NBA Jam is back. Available now for Nintendo Wii and soon for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the standout basketball game franchise is ready for a proper revitalization. As I wrote in a recent Retrospective, NBA Jam's formula of fast-paced 2-on-2 is still addictive, and the simpler gameplay allows anyone to catch fire and dunk from the free-throw line.
What you may not realize, though, is this is a perfect time for a revitalization of the NBA Jam franchise. From both a gaming and a source material standpoint it's a suitable time to bring back the franchise. This is a great time to bring back the boomshakalaka.
If you look back to the arcade original, it was at a time when the NBA was at a real high point — sure, Michael Jordan was never in the game, but big-name players like Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone and John Stockton for the hateful Utah Jazz, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp and Portland Trail Blazers great Clyde Drexler all had a starring role. As part of a series on the legacy of former Houston great Olajuwon on pro basketball blog Free Darko, there was even an article discussing The Dream and his role in NBA Jam. Most every team in the NBA had the two recognizable stars needed to make an arcade basketball game, and there was still enough quality to not dilute it too much in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition when a third player was added to each roster.
The NBA is in another ascendant period right now, too, and has plenty of stars ready for the new-generation NBA Jam. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, and more are basketball superstars featuring in this NBA Jam remake. Compared with the star power in the NBA in the early part of the decade, the league is in a much stronger place right now — there was a real dearth of marketable, recognizable stars, and from a sports fan's point of view, the brand of basketball on offer was also pretty dreadful. Hoop-heads may have known all about players ten years ago, but the league undoubtedly has a higher profile now — almost equal to the late 80s and early 90s, coincidentally the period featured in the first NBA Jam. NBA rules changes have allowed a new generation of stars to play a much more exciting brand of basketball, and that helps out a game like NBA Jam. Plus, as with the original NBA Jam, Portland has a really strong team — Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden should be formidable.
Secondly, this is a great time to create a game in a more old-school, simple manner. Through the generations of PlayStation and N64 to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, there was an extreme focus on making games in 3D that took advantage of the newest technology and techniques. Everything needed to be cutting edge; as a result, many 2D games were thrown to the side.
However, with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 adding another channel to release games — online platforms — there has been a freedom and release from pressure to make games in just one way. Between re-makes and original titles, there have been a plethora of old-school 2D games made for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network — Castle Crashers, various Street Fighter remakes, Geometry Wars, Fat Princess, Braid, and Limbo all come to mind. Having these sorts of games available at a lower price point allows for greater creativity and freedom of design.
The last NBA Jam title, released in 2003 for Xbox and PlayStation 2, featured many of the trappings of the series — arcadey gameplay, similar menus, generally similar over-the-top theme. However, because it needed to be a $50 retail offering, it's more complicated — check out the control list during the loading screen of that video! That's as complicated as EA's last arcade basketball series, NBA Street, and almost as difficult as the simulation-style basketball games. That's also the opposite of what makes the original, arcade NBA Jam a legend — simplicity. Three buttons, a couple of basic moves, and a license for big dunks....that's the recipe for success with an NBA Jam title.
Yes, the Nintendo Wii version of the new NBA Jam is sold as a $60 retail copy, but the recent revitalization of 2D gaming provides the opportunity to venture back into the realm of simplicity. Selling a simple, fun game for $20 via Xbox Live or PSN brings lower expectations than a $60 game through retail, and the lower standards play into the hands of a game like NBA Jam — you want to pick it up and play with your friends, not pore into every detail. What would feel very shallow for $60 becomes a better value for the lower price.
With the indefinite delay of EA Sports' simulation basketball game, NBA Elite 11, the fate of NBA Jam on 360 and PS3 is unknown. The game has a listing on Xbox360achievements.org, so that means a version of Jam has gone through Microsoft's certification process; the number of achievements and total points available line up with the digital download version that, presumably, was going to be the pack-in bonus with NBA Elite. Whether that version is released for sale on Xbox Live or PSN is unknown — I feel that is the simplest and best route to take with the game from a business strategy standpoint — but, regardless, I'm chomping at the bit for this game to come out.
It's time for tip-off.