It’s hard to put my finger on what makes the perfect retro arcade cabinet. You want something with style, quality hardware, and games you’ll love. Any extra features should add to the experience, not detract. And for Arcade1Up’s $400 NBA Jam Arcade Machine, the extra features both elevate it to a better machine and prevent a perfect score. It’s so close to a firey slam dunk, but while it’s not quite that, it’s at least a three-pointer, nothing but net.
If you’re not familiar with Arcade1Up by now, you’re missing out. The company has all but mastered the concept of recreating arcade machines from a bygone era and selling them at prices and sizes that can fit in the average home. Whether it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Burger Time, we love Arcade1Up machines.
Naturally, as an ’80s and ’90s child, I jumped at the chance to relive my youth in the form of NBA Jam. I only occasionally played in arcade form, mostly because it was two dollars to play an entire basketball game, and I was an average kid, not Richie Rich. But I played the Super Nintendo game a ton and some of the sequels. Does the arcade hold up to my nostalgia-glass colored memories? Mostly. The hardware is great, the games are mostly great, but the new Wi-Fi feature is both good and bad.
A Familiar Build Experience
Have you ever built an Arcade1Up Machine before? Then assembling this machine will feel like old hat. NBA Jam marks the fourth Arcade1UP machine I’ve built, and I can almost do it with my eyes closed now.
That’s in part because it’s virtually the same experience each time. Align the sidewalls, add braces and screen, attach back and front pieces, connect some cables, then build the riser. There’s nothing complicated about it; it’s mostly just tedious because you have to drive plenty of screws. You can check out the video above of a TMNT build; the only difference is that cabinet doesn’t have a lit-marquee.
Still, Arcade1Up should get plenty of points for creating a fairly easy build process. If you can build IKEA furniture, you can assemble an Arcade1Up machine. It also leads to one of my quibbles about Arcade1Up cabinets—they all look a little too much alike.
Near Identical Cabinets With Incremental Improvements
With a few exceptions, like Burger Time, if you’ve seen one full-sized Arcade1Up machine on the market, you’ve seen them all. They’re the same size, shape, dimensions, everything. It’s usually just a question of how many joysticks you get. If you only ever buy one Arcade1Up machine, that’s no big deal.
If you want to build a personal arcade emporium out of Arcade1Up cabs, you will find yourself with a row of similar (if not identical) shaped machines. It’s still an impressive look, as evidenced by my four arcades in my living room. But it lacks a distinct visual uniqueness that real arcade centers have, thanks to disparate machines with varied designs. However, the artwork on the side of the cabinet is outstanding, as always.
Just because Aracde1Up machines mostly look the same doesn’t mean the company hasn’t improved anything. The earliest cabinet didn’t come with risers or lit marquees and disappointed in the joystick, speakers, and display department.
That’s not the case anymore. With each machine, Arcade1Up gets better at what it does. Now you get beautiful matching risers, lit marquees, better speakers, and a really good display. And of the four cabinets I have in my home (Street Fighter, TMNT, Burger Time), NBA Jam has the best joysticks and buttons. They’re still not true Sanwa joystick and button quality, but they’re decent and playable. The company listened to what fans wanted in the hardware department, and it shows.
I do have one personal complaint about a hardware change. Until now, Arcade1Up machines have used an On/Off physical slider switch, which was perfect for my smart home. I have them plugged into a smart plug and turn all my arcades on with a single voice command; it’s pretty sweet. But the NBA Jam uses a power rocker switch like its volume switch. So it won’t work with my smart plug (it stays off after I use the voice command). If you don’t use smart plugs, you probably won’t care. But if you’re like me, you will.
As is often the case with retro games machines, the weak points are the games themselves.
NBA Jam Gameplay: Frustrating Rubber Bands and Incomplete Rosters
This cabinet comes with three games, NBA Jam, NBA Jam Tournament Edition, and NBA Hangtime. I played all three when I was a kid, and (nearly) all the details I love are still there.
The characters are photorealistic representations of actual players, and yes, there’s a big head mode. As you run around the court, you can pull off physics-defying slam dunks, including a ceiling-smacking-triple-flip-dunk. And somehow, after all these years, the announcer (Tim Kitzrow) yelling, “Boomshakalaka” still gets the heart pumping. The games only have one rule; no goaltending, otherwise, you can straight up shove your opponents (even mid-air) and then steal the ball.
But it’s not all perfect. I can’t and won’t play the first game anymore because it sends me into a fit of rage in every attempt. That’s thanks to rubber banding.
Rubber banding is a trick game developers use to make a game with simple AI seem more challenging when you’re a better player. In the original NBA Jam’s case, if your score is too far ahead of the computer, it suddenly goes into an ultrahard mode and will land every three-pointer and slam dunk. The computer will knock you over with ease, and you’ll find yourself completely unable to steal the ball or block shots. It straight-up cheats.
The problem is, it doesn’t stop once the computer catches up to your score. It waits until it’s at least three or four points above your score. I’ve lost nearly every game I’ve played in NBA Jam against the computer thanks to the rubber band effect, even on easy mode. I thought I was just bad at it, but a look at Arcade1Up’s fan forums confirmed similar complaints from plenty of users. This is, ultimately, a problem that stems from the game’s original code and not technically Arcade1Up’s fault. That doesn’t leave me any less frustrated, though.
But the other two games don’t have that problem, so I just play them instead. The only downside with that solution is dealing with a larger missing roster. When a game uses a real person’s likeness, the game maker needs to license that likeness. NBA Jam’s developers did all that work for its original run, but Arcade1Up had to go through the effort again to republish the games.
Unfortunately, Arcade1Up couldn’t get everyone (or their estates) to agree to a license for varying reasons. Every team has at least one of its original members. But quite a few don’t have the whole team. In those cases, you’ll see a “clone” of the one licensed player Arcade1Up could get.
Every player has stats, and the clone retains its original stats from the original player. But it means you’ll end up with teams like the Sacramento Kings, where both players are Shawn Kemp, just with different stats. It’s an odd look, but an acceptable solution overall. It’s either clones or we don’t get an NBA Jam machine at all. And thanks to Wi-Fi, Arcade1Up can improve gameplay and even add-in missing players if the company manages to acquire a license.
Wi-Fi Is a Blessing and a Benign Curse
The NBA Jam Arcade marks Arcade1Up’s first attempt at network-connected cabinets. It has a Wi-Fi antenna connected to the monitor assembly, and you don’t need to do anything to install it. That addition gives NBA Jam two unique features: online multiplayer and updates.
You can play with anyone else who has an NBA Jam machine, and the process is fairly simple. If you want to let people join your game, you can either mark yourself as visible to the whole world or visible to people you’ve marked as favorite. People looking for a game can then choose to join yours. Or you can go through the list of ongoing games and join one. And people can’t just join your game, they request and you accept (or vice versa).
The machine connects to a central server to show win/loss and other statistics and active games. But when you join a game, it’s a peer-to-peer (p2p) connection. When a game goes smoothly, it’s a great little feature that means you can play with other people and not just the CPU, even during a global pandemic. But games don’t always go smoothly.
First, the primary way to connect is through through Wi-Fi. The machine doesn’t have an ethernet port. It does have a microUSB port, but you’ll need two adapters to connect an ethernet cable. You’ll find that microUSB port behind the monitor behind the monitor and inside the cabinet, which means you’ll have a long cord you can run out of the cabinet, and you’ll probably need to create a hole for it. Most people aren’t going to bother with all that (if they even realize it’s possible). Because all games are p2p connections, performance is only as good as the person with the slowest internet. And the more people who join from different locations, the greater the lag gets. More convenient ethernet would help prevent that issue.
Second, right now, there’s not much to prevent players from being total jerks. Are you losing a game badly? You can just quit; it doesn’t count as a loss on your record. The remaining person can keep playing against the CPU and get a win for their record. Quitting happens frequently, and that’s benign enough, but some players do worse.
One person joined my game and took control of the opposing team AND my teammate. That’d be fine, maybe they have three people in their home, and we can instantly get a four-player game going. But, my “teammate” sabotaged our game. He always went for impossible shots or held still to make stealing easy if he got the ball.
At first, you could kick people from your game pulling stunts like this, but CodeMystics (who handles the online play updates) removed the kick feature because, surprise surprise, people were abusing it. Online play in NBA Jam is the Wild Wild West and could use some law and order.
Updates are the other bonus to Wi-Fi. Thanks to updates, some issues have improved since launch. When I first got the machine, an online four-player game was impossible. It lagged out too badly to have a good game. Now it’s a little laggy, but playable (assuming you have decent internet). And at launch, you couldn’t tell the difference between an actual player and a cloned teammate, which left me looking at the wrong player during games. Now clones are greyscaled, which helps a lot.
It’s little changes like this that give you hope that NBA Jam will get better and better. And in the meantime, you don’t have to play online. You can set yourself to invisible so people can’t join your game.
Get It if You Love NBA Jam
So should you get Arcade1Up’s NBA Jam machine? If you grew up loving the game and you have at least $400 to spare, then absolutely yes. The hard part is picking which to version to get. For my money, I’d stick with the basic $400 version sold at Arcade1Up’s site.
But if you head to Best Buy or GameStop you can spend $500 to get a version with a light-up deck protector (just an LED strip along the edge) and a stool. Head over to your local Costco, and you might find a $500 Tournament Edition that has a unique marquee and basketball toppers on the joysticks along with light-up buttons. None of that sounds entirely worth the extra $100, but I can’t say for sure as I have the basic version.
But regardless of what version you get, the NBA Jam arcade is a worthy addition to your gaming room or corner. If you can only pick one arcade, and you like NBA Jam, it’s a great buy. It’s one of Arcade1Up’s best entries yet, though we have pinball machines and digital boardgame tables coming in the future.
And if NBA Jam isn’t your … well … jam, then you can pass on this one. There’s always TMNT, BurgerTime, Star Wars, or even Big Buck Hunter if you feel the need to shoot things.
Here’s What We Like
- The best joysticks on an Arcade1Up machine yet
- Wi-fi means updated software and online play
- Arcade looks great
And What We Don't
- Rubber Banding is evil
- Online Play is the wild west
- Incomplete Rosters