NBA Jam was a tremendous arcade hit back in the 90s, offering flashy, fast-paced basketball excitement. Even though it was little more than an updated clone of Midway’s own Arch Rivals, Jam came at a time when it was new to its audience, and featured enough improvements to legitimately capture interest. The nearly photorealistic graphics gathered crowds, as did a presentation full of humiliating, impossible dunks and Tim Kitzrow’s energetic announcer adding sass and quoteable one-liners. Having the NBA license didn’t hurt either, and being able to play as two digitized stars from your favorite team was undoubtedly critical to its success – especially if you were lucky enough to have two rival fans go at it in an arcade while spectators cheered.
The Tournament Edition came a year later. While fundamentally the same game, it updated the rosters and included a third player for each team. Stats and individual player strengths became more important, and you could make substitutions between quarters as the needs of the game changed. Extremely “arcade” features were also added, like powerup icons appearing on the court and “hot spots” that netted you up to 9 points if you made a shot from within them. The new Tournament Mode turned these powerups off for a game that, ironically, played exactly like the first – but gave an awesome reward for beating all 27 teams. Expanded cheats, secret modes (like Big Head and Smurf), and secret guests were also included, encouraging cheat hunters to throw in quarters by the bagful.
Graphically, the Jaguar port impresses. Player sprites show the greatest improvement over the Genesis and SNES, and are far closer to the arcade than either 16-bit system. The Jag’s players are large and detailed, with actual faces that, while a little too blurry to be instantly recognizable, at least have defined features and resemble the player they represent. A scaling effect that was lost on 16-bit ports remains intact on the Jag, so the size of player sprites changes based on their distance from the camera.
The speed is also right where it should be. Action is fast, while still leaving you in control. But if the default speed isn’t enough, an optional “Juice Mode” jacks everything all the way up to something mostly unplayable. Colors are the only real disappointment, falling somewhere between the Genesis and SNES in quality and vibrancy. They are noticeably muted when compared to the arcade, even over S-Video. The background and courtside also resembles their console cousins far more than the arcade, with yet fewer colors, a darkened audience, and limited detail and animation for the sideline spectators.
Gameplay is classic full court, two-on-two Jam. Rules are loosely enforced – calling only shot clock violations and goal tending. Otherwise, you’re free to knock defenders away with some thrown elbows, or shove another player to the ground to spill the ball from his hands. The Jaguar pad keeps up as well as it needs to, and equal to other conole controllers. C steals and passes, A jumps and shoots, and B handles the all-important Turbo feature. As long as you have enough juice in your Turbo meter, holding this button allows you to run faster, pass stronger, shove instead of steal, and pull off the series’ crowd-pleasing dunks based on your position inside the paint.
Your game mode options are a practice mode (no AI, virtually useless), team game (two players on the same team), or head-to-head (two players controlling opposite teams). If you have the Team Tap from White Men Can’t Jump, you can bring on up to four players in teams of two. There are a lot of special options available, ranging from shot clock and quarter length, to toggling the arcade’s powerup icons and hotspots. You can also turn on “Tournament Mode.” Like the arcade, this disables all cheats and challenges you to play and beat every team on the roster. Your progress, stats, and records are saved on the cart by entering your initials, allowing you to pick up your impromptu tourney at any time. Cheats and secret characters are intact as well, but with different button combos (usually involving the Jag’s keypad) to unlock them.
The AI controls your teammate if another player is not available, and does a decent job in the role. As in the original, you do not directly control him, but can influence his decisions with your own buttons. So if your AI teammate is running down court with the ball and you hit C, you’ll call for a pass. Same with shooting. He’ll make points if left to his own devices, but this feature allows you to formulate a plan without leaving the AI to simply run rogue. A simple setup would be to let the AI get open, pass to him, and order him to shoot. As you get more comfortable, you can work out some elaborate pass-skipping tricks, or the ever-impressive drive and surprise pass from a jump shot to an open teammate at the 3-point line.
If that doesn’t work for you, a new feature for the Tournament Edition is a “Tag Mode” where you always control the player with the ball. Passing the ball with this option turned on switches your control to the other teammate upon reciept. Either mode is playable, and having the option is very appreciated.
Another achievement worth mentioning is with the sound. All effects are clean and clear; much better than the Genesis and on par with the SNES. One small feature that elevates this version further is the inclusion of all the announcer’s voice samples, including calling out player names as they receive the ball or prepare to do something impressive. These were axed from the 16-bit versions, and they do help keep the fluidity of the commentary going. No one will mistake either version for a T.V. broadcast, but it feels more organic to hear “Stolen! …to Ewing… oooooooooOOHHH… BOOMSHAKALAKA!”
Of course, the port is not without some flaws. Music is a low point. For no reason I can figure, none of the arcade’s music is in the game – not even approximations of it. The NBA Jam theme is replaced with something bloopy and generic, and the on-court background themes are equally lifeless. One of the best features of NBA Jam was its outrageous presentation, part of which included its energetic, highlight reel soundtrack. The music here threatens to put you to sleep, and most sounds better suited for a platformer or a menu screen than a fast-paced sports game.
The difficulty is also surprising, with normal AI settings posed to give even a veteran Jammer a run for his money. Higher difficulties do make your computer opponents stronger and more accurate, but they also lower your abilities. Shots that you pull off perfectly don’t hit, steals that you time correctly don’t strip the ball, and your AI teammate becomes less reliable and less accurate. Enemies almost always beat you to the rebound, and often start shoving you out of nothing more than digital spite. I have no issue with the opposing team making fewer mistakes, but crippling you at the same time isn’t particularly fun. Especially when your dunks (the only shot that can’t be blocked) magically go flying off the rim, while the Dallas fucking Mavericks can sink swishing three-pointers from the other end of the court.
On a lesser, but related note, the T.E.’s greater focus on stats (compared to the original) can also be a little grating. Similar to higher difficulty levels, if your player doesn’t have a high enough stat in a particular area, then your attempts will fail regardless of how well you pull them off. Three-pointers is where this is most noticeable, and you really shouldn’t bother trying with low-stat shooter. It doesn’t matter how perfectly you time that release – the ball is hitting the rim and the other team is picking up the rebound. This does encourage you to get familiar with the strengths and weakness of a favorite team, and then stick with them, but remembering who is supposed to be best at what is still an annoyance that keeps popping up.
Injuries can be similarly annoying. In the T.E., shoving a player adds to their injury stat. Players with higher injuries decrease their other stats until you sit them out a quarter to rest. On the one hand, there’s strategic value in shoving a strong member of an opposing team to force him out for the next quarter. Of course, when it happens to you, it creeps toward frustration. Especially when so many teams have two virtual clones, and only one guy who can do something uniquely useful (like shoot 3s).
NBA Jam remains one of the best examples of pick-up-and-play sports action, and the Tournament Edition simply adds more to a winning formula. The Jaguar benefits from having mostly faithful graphics, though the generic music is a definite letdown. There’s also nothing here that wasn’t on the Saturn or PSX, making its technical accomplishments over the 16-bit versions a little less significant. Still, best basketball on the Jag.
NBA Jam remains as fun and casual as ever, and the T.E. adds minor strategy and improvements in the right places. Jag’s graphics aren’t arcade-perfect, but look great. Strong sound effects and full Kitzrow commentary. Easy to control.
Generic music instead of the arcade’s tunes. Standard difficulty is cheap and tough, but can be adjusted.