NBA Jam, huh? I have fond memories of the original Mega Drive version, released sometime in the mid-90s. Never got round to playing the recent remake, and I certainly didn’t expect an iPhone port to be any good. But life’s funny sometimes, and it turns out that the pocket edition of this extremely arcade-y take on basketball is actually pretty awesome. How can this be? Sit back and I’ll explain…
If you’re unfamiliar with the whole NBA Jam shtick, it’s basically basketball that’s been boiled down to its essence, crossed with a whole mall’s worth of arcade games, and injected with a healthy dose of acid. Perhaps you could say it’s what Burnout is to Gran Turismo. In any event, it’s fast, basic, and fun — even if (like me) you’re no basketball fan.
Basketball is stripped back to two players per team, and it certainly makes it easier to keep track of things on the iPhone’s small screen. Forget tactics or defence: it’s all about offensive play. Points come thick and fast as you and your teammate attempt to run rings around the opposition.
A virtual analog stick controls your movement, while three buttons on the right-hand side allow you to sprint, pass or shoot. I normally hate virtual buttons on a touchscreen device, but I have to admit that they work well here. I’m not sure what it is, but the developers did a good job making the fake buttons feel responsive. It helps that you can hold down the sprint button and drag your finger over to pass or shoot, making your character continue dashing forward while performing another action.
At first the gameplay seemed pretty shallow and repetitive to me — the constant back and forth along the court got a bit tired. But then I started working with my AI teammate, and the rest of the game really opened up. Leaping towards the hoop, having your teammate flick the ball your way, then doing a slam dunk just doesn’t get old.
The opposition AI ramps up steadily as well, starting out very easy and gradually becoming more aggressive as you continue down the main career mode. Once you start getting knocked down and having the ball stolen a lot, you’re forced to really use your AI partner to get to the other end. It’s all pretty satisfying.
It’s also very easy to pick up and play for a couple of minutes, which is obviously key to an iPhone title. The only downside? No multiplayer. Here’s hoping an update will come out giving us even local WiFi games, because NBA Jam is a million times better when you’re playing against other people.
With crisp graphics, great sound (mainly in the form of the excellent commentary), and surprisingly playable gameplay, NBA Jam for the iPhone is well worth picking up, even if (or perhaps especially if) you’re not a basketball fan.