Way back in the eighties and nineties, Midway, the developer most remembered for creating the Mortal Kombat series also introduced a couple of sports series into arcades. First came Arch Rivals (basketball) in 1989 and then High Impact (American football) in 1990. Both games enjoyed some popularity, but it was their league-licensed sequels that really caught on fire: NBA Jam in 1993 and NFL Blitz in 1997.
NBA Jam became a staple of the 16-bit era (right alongside Mortal Kombat), thanks in part to a bevy of home console ports. The series had largely died out by the mid-2000s, shortly before Midway itself went bankrupt. Jam could have ended there, but Electronic Arts (in what some would call a rare act of benevolence) rescued the license in 2010 and published a new version for home consoles, followed by an even better XBLA sequel, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition.
EA Mobile also ported NBA Jam to iOS in 2010. Now that version has finally made its way to Windows Phone 7 and 8 as a Nokia exclusive Xbox game. What gives this slightly old port of a classic arcade sports game such staying power? “Is it the shoes?”
One of the reasons NBA Jam has always been so popular is its approachability. Far from a serious sports simulation, the gameplay here is streamlined to such an extent that anyone can learn to play it in a matter of minutes. The main change is that each team only has two players on the court instead of five. This keeps the game moving at a fast pace without sacrificing the core basketball mechanics.
NBA Jam also benefits from super simple controls. In fact, the phone version’s controls are much easier than those of the Xbox 360 games, both of which use more buttons than the arcade original. Players can choose between Arcade or Swipe controls. The arcade-style controls are so good that I didn’t bother with swipe; there is such a thing as too much simplification.
A virtual stick handles running while three buttons perform the various moves:
- Red button: Turbo. Hold this to run faster, which depletes your turbo meter. Once the meter runs out, you must release the button before it will fill up again.
- Green button: On offense, this button shoots the ball when far from the net and dunks it when close. You can also perform alley oops by holding the button when your partner has the ball. You’ll jump for it and he’ll toss you the ball for a dunk. On defense, it jumps and blocks the opponent's shots.
- Blue button: On offense, blue passes the ball. On defense, it steals. Combining blue with turbo will shove an opponent down – a legal move in this series.
Interacting with three virtual buttons (and especially pressing two buttons at once) can be touch on touch screens. Thankfully EA Mobile came up with a perfect solution. Basically, players hold the turbo button 90% of the time in NBA Jam, so that button is the default position for your thumb. To combine turbo with the green or blue buttons, just slide your thumb from red to one of those colors. It quickly becomes second nature, right in keeping with the approachable essence of Jam.
Larger than life
Besides ease of play, NBA Jam appeals to even non-sports gamers thanks to its exaggeration and humor. Sometimes a well-made dunk shatters the backboard, and you don’t even get sent to the principal’s office like in the Amazing Spider-Man movie.
Even better, whenever you score three shots in a row without your opponent scoring a basket, your player becomes “on fire.” You’ll know because the third basket actually catches on the ball on fire, burning the net off the basket. On fire players have unlimited turbo and can’t be called for goal tending. You lose fire when your opponent finally scores a point, which never takes long, but the fantastic element still adds more excitement than you’d find in a realistic sports game.
The graphical style also imbues some well-appreciated humor. Players have realistic polygonal bodies instead of sprites like in the original, but their faces are still enlarged photographs. This captures the look and personality of the NBA players while giving the game a fun and slightly cartoonish appearance. Enable the Big Head privilege and their heads get even bigger, which I love.
Original Jam announcer Tim Kitzrow’s voice samples will make you smile as well. He makes all of the classic expressions, including the always-essential “Boomshakalaka.” Some of the Xbox 360 version’s many phrases didn’t make the cut, but Jam still has the best announcing you could hope for in a smartphone game. I only wish the game had a subtitle option so that we could enjoy the announcing with the volume turned down.
Oh yeah, Kitzrow shows up as a secret character, along with other silly players like team mascots, US presidents, stickmen, and the Beastie Boys. Check out our Achievement Guide for codes and strategies to unlock every secret team.
The long game
Most of those secret characters can’t be used in the Classic Campaign mode, the heart of the single-player experience. In the campaign, you’ll take on a series of 37 games against all 30 NBA teams (even the one you’re controlling) and some classic players like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Quarter time can be set to as little as two minutes, so each game takes eight minutes at minimum. That’s not bad, especially since Jam saves your progress if you have to leave a game early. But I would have liked the option to adjust the number of quarters like in the console game. All told, one career playthrough will take five hours – a fairly substantial single-player experience.
Jam supports local Wi-Fi multiplayer. The multiplayer feature is annoyingly buggy though, just as it is in the other two EA games that launched alongside this one: Tiger Woods 12 and Real Racing 2. A second player had no trouble joining the lobby I hosted, but almost every time the host game would crash as soon as the second player joined. Switching hosts had no effect on the crashing.
That said, after about 15 failed attempts, I came back to multiplayer once again while shooting my video review. That time multiplayer worked and the game commenced. Each of you can choose to play on the same team against the CPU or against each other. Multiplayer looks like a lot of fun, but it’s hard enough finding another local Windows Phone user who owns the same game as you. Having to deal with the crashing problem would likely keep most people from getting to enjoy multiplayer at all.
The original NBA Jam for arcade (left) and Sega Genesis didn't have no stinking Achievements :-)
Several Achievements involve pulling off a certain number of moves or getting a high score in a single game. Most are tied to Classic Campaign, however.
None are too difficult, but to get them all, you’ll have to complete the campaign a whopping six times. It wouldn’t be so bad if campaign lasted a reasonable number of games like 8 or 10. But 37 games six times equals 220 games – a 30 hour time investment. I wish EA had only asked us to complete the campaign once or twice. Anyone who completes all six run-throughs is bound to get sick of the game by the end of it.
For more Achievement details, don’t miss our exclusive Achievement Guide.
NBA Jam is that rarest thing: a sports game that sports fans AND non-sports fans can enjoy. The core gameplay has a great pace and rhythm as players the ball from one end of the court to the other at exaggerated speeds. Other than the semi-broken multiplayer, EA has done a fantastic job of capturing the look, sound, and feel of NBA Jam on Windows Phone. It works and it works well.
One slight caveat: this version shares the same rosters as the iOS game. Those rosters date back to 2010 and were not updated in the transition to Windows Phone. It barely hurts the game because Jam is a throwback experience (the original arcade game is still fun after all these years) and not a serious sports game (not serious at all) to begin with. Besides, it’s not like you’ll find a basketball game with more accurate rosters on Windows Phone.
NBA Jam is currently exclusive to Nokia Lumia phones. Windows Phone 7 devices with 512 MB of RAM can play the game, but Windows Phone 8 devices will require 1 GB of RAM.
NBA Jam – $2.99 – 211 MB – Store Link