Review: Electronic Arts NBA Jam by EA Sports
Some classic arcade games are ideally suited to the iPhone and iPod touch. Thanks to virtual control innovations that were trailblazed by others and perfected by Electronic Arts, the just-released NBA Jam by EA Sports ($5, version 1.0.0) is one of them. Based heavily upon the original 1993 release with nods to its successors, the iOS version of NBA Jam captures the spirit of the breakthrough two-on-two basketball game and maintains all of its innovations -- plus some that were subsequently introduced -- but also misses two obvious slam dunk opportunities.
Released in the heyday of one-on-one fighting games such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, Midway’s original NBA Jam took brilliant creative license with the sport of basketball, removing the visual clutter and squealing shoes associated with ten-player games in favor of a game that four people could play at once on a single arcade cabinet. Midway intensified the action by focusing on surreal dunks, eliminating fouls and most other violations, and adding a “turbo” button so that characters could run from one end of the court to the other at breakneck speeds. Like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam included hidden easter egg features that kept players talking and hunting, and with the help of digitized photos of real NBA players, it delivered a better than realistic experience that could be enjoyed in quick, bite-sized sessions.
The iPhone and iPod touch version of NBA Jam offers all of these features and more. You choose from any of the NBA’s teams, select two of a handful of players from a limited roster, and take control of one player for the duration of the eight-, twelve-, or twenty-minute game, depending on the settings you select. Current stars such as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant are selectable from the start, so there’s thankfully no need to dole out extra dollars in order to play as your favorite current player—particularly smart given that players share bodies, differing only in head shots, simplified statistics, and the names that are called out by the play-by-play announcer. The bodies are smoothly animated though very subtly 3-D models, while the court is always presented from the all but flat side-scrolling perspective found in most of Midway’s NBA titles.
A quick “pick two teams and four players” Play Now button leads to the game’s primary mode, while a Classic Campaign lets you select a division and team for a 36-team campaign, through which extra content can be unlocked. Another button, “Challenges,” lists dozens of achievements that can be earned through individual feats such as “10 successful shoves in one game” or “win a game vs. the CPU,” as well as the rewards earned for each achievement: more players, more balls, and easter egg “privileges” that change the rules of the game.
As an alternative to the campaign and challenge unlocking systems, EA also includes a “Jam Store” for players who would rather buy faster access to the locked content. Here, you can purchase classic players such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Larry Bird, Dr. J, Shaq, and Magic Johnson, who can be unlocked in multi-character division groups for $1 per division, $2 per conference, or all at once in a “big man” package for $3. The $3 pack also unlocks the entire collection of “privileges,” offering even more of an incentive to make the purchase early. By finding the right price points, offering reasonable options, and offering players the same content through skill-based play without needing to pay anything more, EA has come up with the rare in-app purchase that we’d endorse as enthusiastically as the initial game.
Thanks to great implementation of virtual controls, NBA Jam’s gameplay remains as strong on Apple’s devices as it was in the arcades with a dedicated joystick and buttons. A virtual stick on the left of the screen lets you move up, down, left, right, and diagonally on the court, while three buttons provide offensive shoot, pass, and turbo features that automatically shift to steal, block, and turbo for defense. EA adds slide gestures to the buttons, as well, letting you move from turbo over to shoot, or turbo over to steal for more powerful dunk and shove moves. The controls feel natural, quickly becoming both intuitive and fun, and on-screen indicators make clear that you’ve successfully slide-gestured for the power moves.
Though the controls are what really enable the game to feel “right” on the iPhone and iPod touch, it’s the underlying energy, play mechanics and balance that make NBA Jam stand out from the App Store’s other sports releases, even basketball games. Alongside unintrusively funky music and occasional crowd noises, an excited announcer provides constant and only mildly repetitive play-by-play, including the series’ famed “boomshakalaka” and “he’s on fire” refrains, the latter every time a player scores three consecutive and uninterrupted baskets in a row. Whenever that happens, the ball and hoop literally catch on fire, and the player benefits from unlimited turbo and enhanced chances of making shots until his scoring streak is snapped. Between this feature, the focus on scoring points, and NBA Jam’s ability to switch between four levels of artificial intelligence, the game becomes as easy or as challenging as you prefer, but it’s always action-packed.
Dunks are the biggest highlight in NBA Jam. Players fly into the air with superhuman grace, flaunting exaggerated windmill arm spins and powerful slams that would bring most hoops crashing down to the courts. An unlockable “camera hog” mode provides a quick freeze-frame for each dunk, and the game normally provides a little extra air time for dramatic effect. Separate unlockable features include unlimited turbo rather than a replenishing turbo bar, one-shot fire to increase the number of “on fire” moments, and a “bighead” feature that lets you really see the details in your player’s face no matter what he’s doing on the court. A collection of special balls is also available from the privileges menu, along with on/off switches for all of the aforementioned features; further characters and cheats may also be unlockable via the same initial-entry system found in past NBA Jam titles.
There are so many great features in NBA Jam that it’s easy to get distracted from what’s missing, most notably a multi-player feature and iPad support. While the iOS version of NBA Jam runs on the iPad, it doesn’t display the Retina Display graphics found on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, a real shame. The lack of a multi-player mode precludes you from enjoying the fun with or against a friend at the same time, a key omission given how popular the original arcade game was as a two- or four-player experience. Finally, even though the game’s classic arcade-style presentation benefits from the 3-D character models, it doesn’t scream with some of the in-your-face oversized fonts or flashy special effects that fans of Midway’s later NBA titles might expect. By comparison with the absence of multiplayer and iPad support, most players won’t care about this, as the graphics and sounds are otherwise very solid by App Store game standards.
All in all, NBA Jam for the iPhone and iPod touch is a nearly great title, hobbled only by what it doesn’t attempt to do. If you’ve been hungering for a single-player version of the arcade classic, updated with most of the league’s best-known players, there’s no reason to hesitate in grabbing this title now—it offers strong value for the $5 asking price, and the $3 in-app Big Man Package is surely worth adding if you don’t want to work your way through all of the challenges. But if you want proper iPad support or a multi-player feature, hold off until EA adds one or both of these features, which should really have been in the 1.0 release. Either one would have pushed this title to the high recommendation level it would otherwise have merited; it’s otherwise the best basketball game yet released for the iPhone and iPod touch.