The new NBA Jam wasn't always NBA Jam.
It could have been "NBA Kids," an idea being tossed around at EA in the fall of 2008 as developers at the company tried to figure out what kind of fun, mainstream basketball game would play best on the Wii. That idea didn't go anywhere.
It could have been "Bounce," a two-on-two arcade basketball game that got a small team including 35-year-old EA developer Trey Smith pretty excited when they started prototyping it a couple of Septembers ago.
Maybe it would have been Bounce, because Smith told Kotaku that Bounce was fun to play, even as just a simple one-on-one basketball duel of stick figures, mapped to some arm-swinging shooting and slam dunk controls.
Six or seven months passed after Bounce was conceived. The game wasn't greenlit yet, but a meeting happened. And in this EA meeting, Smith "kind of freaked out." Listen, he told everyone: "We're going to be compared to NBA Jam, so we might as well be NBA Jam."
The original NBA Jam is legendary. It was an arcade and cultural phenomenon when it was released by Midway in 1993. Its over-the-top two-on-two super-charged, flaming-basketball version of one of America's favorite sports was a transcendent hit, popularizing phrases such as "He's on fire!" and "Boomshakalaka."
Bounce could — and should — be called NBA Jam, Smith figured.
Calls were made. Midway was sinking. The NBA, which already worked with EA on the NBA Live series, had the license. They got the ok — even recorded the call so the rest of the team could hear it. Then Smith and his friends had some celebratory drinks and wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
NBA Jam had had sequels and spin-offs, but has faded into nostalgia during the past decade. What EA has worked on in the last year-plus has been an attempt to radically change that, to bring NBA Jam back.
A couple of weeks ago I played the game Smith and his team hoped would be worthy of NBA Jam. It feels like they've nailed it. You play it on the Wii with a Nunchuk in your left hand and the Wii Remote in your right. The game looks like you remember NBA Jam, which means that it looks far better than the original did, but with a similar joke-realism art-style (this time: 3D player bodies with 2D heads that flash through 11 different situation-appropriate facial expressions.) You control one of the players on a two-man NBA team, moving with the analog stick in your right hand, activating turbo and steals with button presses while waving the Wii Remote .... UP... to prepare a shot and then.... DOWN... to shoot or dunk. One of the new things added to the formula, via NBA Showtime, Smith told me, is the alley-oop and, new to the series overall, are interactions between spin moves and shoves (well-timed spins beat defender shoves.)
The big twist in the creation of Jam was Smith's discovery last year that the man who invented NBA Jam was now working for EA. Mark Turmell had taken a job at EA's Madden-making Tiburon studio. Nervously, Smith and some colleagues arranged a video conference with Turmell to show him what they were doing with NBA Jam. " It's kind of like doing a video conference with George Lucas and saying, 'Okay, here's how we're going to revive Star Wars,'" Smith recalled. It didn't help that the conference audio didn't initially work and the men had to pantomime to each other. Nor that they couldn't show him the 2D-head/3D-body art style they were developing. Still, Turmell likes what he was eventually hearing while providing some "hard feedback" about how to make the game better.
Turmell would provide EA's NBA Jam team with more than 50 of what Smith calls "Jam secrets." He would point out that the arrow indicating that a player is off-screen got smaller the further away from the screen he was. He would point out that getting the player back on-screen quickly was accomplished by increasing movement speed when the character was off it. He pointed out that the ball flashed not just when a ball was free but when it changed hands and at other instances that play-testing of the original had revealed was handy. He could cite players' shot percentages off the top of his head and was able to explain the system of the original game's rubber-band artificial intelligence. Smith's team soaked it up.
The result, so far, is a game that looks and feels like an NBA Jam game. It plays with the speed and exaggeration of the classic. It will include a worst-to-first tournament that brings the player's team up through the rest of the teams in the NBA. It will also include a still-mysterious remix mode and a dynasty mode that, Smith describes, is "as if Nintendo designed NBA Jam." (Meaning, he explained, that it is full of game mode and gameplay surprises.)
The game supports 1-4 players, competitively or cooperatively within the 2-vs-2 NBA Jam framework. It doesn't officially have online support, though EA is looking into it. It will have bosses, including Magic and Bird.
Is it on fire? At the very least, after a long time gone cold, NBA Jam appears to be heating up.