By Brian Sipple
If asked about the best arcade games of all time, most of us (being sports gamers) would no doubt include NBA Jam among our top picks. It’s pure and simple, slam-dunking fun will forever have a place in our hearts – even for Bulls fans, who could never quite beat the Pistons. So when EA Sports decided to reboot the franchise into the 21st Century, it came as no surprise to fans who lauded the idea of hearing “Boomshakalaka!” in Dolby 5.1.
Now though you can take it a step further by having NBA Jam in the palm of your hand. The game released Thursday on the App Store for a cool $4.99 and has many of the offerings found in the console versions. Now that may sound encouraging but is this crossover attempt as impressive as Iverson’s in his prime, or say Brian Scalabrine trying to be a ball hog?
For a while now popular console franchises tempered with an arcade polish and ported to the App Store have been met with mixed results. What makes Jam unique is that its deep arcade roots allow it to fit in well just about anywhere. The iPhone is no exception, and gamers will feel right at home the first time their big-headed player catches on fire and obliterates a backboard.
Jam’s gameplay is centered around the axiom of exaggerated 2-on-2 basketball, with players putting as much emphasis on pulling off ridiculous moves as they do on the actual score of the game. Players jump to the height of the rim to take shots and rise to greater heights on dunks or alley-oops. Making three baskets in a row will allow your player to go “On Fire” and in doing so increases his skills even more. To balance thing out on defense the refs only blow the whistle on goaltending, meaning you can push and shove as much as you want. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s over the top. It’s vintage NBA Jam.
Clearly the design team held nothing back in taking Jam off the consoles and bringing it into the portable realm. Opposing AI and CPU teammates are surprisingly adept at playing defense and executing with the ball. The undemanding 2-on-2 gameplay allows for some highly detailed renderings of player models, as well as super smooth frame rates and animations. This bright, shiny, and clean look also transcends beautifully into a well-designed menu interface that’s a breeze to navigate.
The sound effects that contributed so much to the original Jam’s success don’t disappoint here either. Tim Kitzrow is back at the helm of the commentator’s booth and does a wonderful job of keeping up with the fast paced action. His play-by-play and call outs of individals are spot on, while the offbeat analysis like “It’s sexy time!” that only Jam could pull off are equally prominent. The lively sound effects in the crowd and on the court as well as the game’s upbeat soundtrack further lend to NBA Jam’s exciting tone.
What impressed me the most however was Jam’s simple yet very effective control scheme. By now just about anyone who’s played a touchscreen sports game is familiar with the classic setup of a d-pad on the left and action buttons on the right. The player would normally have to use each right button like they were keys on a keyboard, removing their thumb from the screen and then pressing down again in just the right spot. At the same time you would have to control both the direction and speed of your player with the d-pad. Unless the sport you were playing was curling or fishing it’s likely that the fast pace of the game caused quite a few bad touches.
Jam solves this issue by allocating the sprint function to a button on the right and freeing up the d-pad for pure motion control. With the right thumb on the sprint button there is no need to let go but isntead simply slide it up or to the left to activate the shot or pass buttons respectively. Defense works the same way with steal/shove and block buttons that can be slid into from the sprint. More advanced moves like spins, elbows, pump fakes and crossovers are well integrated through easy button combinations or screen shakes. This control scheme is remarkably easy to learn and handle, providing Jam with a smooth and fluid gameplay experience.
The only place Jam loses points is in the inexplicable absence of multiplayer. Few games are better suited for a pick up and play, 5-minute quick match, which has been the iPhone’s bread and butter over the years. Since it isn’t annual title an update to include this feature would be nice at some point – especially considering the number of people already downloading the game.
Jam’s basic game modes consist of the standard play now mode and a “classic campaign” where the task at hand is beating all 36 teams on the schedule to become the champions. Of course NBA Jam wouldn’t be complete without a huge contingent of unlockable players, abilities and settings, and it’s this that ultimately gives the game a ton of replay value. Despite only having two modes it’s easy to get hooked trying to unlock the Bird / Magic Superteam or a Happy Face Basketball.
Just about every aspect of NBA Jam oozes of excitement and intensity on a level that infuses passion into casual and hardcore NBA fans alike. It’s pure entertainment that returns on the $5 investment through solid lasting appeal. NBA Jam controls like a dream and looks as good as it ever has through the iPhone 4’s retina display. A functional multiplayer component is perhaps the only thing keeping this stellar title out of early contention for App Store Game of Year.
Thanks to Brian Sipple for taking the time out to provide a look at NBA Jam which is available now for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Additional screenshots can be found in the gallery.