It's hard to hear about NBA Jam without thinking of the phrase. It represents the game in every way, capturing all of the energy and whimsy in an otherwise meaningless shout. Even though it's been 17 years since its release, elements of NBA Jam can be found in nearly every sports game to ever attempt to set itself apart by dabbling in arcade-inspired gameplay. At a recent EA Sports event, I found myself teamed up with another journalist for a game of the new NBA Jam, going head-to-head against two others on the Wii. While it took some time getting used to the gameplay, which feels almost too derivative of the original, it wasn't long until the competitive bug bit, and "BOOOOOOM-SHAKA-LAKA!" was in the air again.
When it was announced, the promise was that EA Vancouver would stay as true as possible to the original. From the look and feel of it, they've been true to their word. Everything about the new NBA Jam feels classic, from the presentation to the gameplay. Visually, everything is modeled in 3D save for characters' faces, which are actually high-resolution pictures of players. Besides the obvious benefit of bypassing the Wii's graphical inadequacies, it gives the characters more... character. It should also make turning on "big head mode" even more hilarious. Audibly, everything sounds like it was saved in a time capsule for 2010, with high-energy effects and the same memorable voicework fans have come to expect from NBA Jam. Typical "BOOOOOOM-SHAKA-LAKA!"s return, as do several variations of the signature catchphrase. Other shouts, like "THINGS ARE GETTING SEXY," make their way into the game's lexicon, and should elicit a laughter from anyone playing.
The gameplay, too, remains nearly unchanged, with the only major enhancements being the ability to execute a spin move and alley-oop cooperatively. Both changes add necessary depth, with the first combating the overpowered shove and the second being the most high-five worthy addition to any game since Army of Two bromanced its way onto the scene. These mechanics were weaved into the game so masterfully that they feel like they've been there all along, which should put anyone worried about the changes at ease.
Don't think for one moment that any of the changes detract from the arcade-styled gameplay; it's NBA Jam, through and through. The only element that really felt out of place were the motion controls, which took the otherwise polished and refined gameplay of NBA Jam and threw a wrench in the works. It's not really "bad" by any means, but swinging the remote up to jump and down to shoot simply wasn't as sensitive as it should be. Luckily, the controller can be turned on its side for a more classic approach, and support of the classic controller should help keep purists from being outraged.
Of all of the booths at the EA event, the only one constantly filled with uproarious laughter was the NBA Jam station. It's a formula that's inherently fun, and the improvements haven't tarnished that style one bit. EA promises additional game modes and enhancements, including a story of sorts, complete with boss battles and other fun additions. How they'll play out is yet to be seen, but it certainly has potential. Something about playing one on one with a giant version of Shaq just sounds... right.
NBA Jam is due out this summer for the Nintendo Wii.