15 years ago you couldn't enter an arcade without seeing an NBA Jam machine and when you did, chances are you couldn't help dropping a few quarters into the machine to play some wild over-the-top 2-on-2 basketball. The classic Midway design absolutely dominated the coin-op scene, and when Acclaim published console ports of the game, it dominated the home as well. After that, the NBA Jam franchise hit a few snags with but it's now found a home under the EA Sports umbrella. This brand new rendition returns the franchise to its roots and it's absolutely clear that the NBA Jam name is back in the right hands.
What makes NBA Jam such a special game is its pick-up-and-play structure that takes the basics of basketball and turns it into something insanely competitive. Players don't have to worry about any rules or penalties beyond one: don't block a shot heading into the rim. That's it. Knock your opponents to the floor, swipe that ball away, and take it to the hoop in a spectacular, exaggerated and, most importantly, incredibly satisfying dunk that'll send you more than twenty feet airborne. Or nail three baskets in a row to earn an "on fire" ability, giving you the ability to rain three point shots with nearly a hundred percent accuracy.
The Wii version of NBA Jam is, essentially, a direct revisit to the classic old-school Midway game, but presented with fresh new-school tricks to jazz up the energy and bring the franchise into the current generation. It's as if the design team looked at the blueprints of the original Midway arcade game and built off those plans directly, and by doing so EA Sports does a fantastic job demonstrating just how timeless the classic game really is.
The team even built a graphic style that accurately represents the original game's feel, reproducing the photorealistic environment – a classic NBA Jam staple – but using brand new visual style that the arcade hardware could only dream of pulling off. Players are built with motion-capture enhanced 3D models with actual photos for the heads, giving NBA Jam on Wii a look that mimics the classic while having a style all its own. The player animations are spectacular and incredibly fluid thanks to the 3D models, giving the art designers far more freedom to design some spectacular slam dunk motions that are awesome to watch.
But it's the gameplay where EA Sports truly nailed it. Past NBA Jam games have tried to advance the design, but the EA Sports' NBA Jam team clearly wanted to reign its design back to the franchise's basics. Its core is the exact game played more than 15 years ago, with many of the features added in the spiritual successors of NBA Hangtime and NBA Showtime when Midway lost the NBA Jam brand. Anklebreakers have been added to give players a bit more technique to take down a guarding opponent, and the Alley Oop returns so players can dish off the ball to their partner for an easy two.
Even with motion control the NBA Jam experience works: the developers fine-tuned a great controller mechanic that utilizes the remote and nunchuk for the standard gameplay, using simple and natural thrust motions for shots and blocks. But if you're an arcade game purist the game supports the optional Classic Controller without motion, admittedly the best way to play NBA Jam.
Granted the original game was designed solely as something to take players' money a quarter at a time. As timeless as the NBA Jam arcade game is, it's really meant as a quick experience for ten minutes at a shot – its gameplay is rooted into a lot of back and forth across the court with only a few basics for strategy and technique. It's incredibly addictive especially against other human players, but it's really something for the quick pick-up game, not for the eight-hour marathon.
To add legs to the core game, EA Sports added a single player progression in its Remix Mode that gives players three different challenges per team in the NBA league. Each challenge is built off of a specific mode built into the Wii version: Remix, Domination, Backboard Smash, or one of several "boss battles" against an NBA legend.
Backboard Smash is probably the best addition in any version of NBA Jam. There's no score here, simply a health bar on each end of the court. The task is to play NBA Jam but it's the dunks that score the most, weakening the hoop with every slam. When players have whittled the opposing players' health bar all the way down, a single slam dunk with bring the glass down in a spectacular explosion…giving that team the win. It's an excellent variation on the classic NBA Jam gameplay without changing the core experience.
Remix mode doesn't fair quite as well. In this mode, players simply compete in an NBA Jam session, with a handful of power-ups that'll help or hurt players when they're picked up. The power-ups include speeding them up or making it impossible to knock them down, or shrinking them down to a foot tall for a brief moment to make shooting a tough task. While it's nice to get something that alters the mechanics, this power-up mode doesn't do much to change the dynamic of the classic gameplay enough to make it more fun.
The boss battles are really cool, if just a little too aggressive. Each of the legends has a specific hook to their behavior that gives them the edge over the player, whether it's Larry Bird's ability to rain three 3-point shots in a single throw, or Magic Johnson's crazy dunk teleportation skill. Their specific technique is difficult enough to overcome, but the designers go a little further and up the AI to something completely unrealistic and, many times, unfair.
NBA Jam on Wii is a great game and highly recommended, but it's easy to see that this is just the start of possible things to come. The game's huge energy in the game doesn't translate to anything outside: menus seem a little muted and understated, and even when you finish a game it ends with a somewhat underwhelming "Game Over" screen. There are no instant replays or create-a-player modes (something introduced in NBA Jam's Hangtime and Showtime "sequels"), and the stat tracking is minimal at best. And, most importantly, the Wii version goes without online features, and it's difficult to see justification for its omission considering how other EA Sports games such as FIFA Soccer and Madden NFL titles embrace online play…and a game where the servers only need to track four players and a ball can't offer it. It very much feel as if EA Sports was laying the foundation for future iterations and purposely held back in places for the next generation.
But the team did not skimp on the hidden unlockable goodies, something that's been part of the NBA Jam franchise since the start. Big Head Mode is the obvious inclusion and EA Sports made it the first thing you can earn. Then you've got classic NBA players and creative basketballs, or quirky options that activate a freeze frame during high flying "on fire" dunks, all unlockable through the game's extensive achievement system. On top of that, you've got playable NBA mascots, the Beastie Boys, and, yes, the Presidents and Vice Presidents (and President wanna-bes) that can be pulled up if you've entered the proper code. There are treats aplenty here, enough to keep you busy for a good long while.