Having grown up in the ’90s, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition is one of the many games I look back on fondly. Before the release of Goldeneye, NBA Jam is what my friends and I would play nonstop. Packed with outrageous dunks, an over-enthusiastic announcer, and violent gameplay that only vaguely follows the rules of basketball, NBA Jam single-handedly created a new genre of sports games that is still mimicked to this day.
Late last year, the NBA Jam franchise was revived by EA Sports with a new game releasing on the Wii, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3, and just a few weeks ago, a trimmed down version of the game was released on the iTunes App Store. Does it live up to the NBA Jam legacy?
Like all good arcade games, the basics of the game are incredibly simple and easy to pick up. At its core, you’re playing a 2-on-2 game of basketball, but the traditional elements of basketball are nowhere to be found. There’s no such thing as double dribbling, fouling is encouraged, and every player (even Steve Nash) has the ability to jump dozens of feet in the air to perform awe-inspiring dunks. If a player manages to make three baskets in a row, he’s designated ‘on fire’ (denoted by the ball literally being on fire when he touches it) and given unlimited turbo, even more ridiculous dunking abilities, better jump shots, and the ability to goaltend at will.
For a mobile game, NBA Jam offers a substantial amount of gameplay. It has the standard quick play option if you want to just pick a team and start playing, but you’ll also find a familiar (if you’ve played previous games in the series) campaign mode, where you pick a team and play successive games against every other team in the league until you’ve beaten them all. Like most modern games, NBA Jam also comes with the requisite achievements, giving any achievement hoarders out there something to work for.
Unlocking achievements also unlocks extras such as cheats, different ball skins, and, most importantly, classic players. Not all of your favorite NBA legends will make an appearance, but there’s bound to be at least a few you’ll want to unlock.
Noticeably absent, however, is any form of multiplayer. Part of the fun of NBA Jam is playing with your friends, and, unfortunately, that’s not possible at this time. We can only hope that it’s patched in at a later date.
As in most console-to-mobile ports, NBA Jam features the dreaded on-screen control pad. Controls make or break a game on a touch-only platform, and I’ve given up on plenty of games because of shoddy controls. Thankfully, NBA Jam doesn’t fall into that category. Part of this is due to the control simplicity. With only three buttons to manage (turbo, pass, and shoot) plus the onscreen analog stick, your fingers don’t get lost.
Of course, without any tactile feedback, it is possible for your fingers to start to wander. Also, since some screen real estate is necessarily taken away to make room for the controls, it’s possible to run into instances where the game action takes place right under your fingers, making it difficult to see what’s going on. These issues can be overlooked, however, as they don’t crop up frequently enough to mar the experience.
Graphically, NBA Jam is simple but adequate. The low-poly bodies are topped by heads with unnaturally high-resolution scans of the players’ faces pasted on. The heads don’t really rotate in any natural way, so it’s not uncommon to see Exorcist-like moments where a player’s head appears to be facing backwards. Somehow, though, it all manages to fit into the NBA Jam style.
In true NBA Jam form, codes can be entered to play as hidden (mostly political) characters. Old favorites like Bill and Hilary Clinton are joined by newcomers Barack Obama, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, and more. How can you not enjoy a game that lets you dunk on Sarah Palin?
NBA Jam for iOS is a return to the series’ roots, which is where I feel it’s strongest. Classic, accessible gameplay makes NBA Jam a must buy for old fans of the series and newcomers alike. Lack of any sort of multiplayer is a bummer, but you’ll still find plenty to enjoy. NBA Jam is available for download in the iTunes App Store now for $4.99.