NBA Jam Review
“Tonight’s Match-Up – NBA Jam vs. Wii”
Almost 17 years ago, at the height of the 90's arcade gaming revolution, Midway released the original NBA Jam basketball game. It was a huge success and spawned a raft of sequels and spin-offs for almost every handheld, console and PC at the time. Since the late 1990's to the mid 2000's things have been rather quiet on the NBA Jam front, but come 2010 the original creator Mark Turmell was commissioned by EA to work on a new version for the Wii. With the Wii being arguably the most accessible four-player console at the moment, and with the success of the NBA Jam series on Nintendo consoles in the past, one can only ask, "Why hasn’t this come sooner?"
For those who have been living under a rock, NBA Jam is a 2-on-2 basketball game featuring the ability to perform some massive (and wildly exaggerated) slam dunks. Players have a limited ‘turbo’ meter for sprinting, can shove other players without incurring a foul and hit a hat-trick of baskets to invoke an ‘on fire’ mode, in which shooting accuracy is dramatically increased. ‘Goal tending’ (blocking a shot on its downward path to the basket) is the only real basketball rule that interferes with the action. This simple and addictive gameplay that spawned the arcade hit is again echoed in the Wii version of NBA Jam. You can play through each team in the Eastern and Western Conferences of the NBA, as well as friendly multiplayer matches with up to four players. In addition to this the Wii version sports a few modes that are entirely unique to the NBA Jam franchise, including Remix 2 v 2, Domination, Smash, Elimination and Boss Battles.
"Grabs the rebound!"
Boss battles are tough and involve going up against your favourite NBA legends. It is a novelty to see them on court, but quickly turns to frustration when they sink seemingly impossible baskets to punish you. Remix 2 v 2 is essentially the same as the original NBA Jam gameplay, but offers power-ups and bonuses that appear on court to speed up, slow down, shrink or improve the accuracy of players. It is good for a bit of fun, but doesn’t really have lasting appeal. Likewise, Smash has the same gameplay, but each backboard has a 'health' bar, which, when depleted, shatters to pieces – the first team to accomplish this wins. Domination, 21 and Elimination all feature entirely new half-court perspectives not seen in previous NBA Jam games. Domination is an ‘around the world’ mode with players having to 'control' on-court markers by hitting shots from them, where 21 requires players to ‘clear the ball’ outside the 3-point line in order to be the first to reach 21 points. Elimination involves removing the lowest scorer in each round, with the winner being the last one to remain. These modes are actually genuinely appealing rather than being a cheap addition, and are actually a lot of fun to play, particularly 21, where up to four players can battle it out. Things get amusing when the player that's leading obtains the ‘on fire’ mode, appearing unstoppable, with the other three players frantically chasing him all around the court trying to push him over to stop the onslaught.
Players are given two main control methods - the standard Wii Remote and Nunchuk or the Classic Controller. The controls are straightforward, with holding ‘Z’ to activate turbo, tapping ‘B’ to steal (and shove when combined with turbo) and ‘C’ for a ‘head fake’. The NBA purists (like yours truly) might be horrified to hear that motion controls have been added to the gameplay, but rest assured, the integration has been quite smooth. Blocking and shooting are both executed with these motion controls, with players flicking the Wii Remote upwards to jump (in preparation to shoot, block or grab a rebound) and then back down to release the shot or take a 'swat'. While some might still run to the Classic Controller, the Wii Remote/Nunchuk option is actually very good and after a couple of games it will become second nature to you. One might even be as bold to say it is more satisfying slamming down the remote to finish that monster dunk.
Gameplay in general mimics the other Jam games. In single-player mode players have some limited control of their CPU teammate, but multiplayer mode is more rewarding, with teamwork usually resulting in some big alley-oops (the player going for the 'alley' will start flashing to indicate to the other player he's 'open' for the pass). Perspective on the court is still a little difficult to judge and the impossible CPU catch-up returns to wreak havoc on your well-earned point streak towards the end of a game. The back and forth gameplay can be a little repetitive when playing in single-player, but it is something that is not noticed as much in multiplayer, due to the more intense action and increased number of turnovers. These are not complaints as such, but are merely a part of the classic NBA Jam gameplay. Interestingly though, in this particular version it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to shove a player who has gone for a lay-up or dunk, where in previous versions this has been quite easy.
Visually, NBA Jam for the Wii doesn’t look too different from the original arcade version from 1993. The motions of the players and backboards are a little more fluid than previous versions, due to the use of 3D modelling, though it stops short of full motion capture due in part to the massive ‘helicopter’ dunks (of course). While the bodies of the players are in 3D, the heads are only in 2D. This might seem like a strange combination, but in the comical animated world of NBA Jam, it still looks great and makes it all the more amusing seeing your favourite NBA stars hitting the court.
Aussie Andrew Bogut ("Incoming!")
The court backdrops are faithful to the original, but unfortunately this does mean that they are still a touch bland and rather one-dimensional (see the motionless cardboard cutout coaches). Fans of the original won’t mind and the depth of the players and backboards helps to distract from this, but a bit of interaction in off-court environments, such as knocking over the officials table or mascots, would have been welcomed. This is not to say there are no improvements, as the new game modes updated half court design with mirrored floors do look nice, but don’t upstage the original classic. Overall general play is very smooth (as one would expect for a game of this type) and considering the huge variety in dunks and other plays, the transition of animations and collisions is very well handled, especially during passages of play featuring alley-oops or 'finishing' shots that have rebounded off the rim.
Sound was an integral part of the original NBA Jam, as it not only provided a real sense of game day atmosphere, but also contained a 'novelty' factor through the speech samples it used at the time. The NBA Jam play-by-play commentary was based on famous sports announcer Marv Albert, and to this day many gamers of the era can still remember their favourite NBA Jam ‘one-liners’, such as ‘From Downtown’, ‘Is It The Shoes?’, ‘He’s On Fire!’ and the classic ‘BOOMSHAKALAKA!’. Of course no NBA Jam game would be complete without the announcer, and thankfully EA has ensured that the voice from the game’s original commentatory, Tim Kitzrow, has returned, and re-recorded all of your favourite quips from past Jam games. EA has not changed the commentary style in the classic mode, with the announcer calling players name, the plays themselves as well as various observations and 'moments' during the game. It is a rather obvious formula but works well. It is nice to see in the new custom modes that additional commentary has been added, which presents a little more depth than the short sharp quips from the classic mode.
As far as the music and sound effects in the game are concerned, they are also true to the first version of NBA Jam, but could have benefited from a bit more sprucing up. The music played during the menus is somewhat ‘flat’ compared to the bass pumping tunes from other NBA Jam spin-offs, such as NBA Hangtime on the N64. In many areas the game features good basketball game samples - the bounce of the ball, the grunts of players and the 'swish' of the net - but it does lack a bit of depth with no sneaker squeaks or player vocals, and better feedback from the crowd would have been appreciated. This manifests itself during times when there are pauses in the music, effects and commentary, ever so briefly robbing the game of atmosphere. That being said, the sound is still very good and has many of the hallmarks of the NBA Jam of old.
The replay value of the NBA Jam series is legendary. NBA Jam for the Wii does enough to keep up this trend, but it would have been nice to attempt a season with a custom character (ala NBA Hangtime) and to have some expanded statistics and high score charts. There are however a considerable amount of unlockables, easter eggs and achievements to acquire, such as different ball and court designs, ‘Big Head Mode’ and the ability to play as key American politicians, classic NBA players (and mascots) and even the 'Beastie Boys’. Even so, it does feel like this version is still missing some of the content from NBA Jam games gone by. You can get 'bogged down' in the single player campaign (especially if you keep losing) and it can get a bit repetitive over time, but as with previous incarnations, the multiplayer elements will have you playing long after you have hung up your single player ‘pumps’. Online play would have been nice, but it is a forgivable oversight as the 'soul' of NBA Jam is local multiplayer gaming, and it is much more fun to compete with or against your mates in person.
The Final Verdict
NBA Jam for the Wii, like its predecessors, is a blast to play and embodies the same legendary fast-paced gameplay and excitement that people have come to expect from the series - a feat that only a handful of games of this vintage can replicate. EA have added additional game modes which mix in well with the classic gameplay (in particular the four player ‘every man for themselves’ modes), but other features and mechanics, such as 'creating your own player', introduced to the series over the years are absent. As the core NBA Jam formula never really changes too much, one might think these are deliberate omissions to give the franchise space to move in the future. The game still looks and sounds great, but a few more updates to the graphics and music would have been appreciated. Perhaps this is just nitpicking, but one would have expected just a tad more from this latest installment of NBA Jam, and with a few modern tweaks would have pushed the scores much higher. Aside from this, the four player multiplayer is brilliant and the scattering of unlockables and easter eggs throughout is sure to engage everyone, not only the NBA Jam diehards (who are probably getting a little old as it is!). For a game that is almost two decades old and remains relatively unchanged from its original format, NBA Jam for the Wii delivers a big “slamma-lamma ding dong!” dunk.
Great gameplay in both the classic and new game modes.
Overall, not too different from previous versions, but contains 3D player models and some redesigned courts.
Great commentary, as usual. A bit more innovation in other areas would have been good.
Relatively tough single-player campaign. Lots of easter eggs and unlockables, and there's always the four-player mode.
Great to see this classic make another successful comeback. Let’s hope we see more.