Developer: EA Canada / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15 / ESRB: Everyone [No Descriptors]
Rarely has a game so accurately summed up its experience as when NBA Jam: On Fire Edition shouts BOOMSHAKALAKA the first time you fire it up. It’s a faithful homage to the classic arcade basketball game while adding great longevity and online play. All that, and the game’s only $15. What a world we live in.
Gameplay and Control
First, the basics for you young’uns that somehow haven’t played the original NBA Jam. This is a game of 2v2 basketball where Barack Obama can dunk on Adrock from the Beastie Boys. You can shove players down on a whim and steal the ball. In fact, the only penalties in the game are shot clock violations and goaltending — everything else is free game. Sink three unanswered shots with the same player and they will literally catch on fire, granting infinite turbo and flaming sneakers.
So yeah, serious basketball simulator this ain’t.
But if you played the original NBA Jam, you weren’t expecting or hoping for that. Luckily Jam OFE in no way tries to compromise on the goofy sensibilities of its forebear, but embraces them fully. Original announcer Tim Kitzrow returns as well, cracking self-aware jokes like asking where the referee went, and how goaltending can be called without one.
There’s more depth to the game than slamming home a tomahawk jam as Dick Cheney, though. Solid gameplay fundamentals turn offense and defense into an exciting mental duel. Essentially, every defensive maneuver — jump blocks, steal attempts, shoves, etc — will lock your defender in place for a short time while the animation plays. On offense, you want to try and bait out this animation so you can pass the defender uncontested. On defense, you try to read your opponent and guess when they’ll drive down the court so you can be there ahead of time. Playing competitively is a fast-paced cat and mouse game, and that’s something I never got out of the original NBA Jam.
Here’s something I did get out of the original 1993 NBA Jam… this game can be infuriating. Steals, shoves, and shot blocks are partially stat-based. A defender that’s better at blocks will knock someone out of a dunk animation more often than a player who isn’t. Still, sometimes it feels like the game flips an internal switch and decides to screw you over at every turn. Every pass will be intercepted and every steal attempt will rip the ball out of your hands. This isn’t just rubber-band AI either. One online match had me neck and neck with my opponent for three quarters. Then, for no reason, my game detonated in the last quarter and I lost by about twenty points. I didn’t suddenly suck at the game, I just couldn’t hit a shot because the game decided it would be so. Granted, it might have just been a string of terrible luck, but all you know is that this is absolute bullshit oh god WHY WON’T YOU JUST GO IN THE HOOP. If you’ve ever complained about the bonus stars in Mario Party, this game will make the capillaries in your eyes pop.
Aside from the barebones “Jam Now” quick game option, NBA Jam: OFE offers two main modes of play. Road Trip sets you against a series of challenges with increasingly difficult AI and varying rules. These typically change how score is accumulated — for example one will make all jump shots four points, but all dunks one point. This is decent as a time sink, but ultimately not very fulfilling because your AI opponent will either be a pushover or absurdly, mind-blowingly difficult, to the point where the defenders stick on your movements perfectly.
The Online Arena is where the game’s heart is. Every week is a new “season,” and you can earn badges in that season based on how many wins you rack up. Each new badge comes with a bonus of JAM Bucks (their term, not mine) that you can spend on new teams, players, and visual flourishes to customize your player card. On top of that, each season has a handful of challenges that will also award medals and JAM Bucks at certain graduations, like cumulative jump shots or alley-oops. The intermittent pat on the back from these rewards helps give you short-term goals in addition to leveling up your profile and unlocking content in the in-game store.
That is, provided you can find the in-game store. NBA Jam: OFE’s menus are so packed with stats, progress bars, and other info that it can be difficult to find your way around at first. They’ve crammed a ton of data and functionality on a small number of screens, which is nice once you know your way around, but initially you’ll hit buttons that don’t seem to do anything. I didn’t even realize the JAM Store had separate tabs for a few hours.
Graphics and Sound
Like the 2010 retail release, NBA Jam: OFE uses the bobblehead style of 2010’s NBA Jam. High-resolution 2D photographs sit atop 3D models of the players, which works extremely well and goes hand-in-hand with the game’s caricature sensibilities (especially in big-head mode). Outside the game, the presentation is decidedly 2010. J.J. Abrams lens flares pepper the menus while glitchy, overblown electronica plays throughout. That’s not to say the music is bad, but it’s amusing to note the hallmarks of current aesthetics.
I expected some goofy fun from NBA Jam: OFE and got a thoroughly well-developed, competitive game that’s both faithful to the Jam legacy and has legs to last. Whether you’re looking to relive some memories of your youth, find a good pick-up-and-play party game, or even gunning for a new online game to refine your skills, NBA: Jam OFE is what you’re looking for. Just make sure nothing breakable is in arm’s reach when your opponent blocks your shot for the tenth time in a row.