Welcome to another edition of The Friday Five! Every Friday I cover a topic related to basketball gaming, either as a list of five items, or a Top 5 countdown. The topics for these lists and countdowns include everything from fun facts and recollections to commentary and critique. This week’s Five is a list of five reasons that I rank NBA Jam: On Fire Edition as the best release in the NBA Jam series.
We really need another NBA Jam game. I know there were gamers that skipped the NBA Jam games by EA Sports, either because they were burned by previous non-Midway Jam titles, they didn’t trust or want to support EA, or a mixture of both. I understand having that stance, but frankly, you missed out on a couple of really good NBA Jam games! They were faithful to the originals, while also bringing something new to the table. It’s because of this that NBA Jam: On Fire Edition remains my pick for the best NBA Jam game to date.
I know that’s a big claim to make, especially when the original NBA Jam still holds up today. Tournament Edition was a fantastic follow-up to that, and though Midway lost the Jam moniker, NBA Hangtime was a worthy sequel to TE. NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC and NBA Hoopz were also fine games in Midway’s branch of the lineage; Acclaim’s titles, not so much. In short, there is some stiff competition for NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, yet I do believe that it stands above the rest. While EA were struggling with NBA Live by the early 2010s, they made great use of the NBA Jam license, creating the definitive Jam experience with NBA Jam: On Fire Edition.
1. Great Balance & Mechanics
There’s a reason that the original NBA Jam holds up as well as it does – even some thirty years after its release – and why it became the template for arcade basketball games. Its mechanics are simple, but effective. The game can be quite challenging and competitive, but it’s also very easy to pick up and play. The players are responsive in all aspects of gameplay. This means that it’s fun to play at both ends of the floor, and both the offensive and defensive players have the tools to prevail against each other. Player ratings do matter, but not to the point where any rating that’s below a certain threshold is utterly useless. Fire is easy, but not too easy, to attain and extinguish.
This perfect mixture of well-designed mechanics and gameplay balance is something that many NBA Jam clones, as well as Acclaim’s branch of the Jam lineage, failed to replicate. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the only arcade basketball games to get it right apart from the original NBA Jam titles, Midway’s sequels, and the two NBA Jam releases by EA, is the NBA Street series. Like the 2010 reboot, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was designed with those original concepts in mind, and it undoubtedly helped that NBA Jam’s creator, Mark Turmell, was a consultant on those projects. OFE was more polished though, allowing it to hold its own against any other NBA Jam title.
2. Real AI
While I’ve always loved arcade basketball games as well as the sim titles, the former have long been afflicted by repetition and predictability. The challenge in classic NBA Jam titles primarily came from the CPU not playing fair. Deficits would be erased as your players were temporarily nerfed, while the CPU gained superhuman abilities. As long as the CPU was within three points and had the final shot, there was a really good chance that they were making a Hail Mary three-pointer at the buzzer. There’s still an element of this in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, but the gameplay was also vastly improved by the adoption of Real AI, taken from the Fight Night series.
In older NBA Jam games, you learned how to beat the CPU by watching how it played arcade basketball. In NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, the CPU learned how to beat you by observing your virtual hardwood strategies! Real AI recorded your tendencies and devised effective counter-strategies, in turn forcing you to change up everything from where you took shots to the direction you went in after inbounding. This was on full display in the Jambot Challenges in Road Trip – more on that mode in a moment – where your own strategies were thrown right back at you. The combination of Real AI and well-designed mechanics gave NBA Jam: On Fire Edition exceptional gameplay.
3. Road Trip
One school holidays, my cousin and I resolved to play and win a game with every team in NBA Jam Tournament Edition. It was a blast, but the tournament ladder was straightforward, and even with the unlockable secret characters, the immediate replay value was somewhat limited. The developers at EA clearly had this in mind with the 2010 reboot, as they provided us with a Classic Campaign mode, a Remix Tour with wacky challenges, and occasional 1v1 Boss Battles against NBA stars with super powers. It was good, but being locked to a single team for the duration of a Classic Campaign got old really fast. You also had to slog through it to unlock Remix Tour.
NBA Jam: On Fire Edition discarded Boss Battles, but integrated the Remix Tour into the Classic Campaign to create Road Trip. The result was a mode where you took on any team at any time, beginning with a Bronze level challenge, and working up to a tough Platinum challenge against the Jambots. In addition to increasing in difficulty, the Bronze, Silver, and Gold challenges featured different lineups, and also modified the gameplay conditions. There were games where all dunks counted for four points, single quarter continuous games with no inbounding, one shot to catch fire, and even a mini-players challenge for the Pistons! It’s the best campaign mode in arcade hoops.
4. Roster Updates
Until NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, no NBA Jam game had received official roster updates; not outside of arcade revisions and different ports, that is. While that may not seem as crucial as in a sim title, it meant that NBA Jam games were always at risk of featuring outdated duos following blockbuster trades. It also meant that a few players were bound to be left out, including names that gamers would really want to play with. In designing NBA Jam: On Fire Edition with the capacity for roster updates, EA Sports ensured that they could keep the game fresh, at least for a few years. Since it launched during the 2011 lockout, it also allowed them to add Class of 2011 rookies.
Now, it wouldn’t be completely unfair to say that NBA Jam: On Fire Edition kind of overpromised and/or undelivered on its roster updates, or at least their frequency. The updates themselves were fine and most welcome, but we only received a handful of them. It didn’t help that the team that created NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was largely let go after the game was released – that’s a Triple-A publisher for you – but we had expected more frequent updates. In these times of live service content, that would probably be the case, though there’d likely be a season pass. They were a big deal, and with the recent unexpected reactivation of the game’s servers, they’re available again!
5. NBA Jam: On Fire Edition Kept What Worked & Changed What Didn’t
Although the 2010 reboot of NBA Jam was a fine game that mostly suffered from a few misunderstandings and backlash related to NBA Elite 11, it did have a few problems. Specifically, it forgot a few of the innovations that were made in sequels to the original NBA Jam, while also being too faithful of a reboot in terms of replicating aspects that had aged poorly. It was missing tag mode, meaning you couldn’t switch control between players. Classic Campaign was dry and repetitive, locking you into controlling one team (unlike the classic tournament ladder). It had good ideas too though, including the Remix Tour, Boss Battles, and NBA Hangtime’s Team Fire.
To that end, it laid the groundwork for NBA Jam: On Fire Edition to take everything that had worked, keep it, and replace or revamp what hadn’t. The aforementioned Road Trip was created by combining Classic Campaign with the Remix Tour, and allowing free choice of team for every game. As noted, Real AI proved to be an overdue enhancement to gameplay. Tag mode returned. As a digital-only release, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition came out a price point that was difficult to pass up, even if you’d skipped NBA Jam 2010. If you did have an NBA Jam 2010 save, you even got 15,000 Jam coins to spend on unlockables! The title was apt: it truly was On Fire!
Where do you rank NBA Jam: On Fire Edition in the NBA Jam series, or among all arcade hoops titles in general? Let me know in the comments, 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.