NBA Jam review: Make new modes, but keep the old

Let's acknowledge something you've probably already realized if you've been keeping up with the numerous trailers and previews for EA Canada's reboot of the NBA Jam franchise: Your enjoyment of the game will be exponentially enriched if you're familiar with the culture of the original. Midway's NBA Jam didn't just introduce standards that most modern basketball games still include in some manner or another -- it created a language which only the game's players could fully comprehend.

There's nothing wrong with the fact that EA Sports clearly targeted this community with the new NBA Jam by acknowledging the catchphrases, over-the-top maneuvers and arcadey gameplay of Jam the First. In fact, it's a testament to the undying strength of that original formula that EA Canada's attempts to tack new material on to it largely fall flat.
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Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, NBA Jam remains a basketball game for people who are grossly indifferent to basketball games. No prior knowledge of the intricacies and history of the sport are required to succeed at NBA Jam -- just a quick runthrough of the three-minute tutorial is all you need to know what you're doing on the court. (It's also all you need to unlock the game's Big Head mode; an absolute necessity for appreciating the exuberant, still-image facial expressions of the game's ballers.)

The mechanics of the game also remain unperturbed -- on offense, you'll need to manage your turbo bar, spin and crossover on your defenders, pass to your teammate or shoot/dunk; on defense, you'll need to shove, swipe at and block your opponents. Score three baskets in a row and you're on fire, giving you a boost to your accuracy and ... dunkability until someone else scores.

EA's desire to stay true to the original also led the developer to bring Tim Kitzrow, announcer for the original Jam, back into the studio. Like a fine wine, Kitzrow's brand of easily excitable color commentary has aged extremely well in the 17 years since the series' first installment. The same can be said for all his old catchphrases, which Kitzrow re-recorded for the new game -- not to mention all his new, equally quotable memes. ("No hoop for you!" "Quack, quack, quack!" "Boom goes the dynamite!")

The game feels excellent, though it's unclear whether that's due to EA Canada tightening up the actual controls of the game or if the graphical overhaul provided by three generations of game consoles has made the on-court action easier to keep track of. The game still moves at a breakneck pace, but few of your on-court failures or successes will leave you wondering what the hell just happened.

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, NBA Jam remains a basketball game for people who are grossly indifferent to basketball games.

The controls using the standard Wiimote and Nunchuck scheme work surprisingly well, though you'll probably make your fair share of accidental half-court shots while performing a celebratory gesticulation. This can be remedied if you elect to play the game using a Classic Controller -- or by simply remembering to constantly keep a cool head and even steadier hand.

These strengths are highlighted by two of the game's core modes: Play Now, which lets up to four players choose teams and players for a basic two-on-two match-up, and the Classic Campaign, which has one or two players take on a succession of teams, including occasional boss fights against legendary combos like the Knicks' Patrick Ewing and John Starks.

By progressing through the Classic Campaign, or by completing challenges requiring you accomplish certain goals (make five blocks, double the opposing team's score) in a single game, you unlock new teams, players, basketball skins and gameplay modifiers. These definitely add a much-needed layer of depth to the game -- but if you're a completionist, you're going to have to unlock a few of these bonuses by playing through NBA Jam's less-than-stellar mode: Remix Tour.

Two of the Remix Tour's five game types use the full-court perspective of the classic campaign: The two-on-two Remix mode, which mimics the classic game only with shorter quarters and randomly generated power-ups, and Smash mode, which has two two-player teams battling to dunk and alley-oop the opposition's hoop into oblivion. These two aren't terribly offensive, but play like gimmicky mini-games when compared to the core Jam formula.

The other three game types are Domination (in which players struggle to "take over" hotspots by scoring within them), Elimination (where the player in last place is removed from the game until one remains) and 21 (which is 21, only without the standard penalties for going over the titular number). Though these all sound good in theory, all use a behind-the-back, half-court perspective. Though EA Canada attempted to overlay the fundamentals of Jam onto this new format, the change in perspective never stops being clumsy and disorienting.

Worse still, many of the Remix Tour events from these three gametypes pit three individual players against one another. Aside from the fact that these events force any partner with whom you might have been playing through the Remix Tour with to sit the game out, the fundamentals of NBA Jam completely break when a third party is introduced to the mix. For instance, more often than not, your defensive maneuvers will knock the ball out of an opponent's grasp -- and into the grasp of your other opponent, much to your chagrin (or rage, depending on how many times this situation occurs in a single game).

Despite the weaknesses of its new modes, NBA Jam iterates on everything that made the original so great. It's a well-composed love letter to those who belonged to the culture of its predecessor. It's the kind of game you'll want to add to your permanent rotation of Wii party games, dusting it off every time you're entertaining a friend or three with which to perform countless, physics-defying alley-oops.

More importantly, it serves as an accessible introduction to that culture for a new generation of gamers -- a generation which, up to this point, might be regrettably unfamiliar with the satisfaction derived from a hard-earned "Boom Shaka-Laka!"


This review is based on the retail version of NBA Jam for Wii, provided by EA Sports.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.