In the early '90s, it wasn't uncommon to see crowds of people in the local arcades, pumping quarters into fighting games (Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat) that were incredibly popular at the time. But there was one non-fighting game that always drew its fair share of crowds, and it was the original NBA Jam. This was a fast-paced and over-the-top take on the sport of professional basketball that was both fun and highly competitive. Throughout the years, NBA Jam made its way to home consoles and saw new iterations--some great and some not so great--before it faded into obscurity. Then, it was replaced by the likes of NBA Street and similar games that hoped to cash in on what made NBA Jam so popular. While some were quite good, few of these games managed to accomplish that lofty goal, leaving many with the hope that some day NBA Jam would return.
Well, that day has come. NBA Jam, in development for the Wii, has returned with a new visual style and a few gameplay tweaks adopted from later games, which combine to make what's already shaping up to be a great return for the series. Let's start with the visual style: The original NBA Jam featured digitized characters, while later iterations used fully polygonal models. This new NBA Jam takes the best of both worlds, featuring bodies that are polygonal models and heads that are actual pictures of a player's face from on-court action. These pictures--or more specifically the expression on the player's face--change to reflect what a player is doing, too, so the expression you see during a monster dunk is different from the standard dribbling face. It all sounds a little goofy on paper, but when you see it in motion, it works. And, surprisingly, it fits in well with the zany nature of NBA Jam. Of course, there are also plenty of courtside details, including mascots, cheerleaders, and rowdy fans in the seats.
As great as all of these things are, any NBA Jam fan will tell you that what matters most is how smooth the gameplay is, and from what we played so far, it seems to hit that sweet spot. With the nunchuk and Wii Remote setup, it's easy to pass, set up an alley-oop, poke out on the ball on defense, or perform some nice ankle-breaking moves to weave through the defense. Surprisingly, shooting and shot blocking is equally responsive, despite the usual association with the fact that motion controls aren't ideal for precise actions. With a little flip of the Wii Remote, you can send your player into the air to stuff it back in your opponent's face or drive down the lane and go for an insane dunk. Admittedly, it takes a few minutes to get a decent feel for timing and when you should perform the move with the remote, but we became pretty comfortable with it quickly. Still, if motion-controlled shooting isn't your thing, NBA Jam does feature support for the Classic Controller for those who want more of the old-school feel.
After playing NBA Jam for a bit on our own, we had an opportunity to play in a few full four-player sessions. Most of these ended up being incredibly fun defensive struggles, coming down to the game-winning shot in the final seconds. If anything, it showed us that if you're playing with a group of really good NBA Jam players, you're going to have to work hard to score--it's not easy to just run down the court and go right for the dunk when your opponents have a tenacious defense. Be on the lookout for more on NBA Jam before it ships later this year.