NBA Jam iOS Review

UPDATE: Since this review was written, EA Sports has updated NBA Jam to include local multiplayer over a Bluetooth connection or local Wi-Fi. One of the big cons found in this review was the lack of multiplayer support of any kind, so the final score and the Pros and Cons section at the bottom has been adjusted accordingly. The rest of the review remains the same — and NBA Jam still doesn’t support online multiplayer.

NBA Jam is among the most fondly remember games of the 1990s console wars. It’s 2-on-2 arcade basketball action was a joy to play, as much because of its simplicity as its cartoony, over-the-top atmosphere. But more than anything, it was a blast to play with friends.


NBA Jam (IPhone [Reviewed])
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: February 10, 2011
MSRP: $4.99

EA Sports and EA Mobile have ported NBA Jam to the iPhone with spectacular results, following the updates made for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 and for the Wii. Jam retains all its cartoony atmosphere and real-world stars, it’s filled with challenges, teams and games, and it looks and plays great. It just has one black spot on its phenomenal roster: it lacks multiplayer of any sort.

That’s not a game-breaker, to be sure — NBA Jam is still some of the most fun you can have on your phone — but it’s a serious detraction from a game that, by all rights, should have a multiplayer element. That missing feature and all the possibilities that go out the window with it, stop Jam from being near-perfect and leave it among the ranks of the “pretty damn good.”

Jam handles well on the touchscreen. You’ve got two options for controlling your players: virtual buttons, or swipe controls. The two schemes aren’t really all that different — with the virtual buttons, the input keys are always on the screen, and holding down the Turbo button, for example, enables different moves that are executed by sliding your thumb up to the other buttons, rather than just tapping them as you would if you weren’t in Turbo. The gesture controls do the exact same thing, except you can put your thumb down anywhere you want on the screen and get access to the controls. They work in fundamentally the same way, and are in mostly the same positions, as the buttons, though.

Playing the game is really simple. Run toward the basket using the left thumbstick and the “shoot” button will automatically trigger a dunk. Hold the Turbo button and you can do it with a slide, instead. From further out, you can shoot the ball by holding the button and releasing it at the peak of the jump shot to increase your chances of nailing it. When you’re not carrying the ball, the shoot button controls jumping for blocks. There’s also a dedicated button for stealing that can become shove with Turbo activated.

Simple, easy to use controls make getting around the court totally fluid. NBA Jam isn’t a hard game to pick up and play well. Its short games — the longest you can set a quarter to be is five minutes, and the default is three — mean it’s a great mobile experience with a limited time commitment. On the iPhone 4′s retina display, NBA Jam and its photo-realistic player faces look phenomenal and hilarious. Big Head mode is even better, and once you’ve unlocked it (which is soon after playing one or two games), you’ll probably want to just leave it on forever.

It’s not all a perfect experience, though. The iPhone’s small screen size and virtual controls have the irritating habit of colluding to block your view of the screen. It’s especially irritating to have a thumb marring the lower left quadrant of the action as players are trying to get back on defense during a breakaway — losing track of a character is easy to do, and results in lost points. The problem is alleviated if you play the game on an iPad, as it’s compatible, but I can’t attest to how the controls handle there. On the iPhone, solid control means a hand-off in terms of screen real estate.

NBA Jam has a ton of rewarding gameplay to offer, though. You can pick from any NBA team in the league and play against every other team, either in a campaign mode, in which you grab a team and take them to the finals, or with the randomly assigned quick play mode. Campaign is a lot more fun, on account of it allows for unlocking different characters for teams (as well as Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin) and things like Big Head mode. The game is chock full of challenges to complete, like making 10 blocks in a game or beating a computer opponent without shoving.

But there’s still that pesky lack of multiplayer. NBA Jam is great to play alone, but in all versions of the game yet released over the years, having a friend to battle  is the game’s crowning feature. With the iPhone’s built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, at least some semblance of multiplayer should be possible, and its absence is a painful one.

NBA Jam iOS is great fun and definitely worth $5, but it just doesn’t feel like NBA Jam without a multiplayer component. It’s half-formed, incomplete, and awesome though it may be, it isn’t nearly as awesome as it should be. I know that’s an awkward complaint to make — great game not quite great enough. NBA Jam is still an incredibly fun mobile experience, but smashing glass and setting hoops on fire isn’t the same when you’re doing it alone.

Pros:

  • Great, easy to use controls
  • Hilarious, awesome graphics
  • Perfectly captures the arcade atmosphere and console feel
  • One of the most fun games yet available on the iPhone
  • Lots of unlockable features, plenty of games to play
  • Very high production values
  • Solid price point
  • Latest update adds Bluetooth or local Wi-Fi multiplayer, fixing a major problem from when the game shipped

Cons:

  • Local multiplayer is definitely nice, but why EA hasn’t sprung for online capabilities is hard to fathom
  • Thumbs block the action

Final Score: 90

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2 Comments on NBA Jam iOS Review

Evan

On March 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I agree. Great game, but another con is that 3-point shooting is more difficult than in previous games. You are lucky if you make 50% of your shots with the top 3-point shooters.

Alex

On April 30, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Since this article was written, EA has added multiplayer via WiFi AND Bluetooth.