back to; and I’ve ranted on this subject before with other games and I will continue to do so until developers listen; is that there was NO way to adjust the difficulty in a meaningful way. Sure, there was the Child’s Play cheat, but using it for an exhibition match meant that you wouldn’t win any points for winning the match, and you couldn’t use it at all in the tournaments, so what good is it?

Developers, you can’t assume that everybody is going to figure out how to be successful at the level of a game developer or beta tester. The more doo-dads and tricks you put in the game, the more imperative a difficulty setting becomes, else the computer blows by you every time, doing things that you have no idea how to do, until you just get frustrated and return the game and never touch it again. A difficulty setting would allow new players to get confidence playing the game and, God forbid, have FUN with it as they’re learning. If they want to turn up the difficulty later for more of a challenge then they have that option, but don’t force everybody to play up to YOUR level. And if you do, don’t expect me to give you a good review.

Story: 5/10
Graphics: 5/10
Sound: 6/10
Control: 3/10
Replayability: 4/10
Balance: 5/10
Originality: 4/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 2/10
Average Rating: 4.5/10