It was a year ago that NBA JAM made its triumphant return to gaming, with a reboot that fans of the franchise were highly anticipating. Having first launched on the Nintendo Wii, then shortly thereafter releasing as a full retail title both on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, the game was met with a lukewarm reception and seemed to only appeal to the core fans, despite having the franchise’s best looking graphics and gameplay mechanics to date. The game had the right formula, but just didn’t click with fans, even though the title had a bunch of great modes included.

Fast forward a year, and NBA JAM is back with the On Fire Edition, and is in downloadable form on the Xbox LIVE Arcade and Playstation Network. Don’t worry, this isn’t just a stripped down version of last year’s retail release. The gameplay is noticeably reworked and, by default, more forgiving for the more casual audience. Most of the mechanics are instantly familiar to those who played last year’s release, but for a quick refresher, the game offers a detailed tutorial slideshow on the main menu. Alley-oops are easily contested, even for players with a low block rating, and you lose some of your shooting ability if the defense has a good blocking position on you. These aren’t necessarily bad things, just something to keep in mind when you need an upper hand or are wondering why your superstar isn’t performing up to par. That being said, each player still has a list of ratings, and will fit your own style of play, if chosen wisely.

Fans of the 16-bit console versions of NBA JAM will appreciate the return of Tag Mode in the gameplay.  This gives you control over both players on your team, with the ability to switch back and forth between teammates in any given offensive or defensive situation. You also have new options to call for Alley-Oops and Shoves from your teammate off the ball.  A quick button press will have your AI partner leaping for the bucket or pushing your defender in a playground style pick that gives you the room you need to complete your move to the hoop or to square up for a 3-point attempt. The most rewarding of the gameplay tweaks include Team Fire and Razzle Dazzle moves that give the game a true JAM feel. Team Fire lights up both teammates with blue flames, activating after successfully completing three Alley-Oops in a row. Unlike the traditional On Fire, this will last 20 seconds of possession time, unless the other team throws down an Alley-Oop of their own. Razzle Dazzle moves feel more like a taunt to the opponent, as they have your controlled baller perform a flashy over-the-top move that looks more like showing off, than performing an incredible move.

The visuals continue to look as good as they can for this revamp, with the only real noticeable improvement being the mascot character models. This time around, they are in full 3D, giving them the visual treatment they deserve. Everything else looks crisp and the animations are as smooth as an ankle-breaking crossover. The sounds, for whatever reason, don’t quite create the true NBA JAM feeling that fans of the original arcade release loved so much back in 1993.  The music is acceptable with generic instrumental tracks, but the beats are anything but boring. Tim Kitrow once again voices the commentary with phrases appropriate for the game. For the most part, when big moves are made, you can hear the excitement in his voice and you might find several comments made that are funny. The only downside is there are a few juvenile phrases that the game could have done without.

The game is certainly going to keep most fans busy for quite some time. There aren’t as many modes as last year’s release, but the unlockables in the few modes that are included will have you coming back for more. The instant play mode allows up to four players to quickly get a game going using any available team with your choice of rules. Jump into the Road Trip campaign mode and you will find yourself up against challenges with varying levels of difficulty and rules. Right from the start, you’ll see challenges broken up into Bronze, Silver, and Gold divisions that have rules that change as you progress. You may get comfortable with the Bronze challenges just giving you some classic 2 on 2 action, but as you unlock the higher levels, you will see rule changes like dunks counting as only 1 point or 2’s and 3’s counting as 3’s and 4’s respectively. Read the rules closely before starting a game or you may find your opponent running away with the lead very quickly. Complete all of the Gold challenges in a division and you will unlock the Platinum Challenges where you are up against Jambots that have the same stats as you, and take advantage of JAM‘s REAL AI that learn and use your own moves against you.

The online Arena mode features a weekly dynamic tournament that gives everyone a chance to be at the top every week. Getting as many wins as possible, within the countdown timer, determines your rank for that week and gets proudly displayed on your JAM Card for all to see. This mode has its own set of challenges.  Co-Op challenges must be completed with a real co-op partner, while VS. Challenge have you going at it alone. There are also Friend Challenges that sum up everything from you and those on your friends list.

While playing the career and online modes, you earn XP and collect JAM Bucks that you use to level up and get access to items in the JAM Store. In the store, you use your bucks buy things like 30 unlockable special teams, over 70 legendary players, cheats, as well as icons, titles, and backgrounds for your online JAM Card, which your opponents will also see when playing in Arena mode. You still earn credit towards the JAM challenges while playing online, but won’t get anything when jumping in a quick JAM Now game, probably due to the fact that you have unrestricted access to your earned cheats.

Overall, NBA JAM: On Fire Edition is truly the best version available. The controls have never felt better, the AI isn’t as cheap as it once was, and unlockables and progression this time around will truly keep fans of the franchise busy for quite some time. Having the title on the downloadable marketplace at a low price just makes picking this game up that much sweeter. OH MY! NBA JAM is On Fire!

Title : NBA JAM: On Fire Edition
Format : XBLA / PSN
Developer : Electronic Arts
Publisher : Electronic Arts
Release Date : 10/5/2011 (XBLA) / 10/04/2011 (PSN)

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*EA Sports provided with a promo code for a review copy.