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(Yes, we’ve used the same header image for three NBA Jam-related posts now. I apologize for nothing, because it’s the only piece of art we have from the new game, and because it is awesome.)
Yesterday, EA Sports officially announced a new NBA Jam game that will be coming to the Wii (and the Wii only, as far as we know) in 2010. Most gamers who were old enough to be playing videogames in the mid-’90s have fond memories of the instantly addictive fast-paced, over-the-top, 2-on-2 experience that NBA Jam provided. Whether it was the Utah Jazz’s formidable duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone; the Chicago Bulls’ Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant (no MJ, of course); or, for a New York boy like me, Patrick Ewing and John Starks of the New York Knicks; everyone had a go-to team.
Then again, the rosters almost didn’t matter; the game was so damn fun that you didn’t need to care about the NBA to enjoy it. If EA Sports wants to be successful with their revival of NBA Jam, they’re going to have to focus on the gameplay above all else, but with a healthy infusion of nostalgia. I’ve got some ideas on how they can do that -- hit the jump to read about them.
Limit the use of motion control
What worries me about NBA Jam being exclusive to the Wii is that it signals to me that EA thought they could improve upon one of the most successful arcade games of all time with Wii-specific adjustments (i.e., motion control). I don’t know whether that’s true -- after all, there isn’t much we know for sure about NBA Jam at this point -- but the assumption doesn’t seem like too much of a leap. That’s a mistake, if you ask me. I don’t want to flick the Wii Remote to shoot, like in the basketball game of Wii Sports Resort, or to pass. It may be too much to ask for EA Canada to shun waggle altogether, so I suppose I’d be okay with something like an upward-downward sequence of gestures to launch your player into the air and then come down for a rim-shattering dunk.
But one of the keys to the magic of the original NBA Jam was its simplicity. To be sure, that was partly a function of the time at which it was released -- the 16-bit era, which had never heard of analog sticks, let alone clicking them in -- but the fact remains that NBA Jam was a complete experience with only three buttons: shoot/block, pass/steal, and turbo. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be able to do more in EA Sports’ revival, but the developers should be wary of complicating the experience too much. The original NBA Jam was a hit with a wide cross-section of gamers because it was immediately accessible and didn’t require complex button combinations. That’s an ethos that needs to stay.
Of course, part of the reason I’m calling for less motion control in NBA Jam is that I’m hoping EA will eventually bring the game to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 if it sells well enough on the Wii. Without a lot of waggle, the game would have an easier transition to the HD consoles (though I suppose gestures could just be mapped to the extra buttons offered by the DualShock 3 and the Xbox 360 controller). This brings me to my next point...
Please, for the love of all that is good and pure in this world, bring this game to the PS3 and 360
I’ve only got a PS3; I don’t own a 360 or a Wii, and I don’t plan on buying either console anytime soon. So yes, this point is rather selfish, but considering the majority of the comments on the announcement post, I’m not alone in wishing for it. I’m not disappointed in this announcement because the game’s coming to the Wii and I have some poorly-founded opinion of the Wii as a crappy console (like some people). The Wii has a lot of great games, and since it has, by far, the highest install base of this console generation, EA probably figured that a Wii version of NBA Jam offered the best financial opportunity. You can’t blame them for that, especially since things haven’t been going well for the company of late. Just because the game’s going to be on the Wii doesn’t inherently mean it’s going to be bad.
However, I would really like to play the game, and I’d wager that many “hardcore” gamers -- the majority of the folks who put a total of $1 billion in quarters into NBA Jam -- own PS3s and 360s, and not Wiis. So an NBA Jam revival may even have a better chance at selling on the HD consoles.
Keep the heart of the gameplay, but update it
I suppose that’s the key of any remake or reboot, isn’t it? As I said earlier, EA Canada should refrain from messing too much with a classic formula, but videogames have changed immeasurably in the 17 years since NBA Jam launched, and indeed, there are some things that EA Canada can do better now. It seems that each team will have three players -- in fact, you can vote for your favorites on the game’s official Web site -- so why not give each player a timeout or two that will completely replenish turbo and allow them to make a substitution? Or if that seems like it would break up the game’s breakneck pace too much, perhaps there could be a “tag-out” button for an on-the-fly switch?
The announcement press release mentioned “players spinning with ankle-breaking moves to the basket,” so I’m already assuming we’ll have some kind of dribble moves at our disposal. And since EA Canada developed all the NBA Street games, there may even be a “Gamebreaker” mechanic, where doing things in the game accrues points that can be used to unleash an unblockable dunk or a shot that can’t miss. I’d be fine with that, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the game with an excessively ostentatious cut-scene. Simplicity is great, but today’s gamers also crave at least a modicum of depth. A single-player mode that’s more involved than the traditional tournament-style gauntlet, if done right, would also be enjoyable.
Nostalgia is a potent driving force; utilize it
Nintendo has been selling us our childhood for the past two decades. Nostalgia is obviously a powerful factor for gamers, and in the case of NBA Jam -- or any revival, really -- it’s essential. When you’re doing something like this, you have to include nods to your source material. I don’t know if EA Canada can bring back Tim Kitzrow to do the voice-overs for this game, but they should definitely look into it. If not, though, the game needs some over-the-top commentary; maybe the developers can turn to the rink announcer for 3 on 3 NHL Arcade.
I’d also love to see some outrageous hidden (or unlockable) special characters. Who wouldn’t want to perform a 360° dunk with President Obama? The first home console versions of NBA Jam included Mortal Kombat fighters before the NBA made Midway remove them; what if the new game features characters from current EA games? Isaac Clarke, Dante, and Eddie Riggs seem like worthy candidates. And some game-altering cheats would be fun to play around with, too. This kind of ’90s-era kitsch can only help to make the revival more charming.
Include online multiplayer, Friend Codes be damned
Yes, NBA Jam is the kind of game that’s best enjoyed when your opponent is in the same room, only a couple of feet away. And it’s on the Wii, which has the least-robust online infrastructure of this console generation. But that doesn’t mean that EA Canada can skip out on this vital feature. Plenty of Wii games have pulled it off -- Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, and Guitar Hero 5, to name a few, all offered fully functional online components. And even if you don’t have the ability to trash-talk your opponents (how many people own a Wii Speak peripheral, anyway?), online play is a necessity. And Wii owners shouldn’t have to settle for mere head-to-head action; the game should provide the same 2-on-2 experience online as offline. This is 2010, people.
If NBA Jam doesn’t hold up to the original, gamers will let EA Canada know. The developers certainly have a tough task ahead of them: they’ll have to walk a fine line between devotion to the classic experience and adding depth to it. But if they incorporate the things above, I’m confident that they can succeed. Do you guys have any other ideas?