Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of things that a new NBA Jam game needs to have.
Tim Kitzrow’s Tweet confirming that a deal for a new NBA Jam is “in the works” comes as promising news for those of us who love the long-running arcade basketball game series. While we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves until a new game is officially announced, it’s good to hear that EA Sports apparently has interest in making further use of the trademark. The 2010 reboot was a solid and somewhat underrated game, maligned due to its association with NBA Elite 11. On Fire Edition meanwhile was one of the best, if not the best, arcade hoops titles released to date.
It’s been over six years since OFE came out though, and while it was nice to get a new arcade game in the form of Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds, we need a Jam for the current generation. Hopefully a deal will get done and a new game will be in the pipeline, but if that happens, there are a few things it will need to have. The downside of NBA Playgrounds is that it’s light on features, and in some respects, old school in a way that doesn’t hold up. A new NBA Jam game needs to avoid those shortcomings, as well as some problems that have presented themselves over the course of its own lineage. Here are a few suggestions on how that could be achieved.
1. Adaptive/Reasonably Nuanced AI
The appeal of games like NBA Jam is that they take a more casual approach in the way that they represent basketball: minimal rules, stylised aesthetics, and of course, the signature high flying dunks. It’s a fun change of pace from the more realistic sim-oriented games, and I’ve always enjoyed being able to play both styles of video game basketball. However, the drawback of arcade basketball games is that their gameplay tends to get repetitive after a while. Once you’ve mastered the mechanics and most effective strategies, it becomes quite easy to win games, and those games will tend to play out pretty much the same way each and every time.
NBA Jam: On Fire Edition made some significant improvements in that regard. The game borrowed the Real AI technology from EA Sports’ Fight Night series, which made the CPU players smarter and more capable of adapting to your strategies. Once you unlocked the Jam Bots during Road Trip, you’d find the AI using those same strategies against you, and man, it made for some brutal challenges! A new NBA Jam game would need to utilise similar tech so that the AI is challenging without being cheap, and there can be some variation between games depending on who’s playing. It would still be the same crazy arcade style, but smarter and more dynamic.
2. Deep & Varied Single Player Campaign
If I had to pick the biggest disappointment in NBA Playgrounds, it would be that it’s very thin in terms of the single player experience. There aren’t a lot of tournaments – even with the free post-release content and paid DLC – and they’re over quickly, well before you’ve unlocked and levelled up all the players. I’d avoid the need to unlock players entirely (except for Legends and other special players), as well as level them up, but beyond that, there would need to be a deep tournament or campaign mode that keeps you hooked. A campaign you can complete in a day was fine back in the 90s, especially in the arcade version, but game modes have come a long way since then.
Fortunately, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition’s Road Trip provides EA with an excellent starting point. A blend of the Classic Campaign and Remix Tour from the 2010 reboot, Road Trip has a looser approach to the tournament structure, making it less linear. The “remixed” challenges also keep the lengthy mode from becoming stale. Although games like NBA Jam are a lot of fun to play multiplayer, there are times when you won’t be able find a suitable opponent (or teammate), or simply feel like playing solo. That’s when you need a mode with depth and longevity, to hold your interest when it’s just going to be you and the CPU hitting the virtual hardwood.
3. Co-Operative & Competitive Online Play
A lot of the replay value in past NBA Jam games has come from multiplayer. Sure, it’s fun playing through whatever campaign or tournament mode a game provides, but when that’s done, there’s more enjoyment to be had taking on your friends. While it’s vital that a new game accommodates old school multiplayer (i.e. people sitting next to each other on a couch), robust online play is likewise essential. In addition to properly balanced gameplay and dependable servers, there also needs to be leaderboards, co-operative and competitive play, and different types of online modes and challenges. Options for “play with friends” and ranked and unranked matches are also necessary.
Again, EA would do well to look back at OFE in this regard. Its approach of resetting the leaderboards each month avoided alienating newcomers, and challenged regulars to keep coming back to defend their place on the ladder. Road Trip also allowed a second player to join in for any game on the schedule, not just locally but also online. It’s important that there are fun ways to team up, as well as go head-to-head. Also, since I’m in favour of bringing back button cheats for offline gameplay, they should be strictly banned from online games. However, it should be possible to punch them in, resulting in your players’ heads turning into cartoonish wedges of Swiss cheese.
4. Injuries & Other Elements from Older NBA Jam Games
I’m a big fan of EA’s two NBA Jam titles, as I feel they did a fantastic job in capturing the gameplay of the originals, while also bringing some new ideas to the franchise. However, I was disappointed that there were no injuries. Originally added in NBA Jam Tournament Edition, the concept of players becoming less effective the more they were knocked to the floor provided incentive to sub in other players. While NBA Jam 2010 and OFE featured substitutions, there was never really a need to switch players unless you somehow ended up with a bad match-up. A new Jam game needs to have some kind of injury or fatigue level, for challenge and strategic purposes.
There are some other features a new game could look to borrow from its predecessors, too. NBA Hangtime’s Team Fire, acquired after performing three consecutive alley-oops without your opponent scoring, was a good expansion of the classic mechanic. Another idea from Hangtime worth revisiting is a Create-a-Player option, though it should be optional as to when you use them. The Boss Battles from the 2010 game were a great idea that changed things up in the Remix Tour. Hot Spots and power-ups from TE could also be considered. A new NBA Jam game would undoubtedly add some new mechanics and features, but it should also look to dip into its past as well.
5. Roster Updates & Post-Release Content
These days, it’s imperative that games – especially sports titles – continue to evolve and provide new experiences throughout their lifecycle. In the old days, gamers would have to wait for a new revision to hit arcades or an updated second run version to be released for the home market, but these days, updates and new content can be made available as long as an Internet connection is present. Both On Fire Edition and the mobile version of NBA Jam provided roster updates, which obviously helped keep them fresh and current. A new NBA Jam game would have to accommodate trades, and perhaps even add new players and rookies, depending on how long it’s supported.
Cues could also be taken from NBA Live 18’s LIVE Events. Co-operative and single player challenges, available for a limited amount of time, could provide Jam gamers with something new to play on a regular basis. These events could conceivably grant bonus XP to upgrade a created player, or even unlock content. For example, imagine that Legends can either be unlocked through achieving statistical marks, or purchased using in-game reward points. An event could provide a different way of automatically unlocking them, or sufficient reward points to do so. As with NBA Live 18, it’d be more fun and exciting than just having your basic head-to-head games.
Are you excited about the prospect of a new NBA Jam game? What other things do you feel that a current generation NBA Jam game would need? Have your say in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.