NBA Jam Hands-On PreviewBy Patrick Klepek - Posted Mar 31, 2010
The return of NBA Jam is near and it's coming from an unlikely source: Electronic Arts. At some point, the Madden NFL publisher scooped up the rights to the long-dead coin-op franchise and decided Nintendo's Wii provided the perfect platform for a return. I spent some time with the newly-rejuvenated NBA Jam during the Game Developers Conference back in February, but was forced to keep my thoughts under lock and key until now.
I have some good news for NBA Jam fans.
Let's get the obvious concern out of the way first. The motion controls that EA has added to NBA Jam are absolutely not required. Because NBA Jam is at least premiering on Wii, motion controls are part of the pitch, but EA knows hardcore fans would have been quick to call them out for changing the fundamentals of what makes NBA Jam work. Crucial to NBA Jam are the clean, crisp, responsive controls and by flipping the Wii remote on its side, the new NBA Jam reverts to the controls you remember. The only potential problem during my hands-on was having turbo mapped to the B button, which isn't comfortably accessible all the time.
I did play NBA Jam with the motion controls turned on. I can understand why NBA Jam newcomers might find themselves enjoying lifting the Wii remote into the air to initiate and release a shot, but that's not the way I learned to play NBA Jam as a youngin' and, fortunately, EA doesn't see any reason to make me learn how to play this classic all over again. The motion controls overcomplicated a game whose very foundation is excellence through simplicity. Too often I was performing the wrong move because I'd forgotten where the action was mapped to. Since motion is not required to play, I can't really hold it against the game.
There is, sadly, no way a modern NBA Jam could be released without some 3D elements becoming part of the design. The character models in NBA Jam are 3D, but a large part of NBA Jam's charm was the ridiculous and unrealistic photo-based sprite characters. So while the bodies have made a transition to 3D, the heads haven't. Everyone has overblown 2D heads that change expressions based on the action at the time -- shooting, running, dunking, etc. It's a perfect mash-up of old and new visuals, and an appropriate compromise.
EA allowed me to play through an entire four-quarter game. It felt like NBA Jam, but I have to be honest and admit it's been a long, long time since I've played NBA Jam. It would be impossible for me to tell you "yes, it felt just like the arcade game from years back," but I can pass on the yelps, screams and hollers that were exchanged between the developers (who were on one team) and Adam Sessler and I (on the other team). That response is what leads me to believe the team at EA is on the right track. It doesn't have to have the exact same thing to still succeed. Sorting through nostalgia can be extraordinarily difficult and the new NBA Jam seems to have the same spirit as the old one.
More time is needed to make a better assessment of the overall package, but signs are pointing in a good direction. I even spotted the option to turn on "Big Head Mode" in the menu screen somewhere. Now, all I need is confirmation of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Sarah Palin and John McCain as celebrity players to keep the NBA Jam tradition alive and I'll be a happy camper.