The greatest names from the twilight of the coin-op days demanded your money like you were late with the rent. NBA Jam, the landlord of the arcade, is back, and wants to know if you got paid last week.
NBA Jam is EA Sports' Wii reboot of the cabinet and cartridge classic ubiquitous to the pizza parlors, mini-golf courses and basement rec rooms of the 1990s. Very simple to play, it pits teams of two NBA stars - or secret celebrities - raining down soaring dunks and flaming basketballs on each other. There's very little strategy, no fouls and only one rule - no goaltending.
Anyone who played any of the original NBA Jams, by Midway (arcade) or Acclaim (SNES, Genesis). Anyone who just wants to have a good time, really. Being a sports fan is entirely incidental to enjoying NBA Jam.
NBA Jam is one of the standard-bearers of video game history. The game's creator, Mark Turmell, was brought to EA Sports Canada to produce this remake, and its original announcer, Tim Kitzrow, is back on the case.
NBA Jam is a national treasure. So how'd EA Sports treat it? Marvelously. This will be an instantly familiar game for those who loved the original, in the visual motifs, the players' AI and physics, the level of the challenge (which is adjustable for gamers of all skills), and the fundamentals of winning at it. With more advanced architecture and 3D models instead of sprite graphics, there's more room for over-the-top visuals, and the game delivers on that. But it is, sensibly, not a reinvention. It's a long, long awaited reunion with NBA Jam.
Sure, but as a Wii game, it's got that motion control thing going, and that's never been a part of NBA Jam. Correct, but it still plays well, and I found dunking easier with the Wii Remote than the Classic Controller. With the Wii Remote, you flick up while driving at the basket with the Nunchuk stick, then slam down to finish the dunk. It's intuitive and well suited to that device. On a Classic Controller, though, I would get the yips - especially on baseline jams, for some reason - but after a while fall back into the muscle memory, and choose better times and spots to throw down. The Classic Controller is still most useful for the full feature set (the right analog helpfully includes your spins and jukes) but the Wii Remote control set is legitimately strong in its own way.
Are the dunks worth it when you stick one? Oh my God, yes. The visual style gives players their actual faces from photographs and sticks them on enhanced motion-captured models. So it's like watching a hilarious animated .gif when they soar to the basket, shove and get shoved, and, yes, cram a savage jam. The guys go do reverse, between-the-legs tomahawks with mouth-open expressions that never fail to make me chuckle. On fire it's even more sensational, the camera panning up as Carmelo Anthony releases from orbit and bombs the goal. He once did like a 1440-degree one-handed windmill jam that made me do the doodie dance and hit myself in the face. Really.
Boom-shakalaka! Kaboom! This has been an unusually strong year for commentary in sports video games and Kitzrow, the catchphrase-coining boothman from the original, gives the best performance of all. He keeps pace with a pitch-perfect blend of bombast and deadpan that works equally for emphasizing the wild-ass action and playing straight man to it. Kitzrow's even better when he plays straight man to himself, for example: "(deadpan) Knock knock. (even more deadpan) Who's there. BOOM-SHAKALAKA'S THERE, BUDDY!"
Well this sounds like a hell of a time in the main game. What's this remix stuff? In addition to the straight-up game you get four other modes: classic campaign, remix tour, remix modes, and boss battles. Campaign is where you progress through the entire league (and classic teams), in 2-on-2 games, unlocking new players when you win. Tour mode gives you three different challenges for each of the 30 current teams of the NBA. These variants, also available from the main menu, include jumpshooting contests and 2-on-2 games with the goal of breaking the other team's backboard. Some of these can be quite difficult, especially the boss battles against NBA legends. EA Sports has estimated the Remix Tour at more than 20 hours of gameplay and I believe it.
What isn't to like about NBA Jam? Virtually nothing. But hardcore gamers should remember that the Classic Controller isn't the preferred method for the game's signature act: the dunk. Alley-oops on that controller - getting your teammate to pass you the ball - were also difficult to trigger and execute. (The instruction book tells you to run at the basket, hit the X button to go midair, then call for the pass with B. No face button launches you in the air on offense, the command is up on the right analog). More often my guy would just pop the shot before I could get set up. Other times I'd be holding the ball at the point waiting for my man to flash so I could feed him and the game would never pick up the cue.
NBA Jam is a backboard-shattering good time. If your primary console is a Wii it's a must. The only hesitation would be if you also own an Xbox 360 or PS3 or prefer gaming on a more traditional controller. When the game releases on those two consoles, they'll be doing it in high-definition, with online multiplayer, and likely most if not all of the game modes on this version. None of this changes the fact that NBA Jam, on the Wii, still lives up to the expectations, nostalgia and, yes, hype that have made the title beloved across two generations of gamers.
NBA Jam was developed by EA Sports Canada and published by Electronic Arts on Oct. 5 in North America. Retails for $49.99. A copy was given to us by the publisher for review purposes. Played all game modes and variants thoroughly, bursting into flame and incinerating nets repeatedly.