I don't follow sports as much as I used to. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with basketball: I played after school every day, I had a jersey of my favorite player (number 7, Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns), and I would play the arcade and Sega Genesis versions of NBA Jam (and its follow up, NBA Jam Tournament Edition) religiously.
NBA Jam is as timeless as it is firmly rooted in the popular culture of the 1990's, thanks to a combination of NBA greats (Scottie Pippen! Penny Hardaway!), joke characters (Bill Clinton! Al Gore!), the world's most enthusiastic sports commentator, and a stripped-down, arcade-focused take on basketball. 20 years later, EA made an effort to recapture the magic of an era of slams and jams by bringing NBA Jam back to consoles with a few modern tweaks. While 2010's NBA Jam got most of the way there, it's the digital-only (and much less expensive) sequel NBA Jam: On Fire Edition which really nails the stuff that made the original arcade game so great. Personally, it takes me back to a time when shattering the glass backboard wasn't just allowed - it was encouraged.
The NBA Jam series takes the fundamentals of basketball and peels away every layer of complication, leaving only the most basic interactions between ball and player. Instead of five players on the court per team, there are two. The complex layers of controls you'd normally find in sports simulations are gone, replaced by a handful of inputs: pass/steal, shoot/block, and a turbo button, which lets you run faster and makes your other actions more forceful. There are few rules outside of the shot clock and the dreaded goaltending call - no out of bounds, no backcourt violations, no time outs, and no fouls. This focus on the most fundamental aspects of the sport not only keeps the pace high, but allows NBA Jam to make even the simplest actions look absolutely spectacular.
Performing one of several dozen scene-stealing slam dunks with your digital b-baller is stupidly easy: hold down turbo, blast past the defense, and hold the shoot button when you get close to the hoop. But you're not just jumping up and stuffing the ball through the net - your little hoopster launches himself 50 feet into the air, flips a half-dozen times, then comes crashing down into the goal with the force of a cannonball. Score three baskets in a row, and the ball literally catches fire whenever it's in your possession, making your shots more accurate and your dunks more dunktacular. Everything about NBA Jam, from the hilariously static digital photo renders of actual basketball players' faces, to a grown man shouting "BOOM-SHAKALAKA" at the top of his lungs when you score, takes an already action-packed sport and blows it out to its most ridiculously over-the-top conclusion.
NBA Jam: On Fire Edition completely nails the fluid gameplay and outrageous aesthetic from the original while simultaneously sprucing things up for the transition to high-definition. There are a few new strategic options, like a spin move and the ability to send basic commands to your AI-controlled teammate to set picks for you or leap into the air for an alley oop. You can also pull off 'razzle-dazzle' moves by pressing both triggers for no benefit other than to shove your sweet skills in your opponent's face. You get online multiplayer, as well as a new campaign mode, which lets you earn Jam Bucks to unlock special teams, classic players, and additional gear and modes. All of these additions are natural extensions of the original, rather than a complete overhaul, making for a game that feels just modern enough without sacrificing the elegant simplicity that makes NBA Jam so enticing.
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