If it saddens you to think that a generation of gamers could grow up without knowing what “boom shakalaka”, President Clinton and a hoop of fire have in common, then news of EA’s NBA Jam franchise reboot should at least offer up a glimmer of hope. Indeed, after a hands-on session last week, I can confidently state that tentative sliver of expectation is well founded, as the spirit of the original has been translated almost perfectly here by a developer that clearly understands the reverence. It feels distinctly familiar, it has elements that feel at home on the Wii, and it’s a whole lot of fun.
This new Jam fits somewhere in-between the mechanics of the first release from Midway and its eventual successor NBA Showtime. If you’ve never experienced the series previously, it’s a two-on-two arcade basketball title with the emphasis squarely on the spectacular. Reverse passes, fakes, alley-oops and backboard-shattering dunks are carried out at breakneck speed, whilst old-school secrets and Easter eggs are liberally scattered throughout for those patient enough to search (online) for them. Whilst it’s disappointing to see most of the classic roster exchanged for today’s superstars, ultimately that’s a price worth paying when the rest of the experience is undiluted.
Mercifully, that sentiment even carries as far as the visuals, which EA is keen to keep as authentically lo-fi as possible. The 3D players are animated as if they were sprites from yesteryear, whilst their inertia retains the sharp roller-skating vibe that became as much of a series’ calling card as their silly big heads; and those return, of course, except this time layered on as a 2D texture with a slightly increased range of facial posturing. No word yet as to whether Clinton will make the cut, but a sense of irreverence still rears its head as various mascots and other costumes are selectable from the off.
In terms of mechanics, whilst the final game will support classic controller and single horizontal Wiimote configurations, the version currently being championed is the traditional nunchuck variety, and with practice it’s easy to see why. Passing, sprinting, charging and elbows are assigned sensibly to the regular buttons and triggers, whilst shooting and dunking is taken care of with a throwing motion: lift the Wiimote to begin your ascent, then either flick it forwards to rattle home a jump shot or slam the controller down to dunk.
Multiplayer, as you can no doubt imagine, is made all the more competitive as your opponent slams the controller down in front of your face, and some subtle rubber-banding ensures that crushing victories have to be extremely hard-earned. Taking the game into the anonymous world of Nintendo online would certainly lose that appeal, and so EA is still tight-lipped about whether or not such functionality will exist on the final disc. I’d wager it won’t.
But perhaps most impressive is that, aside from a switched vertical-angle game mode making its way into the feature list, Jam bears all the visual and mechanical hallmarks of being ripped from an alternative future in which Midway didn’t squander its own IP before spectacularly imploding. That sentence alone should inspire a fair few of you to keep tabs until release, and for everybody else, try and hunt down the original in a chip shop first. From what we’ve seen thus far, it’s a remake that’s very much on fire.