Nostalgia, wrapped in loving memories, covered in a layer of wistful longing. Few sports games can inspire those types of emotions in people, but the original NBA Jam certainly makes the list. Its dead-simple controls and bombastic presentation made it a fan favorite back when the arcade version was released in 1993, and subsequent releases on home consoles all but solidified its place as one of the most iconic sports games of all time. Now that EA has announced it has both acquired the rights to the franchise and tasked its Burnaby, BC, studio with developing a new version for the Wii, the question on everyone's mind is what exactly a revisited NBA Jam will feel like in 2010.
Familiar in a good way--that's how we'd describe it after having played about four full games at a recent EA Sports event. It was only a few seconds after tip-off in a game pitting the Lakers against the Cavaliers that we had one of those riding-a-bicycle moments, that feeling that we were instantly back in the world of NBA Jam. The biggest reason for this is that EA Canada has preserved the simplicity of the controls: Hold Z for turbo, hit A to pass, and flick the remote up in the air to shoot, dunk, block, or do anything that requires jumping into the air. And, of course, there's everyone's favorite: the shove. You can rest easy knowing that violently pushing people to the ground is just as easy--and funny--as ever.
But it's not all the same, because EA Canada has layered in a few new abilities over that core control scheme. Holding Z and pressing B will do an ankle-breaker crossover, holding B after grabbing a rebound will throw a flurry of elbows, and holding C and flicking the remote will perform a pump fake. However, all you really need to win are those core run-pass-shoot controls--it seems like these new moves have been layered in as optional abilities to add some style and variety to your game. Moreover, there are also some new features that are so obvious that you'd think they were there all along, like the ability to pass from the ground after having been knocked over and a difference in movement between acrobatic 2-guards and lumbering centers.
The area where the new Jam feels, well, newest is in the art style. Rather than rendering characters with 2D sprites or 3D models, every frame of facial animation for the players is taken from a live game photo. So when you see Pau Gasol's sweaty caveman beard or his awkward mid-dunk grimace, you know those images were taken from real game shots. The result is a game that has a very charming homemade collage look to it. Beyond that, the lovably ridiculous announcer is back, with plenty of new material and nods to old catchphrases like "boom-shaka-laka" and "from downtown!"
All told, we enjoyed our trip down memory lane with NBA Jam. The combination of new and old definitely has a balance that's more heavily weighted on the "old" side, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The biggest flaw we could find in the game is its format: a retro experience like this seems tailor-made for the downloadable game space, but NBA Jam is retail-only. We'll see if EA reveals any more release plans further down the road, but in the meantime you can expect NBA Jam to arrive for the Wii later this year.