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 comparing the NBA Jam series to the NBA Street series.
It’s been over a year since I posted my first “Versus” feature, which compared The Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest. My intention was for it to become a recurring feature, similar to my Familiar Faces in Strange Places/Familiar Places series. To that end, I’ve been sitting on a few ideas for other comparisons. Since I compared two modes in back-to-back releases in the same series for the first instalment, it only makes sense to go bigger for the second article. As such, today I’m comparing the two heavyweights of the arcade basketball scene: NBA Jam, and NBA Street.
There are many factors to consider here. There have been more NBA Jam games than NBA Street games, as well as a number of releases that were spiritual successors to NBA Jam under different titles, after Acclaim acquired the name from Midway. To that point, three different developers have released games under the NBA Jam brand, while every NBA Street game has come from EA Sports BIG. Nevertheless, I believe that all of the evidence must be considered, as we compare, contrast, and ultimately pick the winner out of these classic arcade hoops series. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Basic Concept & Gameplay
Let’s begin with the basic concept and gameplay of each series. NBA Jam features 2-on-2 gameplay with no violations except for goaltending and the shot clock. It’s an up-tempo style with ridiculous high-flying dunks, and the famous mechanic of getting On Fire after making three consecutive baskets. We choose one of the NBA teams (and in some games, special squads) to play with. NBA Street is, as the name implies, streetball oriented. Games are first to 21, we assemble our own squads, and perform trick moves to unlock the Gamebreaker, which scores an extra point and deducts a point from our opponent. Dunks are exaggerated, but less so than in NBA Jam.
Both are great concepts with very enjoyable gameplay. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we’ve seen the pinnacle of arcade basketball games in both the NBA Jam and NBA Street series. Both of them have delivered in the areas that so many other arcade hoops titles have come up short in: balance, individual player abilities, accessibility, and pure fun. While there’s familiarity in their concepts, they also stand apart. NBA Jam is a cartoonish rendition of the NBA (in the best possible way), while NBA Street is a celebration of streetball and its culture. As with many aspects of these two series, which concept and gameplay are “best” largely comes down to personal preference.
It’s therefore difficult to put aside all bias. As you may know, as much as I like Street, I’m a Jam guy. Even putting that aside and being as objective as possible though, I have to give the nod to NBA Jam for a few reasons. First, it deserves credit for being the innovator: without Jam, there’d be no Street. Second, there’s something that’s more accessible about Jam’s approach, in both the simplicity of the gameplay and the team structure. Additionally, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition’s improved AI solved one of the perennial problems in arcade basketball games, that being cheap, repetitive gameplay. The best Jam game does its concepts and gameplay better than the best Street title.
Winner: NBA Jam
Depth & Innovation
Again, NBA Jam deserves credit for taking a concept established by Arch Rivals, and running with it to solidify a genre. However, it’s not about who did it first, but who did it the best. Depth is also important, though it’s often been a weakness for arcade basketball games. As much as those original NBA Jam games hold up as true classics that can still be enjoyed today, there isn’t much meat to them. Once you’ve beaten all of the NBA teams and unlocked the hidden players, that’s all there is to it. It’s possible to finish those original NBA Jam games in a day, and its Midway sequels under other names (such as NBA Hangtime) have a similar problem: they’re fun, but shallow.
This is something that NBA Street has aimed to avoid since its very first release. In addition to exhibition play and a campaign mode in City Circuit, there was Hold the Court (a gauntlet mode). NBA Street Vol. 2 likewise had NBA Challenge and a career mode in Be A Legend. V3 had the Street Challenge and a Dunk Contest, while NBA Street Homecourt had the titular Homecourt Challenge; a lengthy campaign with court and player creation, rule modifications, and squad building. In every game, there was plenty of content to unlock in the form of Legends, teams, courts, gear, and so on. It was deeper, and more creative, than just defeating all of the NBA teams on a ladder.
To that end, NBA Street would seem to have this category in the bag…except, there are the NBA Jam games that weren’t made by Midway. NBA Jam 2004 by Acclaim added a Legends Tournament that featured throwback presentation long before 2K did it in NBA 2K12. The Remix Tour, boss battles, and mini-games in the 2010 reboot by EA Sports were very innovative, though the Classic Campaign could be a bit dry. On Fire Edition’s Road Trip took the best parts of the Classic Campaign and Remix Tour, and created the best mode we’ve ever seen in an arcade basketball game. Throw in the Real AI that greatly improved the gameplay, and the point has to go to NBA Jam.
Winner: NBA Jam
Aesthetic & Atmosphere
As I said, personal preference is often the deciding factor when it comes to the various aspects of NBA Jam and NBA Street. I’ve already covered gameplay and the basic concepts of each series, but two huge factors that shape our preferences in that regard are the aesthetic and overall atmosphere. Here, NBA Jam has a tremendous advantage in the commentary of Tim Kitzrow. Simply put, it’s iconic, and a big reason for Jam’s sustained popularity throughout the years. Tim’s commentary accompanying the high flying dunks is what people remember, along with a cartoonish aesthetic that stands out from the sim games, while at the same time not being overly silly or wacky.
At the same time, NBA Street has a distinct style of its own, one inspired by streetball culture. Its aesthetic has undergone more evolution than NBA Jam as well, especially when it comes to Homecourt. The addition of so many famous parks, created in such painstaking detail, was impressive. It makes the aesthetic and atmosphere in most of the NBA Jam titles seem somewhat generic in comparison. We weren’t just playing on the same basic court with a few colours and logos that changed with the teams. We were playing on accurate representations of Rucker Park, Cloverdale, and other such venues. Even the earlier games featured a variety of creative and distinctive locations.
That’s not to say that NBA Jam’s aesthetic is bad or uncreative, but NBA Street did push the envelope further with its locations. The effects when activating and using a Gamebreaker also stand out just as much as being On Fire, or the “photos as heads” approach in EA’s Jam titles. Once again though, there’s Tim Kitzrow. We remember and imitate his calls of “Boomshakalaka!” and “He’s On Fire!”, but we don’t quote Joe “The Show” Jackson or any other Street announcer. NBA Jam has done a lot with a simplistic approach, while NBA Street has at times been impressively realistic and gritty. I’m not sure that I can rationalise a halfway objective verdict here, so…
Consistency & Overall Quality
Here’s where it gets really interesting. If you ask me which series has the absolute best game, I would say NBA Jam, thanks to On Fire Edition. When we include all of the games that carry the Jam name, as well as its spiritual successors by Midway after Acclaim acquired the brand, you could argue that there are more great games in the Jam series than there are Street games, period. However, the smaller number of Street games is actually an advantage here. There was less opportunity for the series to evolve into something it wasn’t, or produce a bad game. I can only comment on the Street titles that came out on console, but to that end, they’re all of a very high quality.
It pains me to say it because I’m an NBA Jam fan from way back, but you just can’t say the same thing about that series. Acclaim’s first release that wasn’t a port of a Midway game, NBA Jam Extreme, was inferior to NBA Hangtime. NBA Jam 99 and 2000 are failures as both arcade and sim titles. NBA Jam 2004 is solid, but it’s not as good as NBA Street or its predecessors. NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC and NBA Hoopz are both decent follow-ups to Hangtime and perhaps somewhat overlooked, but there are also reasons they don’t receive as much attention. Looking back, there are some really mediocre to flat out terrible games in NBA Jam’s lineage.
Conversely, there aren’t any bad NBA Street games; not among the mainline releases, anyway. As I said, I can’t personally comment on the quality of the handheld version (NBA Street Showdown), nor the two online games that were released exclusively in South Korea. Showdown did receive favourable reviews however, and again, the mainline console releases were all great. Street also benefitted from evolving and improving upon its concept, whereas Acclaim made the ill-fated decision to try to make hybrid sim/arcade game with NBA Jam 99 and 2000, with very disappointing results. Jam’s highs arguably have been higher, but Street’s quality was consistent.
Winner: NBA Street
Cultural Impact & Legacy
Generational divides and personal preference determine whether most avid hoops gamers fall into the NBA Jam or NBA Street camps. If you remember playing the original NBA Jam games, chances are you’ll prefer them, holding them in higher regard as innovators and your introduction to arcade basketball games. If you got into basketball gaming when NBA Street was new, you’ll likely prefer it, as NBA Jam was in a major rut around that time. In that regard, it’s not unlike NBA Live and NBA 2K. Gamers who weren’t around for when NBA Live was on top, or at least still able to compete with NBA 2K, likely won’t have the same appreciation for EA’s series.
And of course, as is the case with NBA Live and NBA 2K, there are gamers who like and enjoy both NBA Jam and NBA Street for their different approaches to arcade basketball. With all of that being said, which game has the biggest relevance and impact on pop culture, and the stronger legacy? Realistically, the only answer is NBA Jam. When a team or player shoots the lights out, people don’t edit together highlight reels with Gamebreaker effects and music. No, they add a flaming ball scorching the nets, and dub over Tim Kitzrow’s commentary. It’s Tim Kitzrow that teams call in to do voiceovers on their video packages, not Bob Elliott to be Joe “The Show”.
NBA Jam has also been the template for arcade basketball games, inspiring several knock-offs in the same way Doom once inspired so many clones. Almost every arcade hoops game that has followed NBA Jam has tried to imitate it to some extent. Even NBA Playgrounds, which takes some obvious inspiration from NBA Street, models its gameplay after NBA Jam with 2-on-2 action, power-ups, and exaggerated dunks. The officially licensed PBA Basketball Slam apes several aspects of EA Sports’ NBA Jam titles. And again, although it has many original elements and established its own identity, NBA Street took inspiration from NBA Jam, the king of arcade hoops.
Winner: NBA Jam
Overall Winner: NBA Jam
Surprise, surprise: the person who prefers NBA Jam picked it as the winner! I’d like to think that I’ve made a solid case though, according to reasonable criteria. Also, this isn’t to say that I think NBA Street is vastly inferior, or that it isn’t up there with NBA Jam as one of the leaders in its genre. It did things that NBA Jam didn’t, and carved out its own identity in a way that so many Jam clones failed to do. It was a game that learned from NBA Jam, rather than simply being a pale imitation of it. I also have to give credit to NBA Street for its consistent quality. It helps that there are fewer games in the series – and only one developer – but nevertheless, Street was always consistent.
Of course, just as a smaller quantity helped maintain the quality of NBA Street titles, the larger number of NBA Jam games has allowed that series to boast more standout releases. Although it’s had some definite lows – particularly under Acclaim – Jam has had the higher highs. The original game set records for profits in arcades, on top of firmly establishing the arcade basketball genre. Going on ten years later, On Fire Edition set a standard that no arcade title before or since has been able to equal or surpass. Jam is firmly established in pop culture, and was popular with dedicated hoop heads and more casual fans alike. Street is great, but Jam is greater.
And now, it’s your turn. Who’s your winner in the battle of NBA Jam and NBA Street? While I have my own preference and pick, as outlined by the criteria above, both series have produced fantastic games that took the arcade basketball genre to new heights. Whether you prefer one over the other, or like them both equally, I don’t think you can go wrong with your choice. As much as I’m hoping to see EA Sports bring NBA Live back and finally be a viable competitor in the sim space, I’d also love to see some new NBA Jam and NBA Street titles, perhaps in alternating years. Until then, we at least have some amazing arcade classics that we can reminisce about.