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Nintendo Wii Review: NBA Jam

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Last week I wrote up a videogame review on Atari’s new Haunted House.  I spent some time in that review talking about how it felt as though every game I had been reviewing as of late was a sequel or a reimagining or a reinvention or some other update to a classic.  Well, no sooner did I finish that review than the nice man from FedEx (or maybe UPS) left a package at my door.  Upon opening it I discovered that it was EA Sports’ latest title, another reinvention of an old game, NBA Jam.

I distinctly remember getting schooled by Bill Clinton in NBA Jam while waiting for the Super Bowl to start.  That is to say, my friend popped in the code on the old Jam to play as Bill Clinton and the President had a field day.  He was, as the saying goes, on fire.

For those who aren’t old enough to remember hearing the play-by-play guy yell “Boomshakalaka” on either a home console or in the arcade, NBA Jam is two-on-two arcade basketball at its finest.   Forget carefully managing a team throughout one season much less several, leading them to the championship, and making sure that you have enough money to pay the bills on a weekly basis, NBA Jam is about taking it to the hoop in the most stunning, the most physical, and the most fun ways.   That is not to say that there is no strategy involved, there is plenty of strategy and it begins before tipoff,  it is just that once you’re playing you don’t realize that there’s much strategy involved. 

Jumping in at the beginning, the new NBA Jam offers plenty of play modes, but let’s look at the Classic Campaign first.  This mode is, for all intents and purposes, a basic updating of the original game’s main mode.  You start off by choosing a team and then have to beat all the other teams.  The title is a licensed one, so while you won’t find the entire squad of your favorite team, you will find a few players from the team, all with different strengths and weaknesses.  You select one guy to be controlled by you and another to be controlled by the computer and then it’s off to the races.

And boy are those races great.  The entire game really is just about getting the ball, running down the court, and jamming it home.  You can, if you’ve chosen the right player, go for a jumper or a three-pointer, you can also finger roll and execute a hookshot, but the point is the jam.  On defense, forget fouls, if the opposing team has the ball and you want the ball, you go and you take the ball.  That’s right, just shove the guy and grab the ball when it hits the floor – the one thing you can’t do in NBA Jam is goaltending… sort of.

You see, if your chosen player sinks three shots without the other side sinking any he’s designated as being “on fire,” which means that not only will the net erupt into flames every time you score, but your shooting percentage goes up, you can sprint without running out of energy, and are just an all around better player.  Where the goaltending bit of this comes in is that should you get called for a goaltending penalty it does not reset the number of shots you’ve sunk without your opponent sinking one (because with goaltending while a team has been given the points, they haven’t made the basket).

The same basic rules apply to the Remix Tour mode which is mainly just a different way of organizing the basic tournament.  Well, it’s mainly that except for the power-ups.  In this mode, throughout the game power-ups will magically appear on the floor and by grabbing them you’ll get special abilities like the ability to bulldoze a defender, increased speed, increased accuracy, etc.  It takes what already was an arcade game and pushes it even further in that direction.

Then there are a whole bunch of other types of ways to play as well – you can play 21, you can play an elimination mode where it’s everyone for themselves and at the end of each round the person with the lowest score is out, you can play Domination where you need to make shots from certain places on the court, you can also play a Smash mode which is all about breaking the backboard.  The game even has the ability to play a Boss Battle mode where you take on some relatively special folks, but you need to unlock those guys first which you do by playing in the Remix Tour (you can also unlock teams and courts).

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is its insatiable desire to try to even things out.  If you start to run up a big lead, it’s understandable that your opponents will change tactics (and they do, they always go to a press), but that it seemingly becomes harder to hit a shot (unless you’re on fire) is distressing.  It should be said though that I’m against the computer leveling the field like this in any game (see Mario Kart) – it may make things more even but it simply destroys the realism.

As one would expect, the graphics for the title have improved greatly over the initial console debut so many years ago.  I will say, however, that the reflection on the floor of some of the electronic signs from the stadium is just plain annoying.  I completely understand that it’s impressive that graphics have come to the point where such reflections are possible, but they don’t add to the excitement or the challenge, they’re just in the way.

The game has done a great job with the play-by-play announcing, both throwing in some new phrases while making sure to keep everyone’s favorite old ones from the original.  The play-by-play is done by Tim Kitzrow who is the same person who did the old game, so those who remember the old title won’t have to get used to a new voice yelling out the catchphrases.

Lastly, NBA Jam allows one to use either the Wii remote and nunchuk or the classic controller.  The remote and nunchuk combination is okay, but requires some flicking to dunk and take a jumper, and the flicking for each is slightly too similar, causing moments when you’ll mean to dunk and take an ugly, ugly jump shot.  It isn’t a huge frustration, but it would have been nice to see an option that allowed for Wii remote play without motion controls.

This new version of NBA Jam is just as much fun as the old one ever was.  It is nice to see the game resurrected and have it contain new features while not eliminating the old ones.  Now if I can only hookup with my Bill Clinton nemesis again I can show him a thing or two about how to jam.

NBA Jam is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.