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Wayback Wednesday: The Forgotten NBA Jam

NBA Jam 2004 Pre-Game

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at NBA Jam; not the original, not the 2010 reboot, but the 2003 release for PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

With NBA Jam celebrating its 25th Anniversary, there’s been even more nostalgia than usual surrounding the classic series of basketball video games. For long-time basketball gamers, and for those who know their gaming history, the lineage of the series is well known. NBA Jam and NBA Jam Tournament Edition are hailed as classics, and rightfully so. NBA Hangtime – Midway’s follow-up after Acclaim won the rights to the Jam name – is also a great game. Acclaim’s titles, from Extreme to the sim-oriented releases, were generally lacklustre. The series was revived by EA Sports, with the 2010 reboot and subsequent On Fire Edition being quite successful.

Midway also produced spiritual successors in the form of NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC, and NBA Hoopz. However, between the five-on-five titles and the reboot by EA Sports, Acclaim released a game simply titled NBA Jam (identified as NBA Jam 2004 by the disc’s digital label), which aimed to return to the series’ roots of over-the-top arcade gameplay. It’s become somewhat of a forgotten release, overshadowed by other titles that bear the NBA Jam name, but it has its good points and deserves a second look. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Released in September 2003 and set in the 2004 season, this iteration of NBA Jam adopted three-on-three gameplay, not unlike NBA Street. Given the popularity and success of the streetball series from EA Sports BIG, this wasn’t a bad approach. In fact, the gameplay in general is more reminiscent of NBA Street than the original NBA Jam games. Players soar above the rim for dunks, but the slams are more like the ones found in NBA Street. Performing moves accumulates Jam Points, filling a meter that unlocks the Hot Spot ability, which is similar to a Gamebreaker. The animations, player models, and camera angles are all rather Street-like.

Pippen dunks in NBA Jam 2004

As such, my first impression of the game was that it was something of a poor man’s NBA Street, set on the NBA hardwood instead of street courts. That is admittedly selling the game short, but in all fairness, at first it didn’t quite feel like an NBA Jam title, mostly due to the animation style and the three-on-three gameplay. It’s also not quite on the same level as NBA Street, and rather unusually, features a player rating system that maxes out at twenty instead of nine or ten. On a more positive note, Tim Kitzrow is back on the call after providing commentary for Midway’s Showtime and Hoopz games, and as always, he contributes greatly to the atmosphere.

After spending some more time with the game, its better qualities were apparent. Like any decent arcade basketball title, it’s very much “pick-up-and-play”. Controls and gameplay mechanics are straightforward, and the traditional approach of minimal rules makes for a familiar arcade-style experience. Quarters are three minutes in length, with the clock stopping after baskets. I like that the game utilises injury levels, providing incentive to substitute players at halftime. NBA Jam 2004 is technically sound in terms of collisions, control responsiveness, and overall design.

It’s probably not quite as good as it could be, though. Gameplay can be somewhat repetitive, though that tends to be an issue with the arcade games in general. There are times when having the third player on each team feels redundant and clogs up the floor, whereas other times it makes running out on the break for an open dunk too easy. Also, as much as the original NBA Jam games are all about dunks and offense, defense was still a factor, and it was important to pick your spots and change things up to elude defenders. There are times when NBA Jam 2004 feels like an uninhibited shootout, with a much more casual attitude towards playing any kind of defense.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to defend, but once a player gets inside the three-point arc, and especially if they go up for a dunk, chances are they’re going to score. It’s hard to position yourself properly for a block, and you’ll often seem to jump in the wrong direction, or fail to leap high enough. In that regard, it reminds me a little of a much newer game: NBA Playgrounds. The key to victory is more about piling up the points and messing up less than your opponent, as opposed to making stops. You can get quite a few steals from shoving though, so as long as you keep your opponents out of the paint and score as often as possible, you’ll be able to win a lot of games.

Create Player in NBA Jam 2004

The power-ups also make it quite easy to run up the score once you’ve got a handle on the gameplay. Fire is back, earned in the usual manner of scoring three unanswered baskets with a single player. It now lasts for sixty seconds, five consecutive baskets, or until the opponent scores; whichever comes first. Fire will also max out a player’s ratings, grant unlimited turbo, and allow them to goaltend. Filling the Jam Points meter and activating a Hot Spot will allow you to take off for a super dunk. This jam is worth additional points, starting with one bonus point the first time you activate a Hot Spot, and maxing out with five for a seven-point shot on the fifth activation.

Aside from filling the meter as quickly as possible, Jam Points are also used for the game’s customisation features. You’ll need to earn as many points as possible to create and upgrade custom players, which can be used on any team and outfitted with an assortment of accessories. Teams with preset names and logos can also be created, but you’ll need a lot of Jam Points to add players to their roster. Other unlockables include codes that are entered before a game begins, additional accessories, and bonus arenas. As far as adding some goals and replay value to the game, it’s a solid array of content. Many of the basics are also unlocked out of the box, which cuts down on the grind.

In terms of modes, there’s exhibition play, the Jam Tournament, and the Legends Tournament. The Jam Tournament is the traditional campaign in which you need to beat all of the other NBA teams. After that, you’ll face off against special teams and players, which are unlocked when you defeat them. The Legends Tournament pits you against teams of legendary players, beginning in the 50s. The presentation is actually really cool, starting out in black and white for games against the 50s players, with Tim Kitzrow even impersonating an old-timey announcer. The three-point line is also absent. Think NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12, though not quite as impressive.

The more I played NBA Jam 2004, the more I warmed up to it. It doesn’t feel quite as polished as NBA Street, or for that matter, its predecessors developed by Midway. The court can feel a bit crowded with six players, and the AI seems to swing between being too good and too dumb. There are some really cool looking dunks though, and the Hot Spots are an interesting mechanic, albeit a little cheap. With two tournament modes, Create-a-Player and Create-a-Team functionality, and a variety of unlockable content, it has a respectable amount of depth. The gameplay isn’t without its flaws, and I’m not a fan of every design choice, but it’s definitely enjoyable all the same.

Legends in NBA Jam 2004

NBA Jam 2004 is somewhat forgotten and overlooked, but is it underrated? I would say maybe a little. It was a welcome return to the traditional style of arcade basketball with a few new wrinkles, and it is by no means a bad game. It’s probably fair to say that the NBA Jam name had lost its appeal due to Acclaim’s attempts to take the series in a more sim direction, and the game was also overshadowed by the rise of the NBA Street series. As I noted before, however, it’s not quite as good as NBA Street, and even though it showed some evolution beyond the original games, it lacks the cultural impact, balance, and tight controls. It’s good, but I don’t think it holds up as great.

I do like it, though. Honestly, I can see myself adding it to my retro gaming rotation, dusting it off to play through both of the tournaments when I feel like taking a break from the current games. It probably stands as Acclaim’s best NBA Jam release, and overall, a good title in the series’ divided lineage. It wouldn’t be my pick for the best NBA Jam game, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, either. If you’re partial to the two-on-two NBA Jam games, especially the originals, it can take a little time to warm up to the 2003 iteration. Once you have, however, it’s just as capable of providing an engaging arcade hoops experience as its more well-known Boomshakalaka brethren.

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