Boomshakalaka! The classic baller is back.
NBA Jam, the sports title that took arcades by storms in 1993, is back as an original title for Wii. Developed and published by EA, the game has been designed to look and feel as much as possible like the original game, which is a good thing. As with most retro revivals, however, the good ideas are peppered with some problems.
The good news is that the core gameplay of NBA Jam is a lot of fun. EA Canada really nailed the look and feel of the original, while updating the game to make it fast and modern. Playing the game feels very similar to the 1993 arcade game; from the frequent three-point shots to dunking from the free throw line, the game simply feels right. With an update to a classic game, there is the risk of making the game too much of a throwback, or trying to modernize too much. The ideal goal of a game such as NBA Jam is to have the game feel like you remember the original, but is not actually identical to it. The balance here between retro and modern is perfect. The presentation is fantastic, and even the audio is done very well, as original broadcaster Tim Kitrzrow is brought back to re-record all of his original quips, and plenty of new lines as well.
The two campaign modes will have you playing for quite a while, although they do get repetitive. The Classic Campaign mode is very similar to the original game's single-player campaign, having you simply play through the teams one by one. As you complete a division, you will play a "boss" team from that division consisting of legendary players. The Remix Tour has you playing each team in the NBA three times in various mini-games such as Domination mode (a sort of king-of-the-hill style game) or Smash mode, which is a "who can smash the backboard first" dunking competition. As you play through the Remix Tour, you will unlock these mini-games so you can play them with friends. In addition to the main modes, there is much more included on the disc. The game has upwards of fifty unlockable characters from NBA Legends to popular politicians. Most of these are unlocked by either playing through one of the two campaign modes, or via an achievement-like system. Aside from the unlockable players, the game has fun little bonus modes such as a Big Head mode that can be unlocked as you play through the game.
The game shines in multiplayer, which should be no surprise to anyone who put time into the original. The game supports up to four players locally, but unfortunately the game is not playable online on Wii. While this is disappointing, the game is a blast playing couch-style and supports local co-op even through the entire Classic Campaign mode.
Unfortunately, getting to the action requires navigating a fairly clunky interface. In fact, with NBA Jam, it often feels as if the rest of game was finished and polished, and the menu system and interface were thrown together quickly as an afterthought. One such example is that although the game features the use of multiple controller schemes, such as Classic Controller and Wii Remote with Nunchuk, the on-screen button prompts always ask for buttons corresponding to the Wii Remote. At the end of each game, to exit back to the menu requires a press of the "A" button on the remote, or the "b" button on the Classic Controller, however, only the prompt for "A" is given, leading to confused players unsure why they can't exit the game. Also, if you accidentally re-activate the Wii Remote control scheme, then all of the Classic Controller buttons are de-activated, meaning you have to pick up the Wii Remote just to get back to the main menu. Adding to the controller woes is the lack of customization of the controls. The game allows you to choose the Classic Controller, but does not allow you to re-assign the buttons as you choose. My fingers kept automatically reaching for the right trigger to enable turbo, however, that button is unused - only the left trigger is used for turbo.
Another disappointing detail was the lack of "Tag Mode", a feature from the home versions of NBA Jam back in the mid-1990s. The mode allowed you to control whichever player on your team that had the ball, meaning you had complete control over your offense. The mode is noticeably absent from this version of NBA Jam, which is very disappointing since it requires relying on an AI partner when playing the game alone. Although the AI partner is perfectly competent, it still feels like a missed opportunity. For a game that feels so polished and lovingly crafted in the bulk of the action, to see so many strange choices made in the interface is quite disappointing.
NBA Jam is a very faithful revival of a long-lost favorite. Although some of the interface options are puzzling, the core game is still there, and it's still great. If you have someone to play locally with, this game is a must-own for Wii arcade sports fans.