You’d be forgiven for looking at this fall’s Wii release calendar and thinking you had stumbled out of a time machine set for 1997. Between all of the new 2D revivals starring some of gaming’s all-time classics and a new, old Bond movie adaptation, there's almost no time to see whether the Fresh Prince will ever move out of that pool house. Possibly the gravest threat to your spare time, though, is the return of NBA Jam.
For those new to the series, NBA Jam is a fast-paced basketball game birthed in arcades in 1993 and with a healthy disregard for referees and the laws of physics. Its foundation is built on 2-on-2 matches where shoving players, smashing backboards and flaming basketballs are par for the court.
Anyone who has spent time with the series, particularly NBA Hangtime, will feel right at home hopping in to a quick 2-on-2 game or in Classic Campaign, where you choose a team and take on the rest of the NBA in a ladder-type progression. The barrier of entry is low for those new to the series as well, as it requires virtually no knowledge of rules and uses simple controls. That isn't to say the game is simplistic; mastering shoves, pump fakes, steals, blocks, crossovers, spins, and hidden hotspots will separate the Nets from the Lakers. You can opt to play with a Classic Controller (an arcade stick would be fitting too) if you're not into motion controls, but the default Remote and Nunchuck combo work very well, with gestures relegated to shooting and jumping. It's surprisingly fun to lift and slam the Remote to do a dunk as your TV blares "BOOMSHAKALAKA!" It's a little jarring at first to learn that, when playing with a CPU teammate, you can't take control of them, but this is in keeping with Jam tradition; it also helps that they're not incompetent and are able to score left and right if you let them.
Besides gesture controls, new for this Wii revival is Remix Tour and its associated six new game types: Smash, Elimination, Domination, 21, Remix 2v2 and Boss Battle. Tours are structured by conference divisions, and completing enough events against the teams in each opens up new divisions and opponents. These teams can be tackled in any order you choose. The new game types are different enough from the main game that they're worth a look, and you'll likely favour one or two to dip into between regular tip-offs. With 91 total events to tackle, Remix has a lot of meat to it, even if after a while it starts to feel like it's eating itself through repetition.
In Smash the goal is to whittle away the health bar of your opponents' backboard with each successful basket to ultimately shatter it, with alley-oops and dunks acting as the most damaging parts of your repertoire. Elimination is a free-for-all between three or four players on a half court, with the lowest scoring player booted after each round until only one remains. Domination has teams trying to score from marked spots on a half court to take them over, which earn points over time in addition to baskets made. Good ol' 21 is another half-court game type where the first to reach said points wins, and in which a certain well-placed manoeuvre will reset your opponent's score for maximum insult to injury ratio. Remix 2v2 is like a standard game but with periodic power-ups for power, speed, accuracy and so forth. Boss Battles pit you in a scenario against a specific player, typically with minor tweaks to a Remix mode; the 21 battle against LeBron James, for instance, has him catch fire after one basket if you're ahead.
Stomping through Remix and Classic Campaign will gain you access to many of the plethora of secret characters and extras, which are for the most part unlocked through completing the 58 Jam Challenges. The range of hidden characters is impressive, including players like Scottie Pippen and Orlando Magic Shaq, Legend teams like Utah's Karl Malone and John Stockton, or Democrats and Republicans. Hell, even the Beastie Boys weasel their way in somehow. Besides new players, Challenges open up "privileges," or what would typically be referred to as cheats or modifiers like Big Head Mode (the only real way to play), as well as new skins for the ball.
A huge part of the Jam experience has always been the announcer, and fan-favourite Tim Kitzrow returns for all of the boomshakalakas, fires and shoe questions that have come to define memories of the old arcade game. He's more verbose and lively than ever, making each dunk and boomshakalaka that much more exciting. We can't say the same about the background music, however, as it's largely forgettable and serves mostly as blank filler during games and in menus. On the other hand, the graphical style and animations are a joy to watch and do a great job of capturing the cartoony, hectic feel of the arcade game, all the while running at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. The photograph cut-out heads on 3D bodies are very charming, and the cardboard standee crowd is a very nice, playful throwback to the 16-bit era. The style helps ground the game in the real world, but gives just enough room to make a high-flying, flaming dunk that shatters the backboard seem appropriate and, importantly, pretty cool.
Apart from the largely forgettable music, the only beef we have with the game is a lack of any online components. Multiplayer is strictly local, nor are there any leaderboards of which to speak. Given the revelation in the wake of NBA Elite 2010’s delay that this once Wii-exclusive game will be released on HD platforms later this year with online play, it’s tough to whole-heartedly recommend multi-platform players pick this up yet. It’s still an exceptional game on Wii, but it doesn't feel complete knowing that a more fully-featured version is supposed to be out elsewhere before the year is up.
EA’s NBA Jam revival is not only a ridiculously good time, but it’s among the best arcade sports games on any platform this generation. Unless you abhor the series or genre in general, it’s tough not to get a kick out of Jam. Its fast gameplay, playful graphics and over-the-top action make it easy to get that adrenaline pumping, and the relative brevity of games acts as an infectious vector for one-more-game syndrome, especially if played with three other people. That being said, multi-platform gamers might want to hold off for the incoming HD versions that include online play, which is sorely missing here. If you only own a Wii, though, NBA Jam is a no-brainer.