NBA Jam (Wii) review
"When you play the new NBA Jam, the first thing you're likely to notice is that very little has changed. The team names aren't all the same, of course. There have been additions, removals and modifications that reflect the most recent activity in the league. There are no Seattle Supersonics now, for instance. The Charlotte Hornets have moved to New Orleans."
Basketball is one of my exceptions. I don't like sports... except for basketball. That's not to suggest that I'm good at playing the actual sport (I'm not), or that you can expect to engage me in meaningful discussion about b-ball and its history (you can't), or that I'd be a good candidate for your fantasy basketball team (I wouldn't). All it really means is that if you were to force me to watch a sporting event in your living room, I'd hope for it to be a basketball broadcast.
NBA Jam has for a long time served as a natural extension of my passive interest in basketball. I spent many enjoyable hours playing the game in my youth, whether that meant enjoying heated matches against my cousin or just going at it alone. When I found out recently that Electronic Arts was reviving the franchise for the current generation of consoles, I was pleased but apprehensive. The last entry in the series that I played was the early PlayStation release. Games have come a long way since then. Consumers tend to feel that anything old is best left in the past. I was concerned that EA Canada would feel the need to "improve" the series to make it relevant, and that in so doing the development team would remove the heart of the experience.
Such concerns proved unfounded. Once curiosity and early buzz convinced me to give the Wii revival a shot, I found myself addicted all over again. I played it a great deal more than I probably should have over the following 48 hours. Now I can say with relief that the new NBA Jam does nearly everything I had hoped it would and does it well. The game should remind older and younger players alike that sometimes all a game needs to provide is simple fun.
An emphasis on fun has always played a key role in the NBA Jam legacy. As they did with Arch Rivals, the members of the original development team at Midway took the sport of basketball and stripped away the most inconvenient rules. There were no fouls, only thrilling opportunities to push someone out of the way as you roughly took the ball from him. Teams consisted of three members, with only two of them allowed on the court at any given point. Only the rules that make sense within an arcade context (shot clocks, three-pointers, goal tending violations and the like) play a restrictive role in NBA Jam.
The resulting simplicity allowed for some outstanding play that couldn't be found in other basketball games of that era. Simulation-heavy sports titles were capable of providing rewarding experiences, certainly, but often they allowed themselves to focus so much on faithful adherence to the actual rules that they lacked immediate accessibility. NBA Jam rectified that issue in a big way. You might even say it overcompensated. Players could suddenly choose to activate the nonsensical 'big head mode,' as one example of that style of design, for no reason other than that it looked funny and therefore was kind of fun. Players could also input codes to activate special cheats and to play as guest characters that included Bill Clinton himself. It was a different time, a time that EA Canada's revival drags kicking and screaming into the new millennium.
When you play the new NBA Jam, the first thing you're likely to notice is that very little has changed. The team names aren't all the same, of course. There have been additions, removals and modifications that reflect the most recent activity in the league. There are no Seattle Supersonics now, for instance. The Charlotte Hornets have moved to New Orleans. Aside from stuff like that, though, the NBA Jam of 2010 feels much like it did in 1996. Even the announcer, the enthusiastic Tim Kitzrow, is back behind the microphone. "Is it the shoes?" he asks as your hilariously-proportioned athlete launches into the air, ball held downward as his legs spread wide and the arena lights sway around him. If you're like me, your answer will be a smile that doesn't look a whole lot different than it did 15 years ago.
The nods to nostalgia have a tendency to make NBA Jam feel more captivating than perhaps it should. A part of me can't help but wonder if the developers counted a little bit too much on fuzzy feelings to sell people like me on the experience. It's easy to defend the exaggerated look that the athletes all have, even to be grateful that they haven't been turned into sleeker representations of today's athletes. Did everything have to look so muddy, though? When I first started playing, I almost immediately found myself wishing for sharper edges on everything, for more pronounced life in the backdrop. Perhaps those are gripes that can be addressed in the upcoming Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 editions of the game.
Another thing that I wouldn't have minded seeing is some support for online play. When I was younger, I had friends who I could compete against. There was almost always someone available. Now I have my wife, who is never up for a game of hoops, digital or otherwise. There's support included so that up to four people can play at once, which is wonderful, but what about those of us who have trouble finding even one buddy to join in on the fun? It sucks to play round after round alone and know that somewhere out there, a worthy and friendless rival is sitting on his couch, wishing things were different. There's no way to look at the lack of online support as anything other than a missed opportunity.
Perhaps the development team was simply too busy working on the new game modes to bother developing net code. In addition to a standard campaign season that you can play to unlock legendary athletes such as Larry Bird and Karl Malone, NBA Jam features a variety of Remix challenges. These include boss battles, rounds of 21 and even a jam competition that finds players competing to be roughest on their backboards (whoever demolishes one first is the winner).
Such additions are a nice gesture and they show that EA Canada was interested in adding to the game's value, but the new modes tend to be more frustrating than fun. There's one, for instance, where the players all compete to snag power-up items that appear randomly on the court. You can pass over an icon at the right moment to shrink your player, or to speed him up or give him superhuman strength for a period of around 15 seconds. That's a neat idea with the potential to really mix things up on the court, but I quickly tired of the experience because icons had a tendency to appear off-screen (where my computer rivals would grab them before I could even see them) or, even worse, right under my opponents' feet so that it was literally impossible for me to grab them and certain to prevent an even game from resulting.
NBA Jam has never really been about complex modes, though, or about extras beyond the codes and cheats. It has been a game that shuns the excess and emerges stronger because of that design philosophy. That was true in 1996 when I became addicted to the franchise in the first place, and it's true of the Wii update. There are technical shortcomings, there are missed opportunities and there are features that irritate rather than entertain, but none of those flaws prevent the new NBA Jam from being exciting and relevant in the 21st century. There's room for improvement, but for now this is as good as arcade basketball gets.
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 22, 2011)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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