Poor NBA Jam. EA's revival of the 90s coin-op classic was originally a Wii exclusive, but then everybody with a HD console complained, so the publisher promised a stripped-down version free with the then-upcoming NBA Elite 11. But then it turned out NBA Elite 11 was complete bobbins, so EA cancelled that and released NBA Jam on the HD consoles as a full-blown boxed product. But now we all realise EA shouldn't have bothered, and instead just given everyone the basic game (read: the one everybody wants to play) as an affordable digital title.
NBA Jam starts well, leaving a particularly encouraging first impression. Visually, the game looks like an upmarket version of all those YouTube videos of Gerard Butler's face in the ageing "This is Sparta!" meme: a handful of oversized, digitised photographs popped on top of exaggeratedly athletic bodies. A similar approach is taken for the crowd, which features stoic managers, bouncing cheerleaders and over-excitable teammates on the bench. As a weenie 2-on-2 basketball game, NBA Jam charms with its cartoony aesthetic and impossibly overblown dunks.
The beauty is in its simplicity. While every other sports game is focused on using the most of every face button and trigger on a modern controller, NBA Jam hearkens back to an age of a single d-pad and three measly buttons. While EA has tried to map the full suite of controls onto the right analogue stick, its hazy imprecision means you'll probably opt to ignore them. But the button commands are easy to understand - it's particularly telling that only the analogue stick requires a full-blown tutorial - and within a few minutes you're darting around the court, shooting pitch-perfect three pointers and raining down gloriously weighty alley-oops.
The basic gist of NBA Jam is that you have limited amount of time to score after gaining possession of the ball, although this will rarely be a problem. Tussles are often over in seconds, and after you grab your points the ball goes back to the other team to repeat the cycle. Far more frustrating will be the times when the game penalises you for 'Goal Tending' after seemingly random violations. While you can't block shots on the goal, virtually everything else - pushing, shoving, setting the ball on fire if you score three times in a row - is permitted.
This all peaks in a thoroughly entertaining Versus mode, where up to four players duke it out across the game's pleasing back-and-forth rhythms of play. It was entertaining in 1993 and, like the game itself, not much has changed. Online modes are supported now, which is to be expected, but the game's servers couldn't find me any matches with the pre-release code I was working from.
Despite picking up the license from Midway, it is clear EA understand (at least some of the time) what made NBA Jam such a classic to begin with. Original announcer Tim Kitzrow returns, for instance, allowing for truly authentic "Shake and Bake" and "Boomshakalaka" - the kind of fabled voiceover work that will be intimately familiar to a very particular subset of gamer. Repetition rears its ugly head before long, though, and hearing distinctive sound-bites about nylon and touching nets will become irksome within a few hours.
30 teams are available for selection, split into East and West categories. Though my knowledge of basketball is limited (I play as the New York Knicks because it's the team Joey and Chandler support in Friends) there are a handful of clearly top-tier players available to preen over for your tailored duo. A typically wacky cast of supporting characters - including President Obama, Sarah Palin and the Beastie Boys - are also unlocked after ploughing through the various single-player modes.
The main chunk of the single-player content is the 36-stage Classic mode, which is all NBA Jam really needs. Sadly, EA has also gone out of its way to add in a 'Remix' campaign, which bogs down the bits you really want with needless power-ups and drab mini-games: 21 has three players competing to achieve the aforementioned score; Elimination has the player with the lowest score knocked out at time intervals; and Domination has you locking down point-generating areas by shooting hoops from specific points of the court.
These are all frustrating diversions, worsened by the fact the game even goes so far as to change the camera angle for most of them. Regular boss fights are Remix mode's lowest ebb, and it's here you'll mostly stew in a pool of your own anger and despair. The only semi-decent new mode is Smash, which puts you back in the familiar NBA Jam camera angle and has you jostling to performing dunks and alley-oops to break the opposing hoop's backboard. Assuming that most people who buy NBA Jam will just want to just, you know, play NBA Jam, it's particularly perplexing to see EA go out of its way to add as much unnecessary distance from the actual game as possible.
The AI could also do with a bit of work. Relying on CPU cohorts is rarely a good idea, and NBA Jam's wonky teammates allow for some particularly grating defeats and missed opportunities. Their attacking is usually okay, but defence and tactical know-how leaves a lot to be desired. It can often become a massive source of annoyance: repeated failures by the AI is a crushing blow to any of your goodwill towards the game, especially when you're being forced to struggle through yet another fiddly game of Domination.
So while the core game remains as entertaining as ever, what we've got here is essentially a fun little multiplayer-focused game which EA has burdened with a cache of tiresome, superfluous and unnecessary bonus modes, the overall focus designed around squeezing out a full-blown retail release. It's a shame, because a basic version of NBA Jam with just a basic campaign, local versus and multiplayer would have made for a must-have downloadable release - and probably would have ended up more successful for EA in the long run, too. As it stands, however, NBA Jam is a bloated, unnecessary title probably destined for a life in the bargain bin.