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Hands-on: NBA Jam

You need to get the preconception that NBA Jam is part of the rigid "sports game" genre out of your mind right this second. I can understand why you might possess this notion: for gamers whose youths were spent mastering the original game's showboating mechanics, Jam is one of the few franchises they can call up when accused of not playing sports games. For folks unfamiliar with the franchise, one might logically associate a bouncy, orange sphere with its eponymous sport: "basketball."

Yet, based on my time with EA Canada's Wii-make of NBA Jam earlier this month, I don't think the "sports game" archetype -- a turn-off for many non-sports enthusiasts -- is an accurate descriptor for what's going on here. Jam is a "party game" and will likely overtake Rock Band and Boom Blox as my entertainment of choice while hosting a social gathering. Provided, of course, attendees are prepared to get buffeted with an unstoppable deluge of smack talk.

Gallery: NBA Jam | 12 Photos

So little of the NBA Jam you were likely familiarized with 17 years ago (seriously, it's been 17 years) has changed in the series' upcoming iteration. Obviously, the visuals have received a significant upgrade -- backgrounds, courts and players' bodies are rendered in 3D, and look inoffensive enough. However, each player's head is rendered in 2D, and constantly oscillates between a myriad of still expressions and faces. (You haven't lived until you've seen Shaq's "dunk face." It is priceless.)

Other than that, the experience remains unaltered. Controls are intuitive and accessible, mirroring those of the original. You can move, pass, swipe or shove (to steal) and use turbo with button presses on the Wiimote and Nunchuck. Shooting and dunking require you to flick the Wiimote into the air to first jump, and then flick it forward to execute the shot or dunk. As in the original game, it's important to time your shot just right, and these Wiimote controls actually felt pretty natural when it came time to put some points on the board.

"Natural" really is the key word when describing the quick match I was placed into during my demo of the game. After about 2 minutes, fellow Jam enthusiast Kevin Kelly and I were executing offensive maneuvers that befuddled our rivals. After our eleventh fist bump, which occurred the third time the announcer informed us one of our players was "on fire," the game's exhilarating powers began to take root.

Though Jam is very much designed as a party game, EA Canada will include 2 campaign gametypes to help retain lonesome players' interests. One mode, called "Remix Tour," was mentioned during my preview but not detailed. (We're hoping for DJ Hero peripheral functionality.) The other, "Classic Campaign," will pit you against other teams on a tournament ladder, occasionally forcing you to play "boss fights" against legendary (and unlockable) classic players.

There are so few intellectual properties in the gaming world I can think of that would allow a remake of a 17-year-old game to lack any substantial changes whatsoever, and still end up on top of my list of most anticipated games. Based on my preview, NBA Jam seems like a vehicle for potent doses of nostalgia, but more importantly than that, it seems outrageously fun.

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