Back in the ’90s, sports games, at their best, were loose representations of the sport they were trying to emulate. And while they weren’t as realistic as today’s spots games, they were still very enjoyable to many people, regardless of their reverence toward the particular sport. Many might remember NBA Jam as just another popular mid-’90s arcade game, but it was more than that. Its over-the-top style and abrasive vibrato became the template other classic arcade franchises would follow for many years, like the NFL Blitz series. But alas, as better physics technology started being implemented into video games, and once sports-centered video-game developers like EA Sports started calling its games “sports simulations,” you knew a generational shift toward realism had occurred, making the arcade sports game a casualty of video-game evolution. However, over the last few years, the pendulum seems to have shifted once again, this time away from realism and back to arcade-like sensibilities.
With the Nintendo Wii over the past few years evangelizing the game-design theory of playability over fidelity, it’s no surprise that EA Sports decided to once again resurrect the classic basketball franchise. NBA Jam for the Nintendo Wii is essentially identical to the series original, right down to the iconic voice announcer: It’s the same two-on-two basketball game that was released a decade ago, and with the same in-game rules (e.g. hit three shots in a row and you are on fire)—even with the same hidden characters (you can be both Bill and Hilary Clinton). EA Sports went with the smart game-design choice of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the game is a straight-up copy of the original.
Geared toward variation, a new Remix Mode adds a few wrinkles to the gameplay: The traditional two-on-two basketball game can be played with various power-ups on the floor and the first team to break the backboard wins the game. There’s also the introduction of boss battles, which have a very unique play mechanic and tend to stray away a bit from the classic NBA Jam formula. This particular mode seems to hark back to the Jordan vs. Bird game on the original NES, with you playing one-on-one against other legends like Magic Johnson or Dominique Wilkinson in a third-person overhead perspective. These boss battles do bring much-needed variety to the game, but they can be frustratingly hard at times, taking away from the game’s overall enjoyment.
The experience you can have with NBA Jam changes greatly depending on your controller preferences: Wiimote/numchuck combination or classic controller. Playing NBA Jam on the classic controller brings flashes of nostalgia back for anyone who had originally played the game on the Super Nintendo, while playing with the Wiimote/numchuck combination creates an experience similar to that of other EA Sports franchises (like Madden and FIFA Soccer) that have been ported over to the Wii. I’m not the biggest fan of the system’s waggle controls, but the gesture-based control system is quite satisfying when pulled off correctly. So the answer of which controls are optimal for the game is inconsequential, because it entirely depends on what you want your NBA Jam experience to be. Opt for the classic controller if you’re chasing after a nostalgia kick, or the Wiimote/numchuck combo if you want a more “interactive” experience.” Whatever you chose, NBA Jam is as fun now as it was on old arcade machines.