I’ll admit up front that I absolutely hate basketball, and that I could care less about any basketball simulation game. That’s why I’ve loved the NBA Jam series since I was a kid playing it on the Genesis, or SNES, or in an arcade. NBA Jam strips the game down to its most basic element without having rules (with the exception of goal tending) and without complicated controls. Basically, NBA Jam has always been the basketball game that fans and non-fans of the sport could play for hours at a time and have a blast.
NBA Jam: On Fire Edition continues that tradition and improves on it to the point where it may be the best version in the franchise. On Fire Edition is loaded with features. There are challenges to complete and every game you play has you earning Jam Bucks. These bucks can be spent in the Jam Store to unlock legendary players, teams, cheats, and some stuff for your profile. All 30 NBA teams are unlocked and available from the get go with current rosters (and there will be a roster update once the next season starts). There are 32 special teams to be unlocked (three are holiday unlocks), and these include foreign teams, the old Seattle SuperSonics, teams made up of honey badgers, ninjas, mascots, the Beastie Boys, and my favorites the Republicans and the Democrats. I highly recommend buying those two teams as soon as you can; seeing George Bush dunk and Hilary Clinton (and Sarah Palin) referred to as “he” is hilarious.
Tag Mode is back, allowing you to change between players on the court at will. You also have some control over the other player when you are not actively controlling him thanks to the Call Out feature. With the press of a button, you can call on your partner to shove a player or go up for an alley-oop. This feature is extremely useful and you’ll use it constantly when playing single player. The alley-oops are completely dominate.
On Fire Edition’s big campaign/career mode is called Road Trip. You’re goal here is to progress your way through every region (and not in any order) to gain 100% completion, and that’s going to take some time. You’ll have to play each team in a region several times. The first game you’ll play against a team will be a bronze level game, and it is a standard 2v2 NBA Jam and it’s pretty easy to win. Winning that bronze game will then unlock a silver challenge against the same team. It’s at these challenges and above that the rules of the game start to change. Dunks may be worth 3 points; you might be playing one minute quarters with a live ball and 15-second shot clock, and so on. It’s important to make sure you read the instructions, and yes these do get progressively harder.
And that’s my biggest problem with the game. The gold level games can be extremely hard, but not because of a smarter AI or anything. To use an example of extreme frustration, I was playing the Orlando Magic Gold Challenge. Here dunks are worth three points and over-the-top dunks (on fire) are worth ten. The Magic team consists of Howard and Shaq, and so I also used Howard and Shaq since they have perfect dunk ratings. They constantly blocked every shot, dunk, or alley-oop that I went for, that’s when they weren’t shoving both members of my team down. I go to block one of their dunks, and I just get knocked out of the way. The AI partner does very little. If by some chance I was winning going into the fourth quarter, the AI was ramped up to Super AI and would easily come back from being down by fifteen or so. Yes, I did finally, after about twenty tries, defeat them. It was more a feeling of relief than satisfaction. Some gold challenges aren’t hard, but some like the Magic were more frustrating than challenging (i.e. the AI wins felt cheap and cheated, not earned).
Of course everything about NBA Jam: On Fire Edition is made with the idea of playing with others. So you and a buddy (local on the couch with you or across the country online) can play through the Road Trip mode together cooperatively. And of course there’s plenty of competitive multiplayer to be had too, and playing in the Online Arena offers up new challenges, a lot of bucks to be earned, and bragging rights through the leaderboards. Whatever you want to do, you can do it by yourself, with a buddy, or with just some random person online. And it all works well, even if some of the gold challenges are ridiculously frustrating to the point of almost ceasing to be fun.
Whether you’re a fan of basketball or you’re like me and absolutely hate it, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition is a no-brainer purchase at $15. Listening to the wonderful and hilarious commentary by Tim Kitzrow is just about worth the price of admission itself. Arcade basketball has never been quite as fun or jam packed as it is in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. If you haven’t experienced NBA Jam since say Tournament Edition for the SNES, you’ll still be able to come into this one and have it be instantly familiar and the controls are as pick-up-and-play friendly as any sports game could ever hope to be. The retail version that released last year for a lot more money was NBA Jam heating back up, but this downloadable only version is aptly named. NBA Jam is back on fire, and it’s never been bigger or better.
* A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.