This was supposed to be the easiest review ever.
I was supposed to be able to write a thousand words of fluff to the tune of, "Look, it's NBA Jam. Why are you even reading reviews for it instead of playing it right now?" Instead, my review is not quite so enthusiastic.
For those who weren't around in its heyday and aren't quite sure what all the fuss is about, NBA Jam is a two-on-two basketball game, where the object — as in normal basketball — is to steal the ball from the other team and sink it into their hoop. NBA Jam adds spectacle to the proceedings by removing most of the game's rules pertaining to physical violence, allowing the player to perform flashy super-dunks and move at turbo speed. Players can also light themselves "on fire" by sinking three baskets in a row, greatly increasing their shot accuracy until an opposing point is made.
NBA Jam was originally an arcade game controlled by a stick and three buttons, making it easy to pick up and a very fun alternative to normal basketball simulations. NBA Jam would be later ported to 16-bit home consoles and undergo revisions, the most famous of which is the Tournament Edition. That iteration tightened and balanced overall gameplay, added speed and hidden bonuses, and introduced other features beneficial to players.
The new Wii rendition of NBA Jam certainly looks the part, and there's no mistaking where inspiration was drawn. On the surface, the staple two-on-two basketball action has been faithfully replicated in terms of both look and feel. While the game sports some pretty bare-bones, no-nonsense menus, the action on the court is very clean, very shiny and very animated. The music isn't quite as catchy as the old games, either on the court or in the menu screen, but NBA Jam wasn't exactly known for its rousing musical scores anyway. It was known for its announcer, Tim Kitzrow, and he's back in force here with all-new, all-awesome one-liners.
EA also added an all new campaign mode to the game: The Remix Tour. These consist of several "modified" modes of Jam, from two-on-two games where power-ups litter the floor, to boss battles with basketball legends, to one-on-one-on-one games where the object is to control point-giving space on a half-court. There's also a fun mode centered on dunking on the basket enough to break its backboard, a real crowd-pleaser back in the day. The modes that make up the Remix Tour do a decent job of exploring and expanding the basic concept of Jam, and I'd like to see something like this make a return in a future installment.
On paper, NBA Jam is a very nice package, but it's just barely worth the $50 dollar asking price. Online play would have put it over the top, and the lack of it is sorely missed here. With two types of campaigns, practice modes, and dozens of unlockables ranging from rule modifiers to hidden players, this new Jam has quite a bit of content to keep single players and groups of friends busy. When shown on-screen, this looks like a true revival of the game that stole so many quarters so many years ago, with the kitchen sink thrown in to boot.
For quite a few people, this is a no-brainer purchase. Those people will mostly be those who have never played an NBA Jam before this one. If you have, however, the whole shebang comes apart after you put a few hours into the game, and you come out the other side wondering just why it hates you.
Now, let's get some things straight: I am hardly an NBA Jam elitist. True, I have decades-old fond memories of the original line of titles, but 90 percent of those memories involve me losing very badly, both to the computer and other people. I was never very good at NBA Jam, I was not a ninja, and I was not one with the way the old games played. Heck, I had to drag out some old systems to reeducate myself after spending time with this new title. I mainly played the game to have a good time with friends or to kick back and relax by myself every once in a while. I didn't know NBA Jam had a Hard mode for years. With that said, even I could tell something was amiss. Several design changes have since been made that go against user-friendliness, AI fairness, pacing and basic mechanics.
The problems begin with the controls. Before this game's release, EA emphasized the Wii Remote/Nunchuk setup in pretty much every preview showcase I attended. To their credit, this setup works very well. The action buttons are configured in nice places. The shot mechanic — which involves flicking the Wiimote up and then down — is very satisfying, especially when dunks are involved. This is a welcome control scheme, but sometimes, you either want the instant precision of a button press or your arms just get tired.
To that end, NBA Jam has two traditional button-based control schemes. The first is the Wiimote turned on its side, which works pretty well except for the fact that the Turbo button is mapped to the B trigger by default, resulting in some very awkward middle-finger shifting whenever you want to use it. The second is the Classic Controller, which in theory should solve everything, but the default setup here is just baffling. Said default setup is the absolute reverse of the very ergonomic Super Nintendo setup. Alternatively, you can play the game with the twin analog sticks, going so far as to flick the right stick up and down to shoot, which feels strange when compared to the Wiimote way of shooting.
Normally, these would be minor nuisances. However, you are not allowed to remap the controls to your liking. This makes no sense. Games far more complicated than this allow for full button remapping. We're only talking about three main buttons here, with plenty of room for shortcut buttons to access advanced moves. There is absolutely no good reason for this, and it essentially holds the controls hostage, forcing players to use the Wiimote/Nunchuk setup simply because it is by far the most intuitive.
The next problem lies with the game's pacing and speed. Being an arcade game at heart, NBA Jam challenged a player's reflexes. Watching a basketball zip around the court at high speeds before being dunked in a most acrobatic fashion was a joy to watch and experience. NBA Jam on Wii has been slowed down significantly, though not so much in terms of player movement on the court than in terms of player mechanics. When passed, the ball moves more slowly. Steal and shove animations are slower, and the moves have been made less effective in the name of balance, which is a good thing because the shove was a pretty abusable technique in the old games.
However, due to the game's emphasis on animation, the steal move, which is touted as a fast swipe, now requires the player to wait to recover every time it is used. This means that actually stealing the ball is much harder, whether or not the move is actually performed successfully. What usually happens as a consequence is that any third parties present can easily grab the ball as a "reward" for all of your hard work. Three-way matches are a nightmare because of this.
The Turbo function now carries a barely noticeable effect. It used to be a tool to allow players to catch up to a ball handler or try again after a missed steal attempt. Now, even when using a player with a high speed attribute, it does little more than make said player's shoes a nice color. Similarly, Fire has also been toned down to the point of near-uselessness. If you're looking for a boost in three-pointers as a reward for sinking three shots in a row, forget it. Instead, three-pointers are now very high-risk moves.
Dunks have been changed. On paper, they still work the same way: Approach the basket with the ball within some vicinity of the foul shot area, and you'll execute a flashy dunk when you shoot the ball. They've even been given an upgrade so that the would-be-dunker no longer needs to activate Turbo first. However, the attention to animation is a fly in this ointment as well. Unless the player activates his shot while in mid-run animation, no dunk will take place. This means that opposing players merely have to stand still in front of whoever has a ball — which stops running animations cold — to greatly reduce their chances of dunking. Add this to the fact that dunking, along with pretty much every function in the game, is tied directly to player stats, and you can expect to see a whole lot less boomshakalaka than what you might expect. Low steal stats mean you may never see that ball. The stats bring the element of simulation into a game known for staunchly defying it.
On the positive side, jumping defense against shots and dunks has been improved. You still need to be skilled at aligning your intercepting jump just right, but it's no longer the gamble it used to be. Also, fakes and spins now carry rock-paper-scissors properties against moves like the shove and steal. This makes for good strategy as it's now tougher to guess which move is used against which, making no single move completely effective against any other. Unfortunately, with the aforementioned lag accompanying most moves, this improvement is rendered less effective than intended.
Finally, there is the matter of the computer player AI. Quite frankly, on any mode above Easy, it is insanely cheap. It pays little attention to statistics, often ignoring them outright or pumping up its own in a bid to stay "challenging." This would actually be excusable if it weren't also affected by fewer of the game's "quirks" than what the player must deal with in terms of mechanics. The Remix Mode is the worst offender with regards to the AI, with a majority of it being akin to the craziness that was Mario Kart Wii's single-player modes. There is a man in a dinosaur suit in this game who is a more godly player than any NBA superstar who ever lived. You have to fight him in a three-way game. It is impossible. It is not fun, for me, or the AI third player opponent who also had to deal with him.
I would be more lenient regarding the Remix Mode experience if it hadn't been what EA had constantly been pointing to as a consolation for the lack of online play. Unfortunately, it comes off as a failure. The novel match types transform into things to fear and dread. The universal difficulty option does not affect this mode at all. Fortunately, it does affect the Classic campaign, which is a vanilla romp through all NBA teams, so one can find a bit of fun by practicing against lower difficulties until you're ready to tackle the madness. As mentioned above, there are quite a few unlockables, but depending on the type of person playing this game, they may never get unlocked due to frustration.
Speaking of computer AI, you are now forced to put up with it if you don't have a human teammate around. This works about as well as you'd expect. The older home versions allowed players to partially control both teammates if they wished. Once again, it baffles me how much this new version denies those who wish to play it.
At its core, NBA Jam was a game that, when brought to home consoles, relinquished its arcade quest to suck money from its players and embraced its status by allowing players to play fast-paced, smooth-moving, superpowered two-on-two basketball the way they wanted to. Instead, what we have here is a game that only approaches fun when you have more than one person around the machine. The worst part is that while the multiplayer is certainly serviceable, a better-playing, smoother-moving, more player-empowering NBA Jam experience was already released nearly two decades ago. This isn't a claim based on nostalgia, either; one can see it simply by loading up the options menu in both versions.
Rent this if you want to see what you're in for. I'm willing to accept the possibility that I might just be a whiny Luddite about all of this. As much as it pains me to say it, it's best to stick with the older generation of games until something better comes along. This version of Jam is OK, but the series deserves far better.
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