NBA Jam – Wii (game review)

Boomshakala!!! If there’s any phrase that brings me back to midnight marathons spent in my college dorm hunkered around the Sega Genesis and a Multitap; it’s that infectious rallying cry that signaled another monster jam by my dynamic duo of Bill Clinton and Shaquille O’Neill. NBA Jam may have been a mainstay of every early-90’s era arcade, movie theater and bowling alley but it was the home edition and its casual pick-up-and-play game mechanics that solidified the title’s stance as one of the all time greats. Like its kissing cousin, the Midway-produced Mortal Kombat, these titles changed the industry – turning their home console launches into marquee events and bringing more people into the gaming fold. This brought sports games to the masses; making it accessible to anyone who could jockey a control pad and a few measly buttons. Looking to tap into that nostalgia, EA Sports has raided the vaults and handed NBA Jam another shot at the big time.

Rather than mess with the formula, EA Sports has presented NBA Jam as a throwback to the classic title. While they have introduced a number of new modes aimed at injecting longevity to the experience, the same classic two-on-two over the top basketball match-ups are the core that binds this experience. After a decade plus of increasingly dense sports simulations that have cultivated rabid communities but alienated the rest of us who haven’t the time to juggle a full season of on and off the field maneuvers, NBA Jam is that base arcade experience we crave. It’s a game about fast breaks and explosive dunks and little in the way of realistic round ball play.

While EA has built this new release around a spit-polished recreation of the original game, they have added a variety of modes aimed at adding replayability and variety to the package. As a full retail release, this makes sense as gamers have come to expect bells and whistles for classic titles in this age of $10 classic game downloads. To justify the retail price, EA has stuffed this package with numerous ancillary challenges.

Apart from Classic Mode (where players can take their favorite team through a full season alone or with a buddy), there is Remix Mode; which tasks players with different challenges per team, including modes where you must control certain hot spots on the court, sink a specific number of shots in a particular time period or battle classic NBA legends including Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who bring with them special abilities, thus turning these contests into boss battles.

The title also features an achievement-based system that rewards players with secret character and mode unlocks once certain conditions are met (i.e. win ‘X’ number of games without losing). Yes, this means you have the option of drafting political figures like Sarah Palin or Barack Obama into the fold, or perhaps battling alongside the Beastie Boys – a classic NBA Jam staple.

Every year one title seems to break from the fold to become the must-have party game for the holidays. As a Wii-exclusive (for the moment as PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are rumored for retail release in November), this is that party title for the 2010 holiday season. While EA has wisely provided a lot of content to keep solo players busy for awhile, like its original incarnation, this game shines in multiplayer. Get four players around the widescreen after Thanksgiving dinner and it becomes an infectious gaming experience; besting any enjoyment Wii Sports Resort can dole out.

That’s the core conceit to NBA Jam that the title’s developers have successfully mined – even the non-sports gamers in your household will instantly take to the no-holds barred approach to basketball. It’s all so over-the-top and silly, yet the game rules make sense and reward skillful play – making this title as competitive and fun as it’s ever been.

From a control perspective, NBA Jam offers the choice of playing with a classic controller to mimic the original control mechanics or with a Wiimote and Nunchuck. The latter configuration continues EA’s proven handle on developing sports titles for the Wii; as the motion sensitive controls always feel natural and never exist as waggle simply for the sake of waggle. I like having a choice to play with a classic controller but this is one of those titles, like their Tiger Woods entries, where the motion controls really do enhance the experience. The only knock I have; and it’s significant, is the lack of online play which is particularly disappointing as EA has blazed the trail through this woefully underrepresented arena on the Wii. It’s a big miss and unfortunately isn’t likely to be remedied on the Wii. I have hopes that the 360 and PS3 iterations will correct that flaw.

NBA Jam is a real surprise; bringing me back to the good old days of gaming and reminding me why this title was so much fun in the first place. Too often, when we take that hazy trip down memory lane we find that perhaps memories are best left as just that – relics of a bygone age worth remembering but perhaps not re-experiencing. Fortunately, EA’s time warp back has returned with a real find worth celebrating.

The developers should be applauded for not monkeying with the core formula and their work on this title really does reflect how timeless the original design really is. While it’s regretful that the lack of online play keeps multiplayers confined to the same couch, I have a feeling this title is gonna’ lead to marathon bouts of stuffin’ – a perfect chaser to that Thanksgiving bird. IT’S GOOD FROM DOWN TOWN!!!

[game 4.0]