As a self-confessed computer nerd who never actually owned a console until the original PlayStation, back in 1993 I was only vaguely aware of NBA Jam from a few brief plays in my local arcade. I had no experience of the home console versions, preferring to sit on my Amiga with the likes of Alien Breed II, Apidya and Cannon Fodder. Yet playing EA's new take on what was apparently considered a coin-op classic – I'll have to take people's word for that; most of my meagre pocket money at that time was spent on copies of Amiga Power and sweets – evoked a weird feeling of nostalgia for a game I barely remember.
Perhaps it's because there's something wonderfully anachronistic about it. As modern sports titles grow ever more complex – you practically need a Masters in Ergonomics to decipher all of FIFA's control convolutions these days – this harks back to a simpler time, where a joystick and three buttons were enough to play pretty much anything.
Sure, EA has done its best to modernise with right-stick controls for shooting, dunking and stealing, but in truth they're pretty unnecessary - not to mention curiously sluggish. It's telling that there's a tutorial for the stick flicks, but not for the basic button controls. Ignoring the curious decision to shun the right trigger and bumper (you'll need to use your left hand if you need a speed boost) they're so intuitive you can jump into a game and figure out how to play within seconds.
For those unfamiliar with the original, it's a fast-paced 2-on-2 game of basketball with no penalties apart from 'goaltending', or interfering with the ball while it's travelling downwards towards the basket. So you can happily shove opponents, steal the ball from them and generally behave in an ungentlemanly and unsportsmanlike way. Maybe that's why EA approached Joey Barton for the promotional campaign.
Each team has a limited shot-clock – the default being 24 seconds – to score before possession changes hands, though unless you're playing a particularly defensive game, that probably won't happen more than a couple of times per match. Like any real basketball game, it's end-to-end stuff, although unlike real basketball, players can seemingly defy the laws of physics, performing feats of impossible athleticism. Your typical alley-oop sees you hurl the ball a good three feet above the basket as your partner makes a prodigious leap to slam it down for two points - and that's before you score three unanswered baskets to set both net and ball ablaze.
Do so, and your shots will suddenly be more accurate, allowing you to rain in three-pointers from ridiculous distances, while dunks get ever more outlandish, as your player pirouettes madly through the air before plummeting backwards towards the basket, occasionally destroying the backboard in the process. One of the myriad game modes sets this very goal, an energy bar depleting with every dunk and alley-oop until an explosion of glass signals the end of the game.
Not only is this massively satisfying, but it also looks terrific. The players are beautifully animated using exaggerated motion capture, and a delightful stylistic flourish sees their heads represented by several digitised photos, the game transitioning between them depending on their position and movement in a manner akin to a forum GIF. It's most noticeable in the Big Head mode, one of a number of modifiers (or 'privileges', as they're called here) that allow you to tweak the game's appearance, with different ball types and visual filters unlocked the more you play.
The HD versions naturally look sharper than the Wii game, though the extra detail and visual polish - boom-shaka-lacquer, if you will – can get a little distracting. With the frenetic pace rarely letting up, there's the odd occasion where the ball can get lost in the melee, particularly when four players are in close proximity. It's nowhere near as bad as in Tecmo's execrable NBA Unrivalled, but it happens enough to warrant a mention. Despite fuzzier graphics, it's a problem that seems to occur less frequently on Wii.
Meanwhile, original announcer Tim Kitzrow returns to the commentary box for an irreverent and often amusing take on events. That said, repetition does crop up a little sooner than you might have anticipated. "Like my wife's top drawer – nothing but nylon!" is funny the first time, less so when you've heard it for the fifth or sixth time in half an hour. Otherwise there's a single tune that burbles away in the background during each game, and which will likely have grown irritating for most players by the third quarter of their first match.
That's admittedly less of an issue if, like the original, most of your time with NBA Jam is spent in bite-sized play sessions. Yet it's evident that EA wants to command the player's attention a little longer, ladling on extra modes to – in theory – add longevity beyond repeat visits to the basic multiplayer game. However, they add little variety to the way the game plays, instead merely tweaking the structure.
The Classic Campaign offers 36 straight matches as you take your two-man team through six different regions, each containing five matches against regular sides and a final against a pair of basketball legends. The Remix Tour requires you to earn bronze, silver and gold trophies to unlock further divisions across the USA, with five different game modes that offer slightly different objectives.
There's the aforementioned Smash where wrecking the backboard is your ultimate goal; Domination asks you to score baskets from marked spots on the court; Elimination is a basic last-man-standing variation, while 21 simply tasks you with reaching 21 points before your opponent. Finally, the 2-v-2 Remix introduces collectible power-ups which give you extra speed, accuracy, power or the ability to withstand shoves, though ultimately you're still doing pretty much the same thing throughout: playing a heartily daft and slightly shallow game of arcade basketball.
It should go without saying that NBA Jam is much more fun when four players are involved, especially as the erratic behaviour of your team-mate can occasionally have you chewing your fist in frustration. They're not too bad when attacking, but when they fail to even attempt to block an opponent's three-pointer, you'll be praying for a human replacement. As such, the online modes on 360 and PS3 give the HD versions the edge over the Wii game for those unable to regularly enjoy local multiplayer, even if the latter's surprisingly responsive motion controls add a gratifying physicality to the dunks.
With the full complement of players, NBA Jam is great fun in short bursts, but it's impossible not to feel that EA has swamped a simple game with extraneous modes desperately to try and justify a retail release. A stripped-down version with just the Classic Campaign and a multiplayer mode would have made for a cracking downloadable release; as it stands, NBA Jam is a very good remake of a classic arcade game that's unfortunately surrounded by a lot of unnecessary fluff.
7 / 10