Creating a game based on a legendary (but vintage) original is no easy feat. You simultaneously risk alienating people that played (and loved) the original, as well as isolating yourself from any potential new audience that doesn't identify with it. You may even find yourself constrained as to what you can do, all the while trying to craft an experience that's somehow reminiscent of the original and yet relevant to gamers of today.
But that's exactly what EA are attempting with NBA Jam; a reboot of a 17 year old series that contains a whopping nine games! Didn't know that, did ya?
First, the basics: NBA Jam is primarily a 2v2 basketball game. The canny observer will note that the word "game" was used where perhaps "simulation" would normally be suitable to describe an EA sports title; that's right, this title is about fun first, realism a distant seventy-sixth. With crazy moves, options that are more about entertainment than any form of accuracy and ridiculously over the top (think: Tony Hawk) levels of athleticism from the participants, the word "fun" is the first word you think of when you see it.
The classic 2v2 mode is not the only one on offer, with a number of other playstyles and game modes available. Modes include 21, where your objective is to play the classic backyard style of the game at a single end of the court and beat your opponents to 21. Another challenge pits teams against each other in the classic style but instead of trying to out-score the other team your goal is to do enough damage (where high-style shots do more damage) to their backboard before it eventually smashes down in a rain of glass.
One of the most intense new modes challenges players to score from various "spots" on the field which captures them. Any "spots" owned rack up points from time to time and it is these points that decide the victor. There are also powerups, heaps (and heaps!) of unlockables, campaign modes and more - almost all of which supports up to four players at a time. About the only thing the game doesn't have is an online mode, despite the fact that the censor's sticker suggests "gaming experience may change online" (if there's an online mode, we couldn't find it!).
The controls are really natural, with the basics taught to you via a rather ham-fisted tutorial. Extra stuff is presented on loading screens, which lets you get on with it without trying to remember two dozen different things straight away. They work pretty well in-game, with extremely high-reward moves (like steal and shove) putting you on the back foot if you duff them, almost always resulting in your opponent scoring should you miss. They're still well worth trying, as there aren't many ways to take back possession. Even defending is rewarding, with easy to understand moves requiring smart timing to execute well. It's the classic mix of "easy to learn, hard to master" that will keep you playing and improving for a long time after you first break it out.
Visually it somehow manages to use modern techniques (polygons, textures - that sort of thing) to deliver a high resolution version of the original. Clever, sparse use of animation ensures things never lose the magical feel of when everything was based on sprites while enabling new camera modes and visual effects which would have never been possible before. It's only really let down by the heads occasionally not looking the right way or just behaving slightly oddly in an almost indescribable way. It's very, very minor but nitpickers will likely spot it without anyone needing to point it out.
The sound is great, with satisfying swishes and dunks. The commentary is excellent, often reacting to what you're doing with some detail, however as is typically the case with sports games, it will soon start repeating itself. Like the game unfolding on the court, the commentary is also over the top, cranking out superlatives like doomsday is coming and only grandiose descriptions of sporting activity could possibly prevent it.
So, apart from the lack of online (which is aggravated by an erroneous censor's sticker!) NBA Jam is practically the perfect game for people that love the sport but aren't into hardcore simulations. It's fun, you get to see your favorite players in great detail and anyone can pick it up and get into it. It even has that strange button-masher factor where complete newbies can pull of devilishly tricky things by just waggling the Wiimote randomly around. If you're at all interested in sports, have a Wii and have mates over for multiplayer sessions (which is where NBA Jam truly shines) you just have to get this. Highly recommended - bring on Cricket Jam or Rugby League Jam!