An admission: I've never played NBA Jam before. In fact, I've never played a basketball game before. I couldn't name a single basketball player except for that Michael Jordan chap, who I only know due to his appearance in Space Jam. In short, I have no interest in the sport in any way, shape or form. There's no way I'd enjoy a remake of NBA Jam.
"Come on, you'll love it!" chirps Neon, interrupting my pessimistic ramblings as he goads me along to the NBA Jam pod at a recent Nintendo event. Furnished with a Wii Remote and Nunchuck, I pushed my preconceptions to one side, if only to humour my enthusiastic deputy editor. Scrolling through a seemingly infinite grid of basketball players, I had no idea how I was going to go about making a decision. In the end, I chose Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzlies, for no particular reason whatsoever, certainly nothing to do with their not-funny-whatsoever names. With our teams selected, we jumped into a competitive (we could have chose co-op, too) match.
The first thing to notice about the game is its distinct graphical style. At first I found the game to be gaudy and not in the least bit attractive, but the longer I spent with it the more it grew on me. The character models use 2D photographs for their faces, with quirky cel-shading bringing to life the rest of the models and environments. Each player has a slightly larger than average head, too, giving the visuals a humorous edge. It certainly has a lot of character, cementing the nostalgic vibe for those with a fondness of the original.
If, like me, you never played the original (arcade or otherwise), it might be worth quickly going over the basics. Unlike real basketball, which features five players per team (according to Wikipedia), NBA Jam only has two per side. This, as you can imagine, streamlines the experience somewhat. You only have one person you can pass to, and only need to worry about the position of two members of the opposing team. It's therefore a much faster game than 'real' basketball, and much higher scoring. It's also worth stressing that the game isn't too concerned with realism. Players will launch themselves to absurd heights above the basket, often slamming down a ball that's engulfed in flames. This works incredibly well with the game's goofy aesthetic, creating a sporting experience very much unlike anything else out there.
The controls have been designed to match the simplicity of the streamlined sport. Passing the ball is achieved with a quick tap of the A button, whilst holding down B will pull off some fancy dribbling skills. To shoot, simply yank the Wii-mote into the air, and then flick the controller forward at the peak of its ascent to release. I suppose it's quite similar to throwing a real ball, except, you know, without a real ball. Slam dunks are particularly satisfying, and hammering the Wii-mote down to make your character bomb the ball into the net never gets old. That said, it's not quite as entertaining when the ball is being banged into the net of your own basket, which is exactly what happened for the first five or so minutes of my match.
By the end of the first quarter, a noticeable gap had formed between our scores. Neon was busting out some fairly outrageous backwards slam-dunks, and intercepting my feeble attacks with alarming frequency. It's fair to say I was getting my arse kicked. At some point along the way, though, everything kind of clicked. By the third quarter, I'd hit my stride. I had a better understanding of defensive play, and was converting far more shots than when I started. I was closing the gap. I also had the added bonus of feeling intensely competitive, a trait that rarely surfaces when I play games. Neon, I told myself, was going down.
In the final moments of the last quarter, I'd converted a couple of three pointers, and prevented Neon from scoring in quite some time. Defence played a far greater role in the game than I initially thought. Despite being a simplified take on the sport, there's a very definite strategy to the game. At the end of play, it was 41 - 37, and I found myself shouting something along the lines of "Whoomp, there it is!" in an unexpected burst of excitement. Somewhere during the match, my preconceptions about playing a sports game had been thrown out the window; I'd thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Perhaps you're like me: you have no interest in basketball, or even sports games in general. But perhaps, also like me, you'll shock yourself at how much fun the game has to offer. What makes NBA Jam so exciting is the intensity of it all. At times, it felt more like tennis than basketball. The ball flits back and forth between the two sides of the court very quickly, and points start racking up at an incredibly rapid rate. It's relentlessly exciting, but requires your undivided attention for the duration of the match. Let your guard up for just a second and victory can be snatched from beneath your feet. I can tell Neon will be eager for a rematch when the game is released this autumn, and I'll be more than happy to oblige.
NBA Jam will be available for Wii Autumn 2010. A cut down version of the game will be released on Xbox 360 and PS3 as part of the NBA Elite 11 package.