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Bringing the boom shaka laka with NBA Jam

10:00 AM on 07.23.2010 // Ben Perlee

NBA Jam is the lost basketball game for a whole generation. Born in the arcades, this legendary title was the very first basketball game to properly recreate the likenesses of the players we grew up and loved. With insane commentary and an entirely enjoyable 2v2 set-up, NBA Jam didn’t recreate basketball, but boiled it down to its most fun. In the years since, NBA Jam has been a game that has been copied and revered, but never remade. Which is a shame considering.

As Trey Smith, the producer for NBA Jam said, this game is basketball for gamers, not basketball for sports aficionados.  This appeal to gamers was hugely successful, and it has been estimated that NBA Jam has earned over a $1 billion in arcade alone, and this sadly ignored IP has been waiting to be reborn. Finally done, does this new Jam bring the boom shaka laka, 17 years after it first launched, or will it ape and fail in rebooting?

Hit the jump for my hands-on impressions.

NBA Jam (Wii)
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA
To be released: October 5, 2010

Some of the most exciting words from Smith indicate strong respect for the original arcade ROM. This isn’t a title that builds off of the SNES or Genesis versions of the game, here it’s all about striving for the best from the Midway original. For example, many players will remember that the shove was a common technique in the original, so EA has added a new ability to counter this with the spin move, which will render the shove useless. Also, there is a new radial attack move called the ankle breaker which will stop opposing players even more.

While EA is still remaining mum on the issue that NBA Jam is going to be ported over to the Xbox 360 and the PS3, the fact that it is on the Wii aligns it with some motion control options. Basic turbo, pass, shove, and other moves are performed with the A, B, and Z-buttons, and combinations of those. Dunks and shots, however, are done by swinging the wiimote up, then down. Yeah, some people will hate it, but it's a simple enough motion that it gets the job done just fine without any problems. As a matter of fact, with four bros playing side by side, it's a chaotic and fun experience that recreates the fun of the arcade game quite well.

There were two new modes shown. While plenty of different game options will be offered, the Backboard Smash and boss battle are what EA deemed appropriate for the press event. Backboard Smash was described as “NBA meets Street Fighter” as each team’s backboards have a health bar, and each dunk does damage to the backboard. While it’s a bit derivative and doesn’t really feel that different from, say, being the first to reach a certain score, it was still a blast to play. Hearing all of the crazy stuff from the announcer, which are the originals from the old school titles ("Boom shaka laka!", for example), made it feel like 1993 all over again.

The second mode I was shown was the boss battles. Do well enough, and powerful players and legacy stars will challenge to a specialized match-up. Magic Johnson was the one we were shown, and the battle took place on a magician-themed half-court for a one-on-one match up. Magic has a teleporting ability, so he's able to pass to himself and even ally-oop, while the player has to struggle with just their normal skills. It's a challenge, to be sure, but a classic way of unlocking new players.

There is going to be two ways to play the single player as well. There will be Classic mode, which is a standard tournament mode, and then there is the Remix tour. This mode is more about doing what you want, when you want, so players who want to skip certain modes and rule sets can skip right past. As well, there are some power-ups and extra arcadey stuff tossed in to mix things up.

Other major additions include an updated roster to include all of the major recent team shake-ups. LeBron James, for example, is already rocking his Miami Heat uniform. When asked if NBA Jam could become an annual title like Madden, Smith said the dev team was open to the idea, but they are working hard on making this version of NBA Jam a proper return to form for the IP for when it launches on October 5.

Visually, it looks like EA has hit this one out of the park. All of the character models have been designed with traditional 3D models, only instead of recreating the heads, EA just uses static images of each player's face. It's a funny method, with only 12 images to provide all of the range of actions and motions, but it actually gets the job done very well. This method is even applied to the cheerleaders and audience members, and the whole “NBA Jam” vibe is recreated very well. A return of cheats codes is a bit of retro nostalgia done right, with big head mode confirmed as just the first of many, making these headshots even more dramatic. NBA Jam is outlandish and gutsy, and is better because of it.

Coming away from NBA Jam, I'm very impressed. With an obvious love for the original, while choosing a crazy new visual style, EA is doing something special with this one. Finger's crossed EA can bring the dynamite with this one when it comes out in October.

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Ben Perlee,
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