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NBA Jam 99 (N64) Review

Publisher: Acclaim Sports
Release Date: November 1998

Background Info

The original NBA Jam - both in the arcade and on 16-bit console systems - was never a game for realists or simulation fans. It was a silly, two-on-two basketball game that played more like a cartoon than an actual sporting event. But damn, the game was fun. The game's large, smooth-moving players, memorable announcer, and special effects gave NBA Jam a certain energy, personality, and life that many sports games lack. There were no fouls, no refs, and no rule violations. NBA Jam was a game that never slowed down. And while it didn't really break new ground in sports games, its simplicity, smooth play, and sense of fun made for a classic sports title.

But by the time the next generation of game systems came around, the NBA Jam craze was winding down, and new editions of the game struggled due to lack of innovation and a gimmicky gameplay that had long since gone stale for many gamers. Meanwhile, more realistic five-on-five NBA titles (Live, Shootout, In The Zone) became much more popular.

So finally, Acclaim has brought Jam back as a full-blown simulation. They face a tricky balancing act - appealing to the large market of five-on-five simulation fans while bringing back long-standing NBA Jam fans with some of the free-wheeling, entertaining gameplay that made the original such a classic. Appealing to and satisfying both audiences would be no easy task.

Presentation/Graphics : 82
The cartoonish, big-headed players of the classic NBA Jam are gone, replaced by detailed, motion-captured, 3-D polygonal models. While not dazzling, the players are well-animated and move realistically. The players have lots of smooth movement animations - rebounds, fade-aways, blocks, dunks and passes are varied and look realistic. The free-throw animations are particularly well done with a range of free-throw routines and movements of the shooter, while the other players fidget and jostle for position on the side of the lane. The player models are well done, but don't blow you away. In fact, they appear a little blurry, and Acclaim's "real-life faces" look somewhat freakish. In addition, from time to time, there appears to be some minor slowdown in animation, but not enough to really distract from the game. Overall, the players look good, but not dramatically better or worse than other N64 basketball titles.

The courts look realistic and are surrounded by generic-looking crowds. A really nice graphic touch in NBA Jam 99 is that at the start of the game, you see full player-introductions, just like at real NBA events.

One of the best features of NBA Jam 99, once again demonstrating Acclaim's prowess in N64 graphics, is a fully customizable camera angle. In addition to several pre-set camera angles, you can use the "Create-A-Cam" feature and set the exact height, angle, and perspective to view the game.

Presentation/Audio : 88
One of the great traditions this game inherits from its classic predecessor is lively, entertaining announcers. Anyone who ever played the original NBA Jam no doubt remembers its breathless announcer exclaiming "HE'S ON FIRE!" or "BOOM-SHAKALA!" Happily, Acclaim did a good job adapting this game's commentary and color to the demands of a modern five-on-five simulation, but still maintained some of the flavor of its predecessor.

Minnesota Timberwolves announcer Kevin Harlan and NBC's Bill Walton provide the commentary and color, respectively. There may never have been two real-world announcers better suited for a video game: Harlan is famous for his over-the-top excitability (he's the guy who once, after a big Kevin Garnett dunk, boomed "He's got mad-cow disease!"), and Walton, for his harsh, often brutal assessments of the action on the court. While the speech engine in the game is somewhat buggy - Walton's speech often sounds like it is set at a different volume than Harlan - these two make an entertaining announcer duo. They react well to the action on the court, with rare instances of lagging behind the play. Walton, for example, freely bashes the on-court effort when you make a mistake (as he does on NBC broadcasts), howling things like "a TERRIBLE shot!", "they don't look like they WANT to win!", or "Why on Earth did he made THAT pass?!?" Sometimes if a player is fouled, Walton questions the call and groans, "LET 'EM PLAY!" Meanwhile, Harlan, in addition to calling the action, notes the ebbs and flows of the game. Give up a series of baskets in a row to the opposition, and Harlan may observe "they're getting caught in a buzz-saw!" Go a streak on your own, and Harlan may excitedly say "They're on a roll, baby! They're on a roll!" Harlan's best lines, however, are reserved for big dunks. His dunk lines rival anything from the original NBA Jam or any basketball game since. After a Shaq dunk, Harlan screams "Mothers! Cover your children's eyes!" After another, he yells "He does it WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE!"

In addition to the over-the-top stuff, the announcers also do some subtle things well. For example, after you shoot freethrows, Harlan comments on what you did, noting "he missed both" or "he sinks both shots!" Not a big deal, but it's just another little touch that gives you a sense that the announcers are really following the game, not merely executing a programmer's script.

The game also features stadium announcing by Jazz announcer Dan Roberts, who uses all the real player names, as well as those of fictional players that are drafted in the franchise mode.

The crowd effects sound good, but aren't remarkable. The crowds sound somewhat repetitive and cyclical, and don't respond as you would expect - they cheer equally for both teams. The crowd effects do have some nice touches, though: from time to time, they chant appropriately; as the game clock winds down at the end of periods, they count down to zero ("Three!... Two!... One!..."); and when a visiting player is at the free-throw line, you occasionally hear an air-horn from the stands, trying to distract you.

Otherwise, the game features standard basketball sound effects - squeaky shoes, clanging rims, the swish of the net - all decent, but nothing innovative or new.

Overall, for an N64 cartridge-based game, Jam 99 does a admirable job providing a good audio environment and delivers some of the most entertaining announcing on any basketball title. They still have a few bugs to work out, but overall, the audio is a big plus for this game.

Interface/Options : 83
NBA Jam 99 is easy to get around and use. The pre-game menu system is straightforward and slick. During a game, you have a full slate of options and settings, comparable to most basketball titles - you can substitute players, set rebounding strategies, set offensive and defensive plays, check stats, and adjust the amount to which the CPU handles your strategy and roster management for you.

The basic player control interface is simple and reprogrammable. The basic controls (shoot, pass, jump, steal) are controlled by the A and B buttons, while the more advanced moves and controls (back down, call-for-pick, spin, etc.) utilize the shoulder and C-buttons. The game features both directional and icon-passing. You can use the control pad to call plays on the fly during a game.

NBA Jam's list of options and features is extensive. Acclaim didn't take any shortcuts. It looks like they surveyed the features of all the existing NBA titles out there and set out to match every one of them... and then upped the ante. It's all here - exhibition and season play (including custom seasons), a three-point shootout, a create-a-player feature, custom teams, pre-season NBA drafts, full roster management (trades, free agents, contracts), box scores, instant replays, shot charts, play diagrams, customizable rules, scouting reports, injuries, and extensive stat tracking.

However, the best and most under-hyped feature in Jam 99 is its "total team management." This franchise/dynasty mode allows you to not only play several seasons in a row, but act as a general manager, drafting college talent, bidding for and re-signing free agents, making trades, shuffling your roster, negotiating salaries, and getting rid of unproductive players. Your players age and improve or decline in skill level with each season. Do you want to restore the Boston Celtics to glory? Or want to try to keep the Bulls at a championship level after Jordan retires? The franchise mode lets you build or maintain a team over several years, making the personnel decisions and moves that you think will give your team the best chance to improve. Trades are handled well, with multiple player trades, not just one-to-one exchanges. For example, the Timberwolves might not trade Stephon Marbury to the Lakers for Robert Horry, but if I throw in Rick Fox as part of the deal, they might bite on the trade. The CPU does a good job assessing trade value and rejecting unbalanced offers. On the flip side, other teams will approach you during the season and make trade offers that you can accept, reject, or renegotiate. All of this adds to the realism of an actual NBA season and adds a lot of strategy to building a winning team.

All-in-all, Jam 99 offers a full slate of options. They have more than matched the competition and actually set the standard for a basketball franchise mode. No other title comes close to offering this kind of multi-season depth.

Gameplay : 70
Here's where Jam 99 has an identity crisis - is this game a simulation or a button-mashing arcade game? Jam tries to be both, but only succeeds as a simulation.

Although the game has both an arcade and simulation mode, both feel like a sim. Although the arcade ("Jam") mode has limited rules and exaggerated dunks, it lacks the simplicity and free-wheeling style that a true arcade game needs. I think anyone who buys Jam 99 expecting to play a five-on-five version of the classic NBA Jam is in for a big disappointment. Yes, you can do summersault dunks and can still get "on fire," but the game still uses the advanced, complex controls of the simulation mode. One of the things that was great about the first NBA Jam was that you really only needed to use two buttons to play - not true with Jam 99. In addition, ten players on the court just doesn't allow for as much mindless run-and-gun action as a two-on-two arcade contest. If Acclaim wanted to stay true to the arcade with Jam 99, then the "arcade" mode should have allowed you to reduce the players and play two-on-two or three-on-three. As it is now, the arcade mode just feels like a looser version of the simulation mode with bigger dunks.

The good news, however is that Jam 99 works pretty well as a simulation. The gameplay looks and feels realistic. The ball physics are good. However, the game is a bit sluggish at times, and the player control isn't as tight and responsive as it should be. Basketball, perhaps more than any other sport, relies on quickness and precise movements, and Jam 99 doesn't always allow you to control your players as well as you might like. Overall, though, the game plays well enough and smoothly enough that you can get lost in the game and focus on strategy and running plays.

One note about gameplay: the "turbo" control seems very scaled down in Jam 99. Whereas, in the past, the turbo button really made a difference with the players on the court, allowing you to zoom around a defender or catch up on defense, Acclaim seems to have decided to vastly reduce its impact on gameplay. Turbo is still in the game, but the surge in speed is hardly noticeable, especially in the simulation mode.

Jam 99's gameplay doesn't blow you away, but it matches any other NBA title on the N64. As long as you're looking for a simulation rather than arcade-style play, most players will be happy with the gameplay.

AI/Difficulty: : 82
Jam 99 has several levels of difficulty that allow challenging gameplay to novices or experienced videogame hoopsters. The AI forces you to be careful on offense or get the ball stolen or blocked. On many offensive efforts, driving to the basket and dunking won't always work. You'll need to hit an open man, pump-fake, or put a move on a defender to get open. This, I found, was the most challenging part of the game - not so much the AI of the game, but being able to make quick enough moves to score, despite the somewhat sluggish and loose control. At the highest level of difficulty, three-point shots are a lot harder to make, and the computer's shooting improves noticeably. You'll need to rely more on running set plays than on a steal-and-score, run-and-gun offense to win at the highest levels. Of course, if you play in the "Jam" arcade-style mode, the offense is a lot easier, regardless of the level of difficulty.

Overall, Jam 99 provides a decently challenging computer opponent, but some players may be more frustrated with the imprecise, sluggish control than impressed by the savviness of the computer AI.

Overall : 82
Fans of the original NBA Jam may not be thrilled with Jam 99. The over-the-top, easy-to-learn arcade action is nowhere to be found in this game. But while Jam 99 may not satisfy arcade-style hoops fans, other Nintendo sports gamers will be pleasantly surprised with this game. As a five-on-five NBA simulation, Jam 99 matches the graphics, features, fun-factor, and gameplay of NBA Courtside and NBA Live, and outdoes them by adding a rich, detailed franchise mode that lets you draft and build teams over several seasons. Acclaim evidently took the challenge of creating a realistic and entertaining basketball simulation seriously. Jam 99 is far from perfect - the gameplay is a little sluggish, the control could be tighter, and the audio has some bugs. But for now, it beats the competition by a basket to take the crown as the best basketball title for the Nintendo 64.

By: Matt P. 1/18/99

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