As a child, I was raised to be an enthusiast of two great pastimes, hockey and video gaming. I owe a lot of that appreciation to Konami’s 1987 NES title, Blades of Steel. A few months after its release, in January of 1988, Nintendo released their own first party hockey game, simply named Ice Hockey, as part of their Sports Series of games. The game featured charming, colorful characters and a cheerful looping song during gameplay that contrasted quite a bit with Blades of Steel’s more stiff, authentic-looking player sprites and arena design. At first glance, one may assume that Ice Hockey strove for a more arcade-y, easily-accessible style while Blades of Steel tried to stay more true to a real-life hockey atmosphere. I had always believed Blades of Steel to be the superior hockey experience, but after reviewing Ice Hockey for Winterion Game Studios I began to wonder; is there more to Ice Hockey than meets the eye? Does Blades of Steel have more competition to its championship belt than I had originally thought?
Once you pop in Ice Hockey’s cartridge you’re greeted with a joyful, almost eager musical score composed by Soyo Oka (who later went on to compose the scores for Excitebike VS, Super Mario Kart, and Pilotwings). The music continues through the team selection screen and on through the gameplay itself, the bouncy and frenetic gameplay theme matches well with the action on screen. While Blades of Steel limited their music to the menus and pregame/postgame scenes, they managed to add impressive voice sampling to what was an early NES title. Passes are accompanied by the announcer as he exclaims “With the pass!” (which doesn’t get old at all). The referee calls out “Faceoff!” or “Fight!” to begin each event. Aside from that, the only sounds you’ll hear during gameplay are the sounds of skates, sticks, and puck.
Heading into each game’s team selection screen, we can see more varied choices between the two titles. Ice Hockey features six international teams. Both the Japanese and North American versions of the game featured the US, Poland, Canada, the USSR, and Czechoslovakia. The Japanese version of the title added team Japan, while North Americans were able to play as Sweden. The choice to feature international teams fits well with the game’s colorful theme, and while there is no statistical difference between teams it’s always fun to recreate rivalries like the 1980 Miracle on Ice between the Americans and the Soviets.
Blades of Steel, however, opted to feature eight North American teams, evenly split with four Canadian cities and four American cities represented. Canada’s teams hail from Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, while New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Minnesota round out America’s half. Konami clearly strove for a more authentic, professional feel for their league as the eight teams all represent cities with NHL franchises. They also added to this by having most teams sporting the colors of their NHL equivalent, such as New York’s red and blue to match the Rangers, or Chicago’s red and grey to mimic the Blackhawks. There are a couple outliers here where teams have different colors to avoid similar uniforms, but even in these cases the teams still wear the colors of sports teams from their city. For example, Edmonton’s colors would ideally be predominantly orange, but Vancouver’s orange and forest green could prove too similar and confusing. As a result, Edmonton wears the bright green and yellow of their Canadian Football League team, the Eskimos.
Once the puck drops, one of the first noticeable differences between the two lies within their visual aesthetics. Konami made some interesting choices with Blades of Steel, opting for a more muted, almost gritty color palette. The ice is grey, the rink boards are grey, even the team uniforms have subdued colors when compared to Ice Hockey‘s pastel colors. There are a couple exceptions to this theme; the crowd brings a densely dotted backdrop of color that contrasts well with the ice. There are also a couple teams that sport bright, almost day-glo uniforms (looking at you, Toronto, and your explosion of teal). Overall, the coloring does help convey that hockey is a tough, physical sport, but it tends to muddy the overall picture and give it an almost dull feel. On a more positive note, player sprites are well-drawn, with body, pads, stick and skates all discernible and clear, and animations are slightly exaggerated to convey the game’s frantic action.
Nintendo decided to go the opposite route with their color choices for Ice Hockey. Just about everything on the screen is bright and vibrant. The ice is white. The uniforms sport saturated, bold coloring. Players here are represented by cute, compact sprites in three different forms (we’ll get to that in a bit). There’s not a whole lot of true-to-life realism here in regards to the players’ proportions; one can see the Japanese influence as they almost have an anime, “chibi” look to them. Looking at screenshots, it’s easy to see how hockey purists can initially be dismissive towards Nintendo’s title; it doesn’t really look like the kind of game that would have an authentic hockey feel. Looks are only skin-deep, however, as I soon found out.
Both games play fairly similarly on the surface, but look closer and one may find that each game has their own unique mechanics that lend to their overall feel. Both games have the player assume control of one skater, with the others controlled by the CPU. At the same time, both games have the player control the goaltender as well, so defenders must choose whether to focus their control on a skater or goalie to keep the puck out of the net. Ice Hockey pits teams of 4 skaters and a goalie against each other, while Blades of Steel features the more authentic 5 skaters per side. While this is more true to the sport, it may be to the game’s detriment. CPU-controlled players tend to group up in whichever zone of the rink the puck is in, so offensive chances often tend to involve weaving through a sea of humanity just to get a shot off. By contrast, Ice Hockey’s 4 on 4 format leaves plenty of open ice for both teams, leading to a higher number of quality scoring chances, and thus more exciting moments. Furthermore, Ice Hockey introduces a strategic aspect to the game by having players choose their lineups from 3 available player types: skinny, normal, and fat. Skinny players are the fastest of the three and best at faceoffs, but are easily checked off of the puck and have a weak shot. Fat players are slower and struggle at the dot, but possess booming slap shots and are rarely out-muscled. Normal players are a balance between the two. The right roster of players is vital to gain an advantage over the other team. This line-juggling mechanic is absent in Blades of Steel, as every player is a carbon copy of each other with no stat or ability differences.
Offensively, Ice Hockey seems to have the edge. The game gives players the ability to fake shots, lift the puck off the ice, and easily pass the puck to open ice instead of auto-aiming the puck to a teammate. Players also have more freedom in shooting than in Blades of Steel, as they can direct their shots. Konami introduced a red arrow that scrolls along the goal line, bouncing from post to post. When the player hits the shoot button, this is where the puck will go. While it offers an accuracy boost to shooters by giving a visual cue to where the puck will go, it also makes it painfully easy for defending players to position their goaltenders. As a result, most games are decided by a mistake on the defender’s part, more than by an exceptional effort by a forward. In Nintendo’s game, goaltending requires more quick reactions and strategic positioning. Not only is there no shot arrow to rely on, but faked shots and clever passing can easily leave defenders exposed.
Aside from goaltending and bumping into players to throw a body check, there really is only one other form of physical play in either game, and it’s where Blades of Steel truly shines: fighting. Both games have fights break out when two players repeatedly bump into each other. Both games send the losing fighter to the penalty box for two minutes to rethink his life choices. Ice Hockey has their fights play out in massive scrums, as all skaters meet up for a dust-cloud melee while both players hammer on the A button. Blades of Steel, however, added a whole fighting mini-game that became its trademark feature. The camera shifts from a wide view of the rink to a closer side-by-side view of the fighters. Each combatant can punch or block either high or low, with a health bar for each displayed overhead. The fights are brief, only lasting about 10 or so seconds on average, but they do wonders to get the blood pumping. Score a point for Konami.
Both games handle tiebreakers rather differently as well. Ice Hockey has tie games go to a 4-round shootout, in which each skater goes one on one against the opposing goalie. If the game is still tied after 4 rounds the game goes to a 2 minute overtime period, except in this overtime there are no goalies. Both teams shoot on the empty nets, high score at the end of 2 minutes wins. Blades of Steel forgoes the overtime and sticks with the shootout, except instead of the traditional breakaway format, skaters take their shots from a stationary point on the ice, similar to a penalty shot in soccer. The camera angle shifts to ice-level behind the shooter, giving a chance to see the shooter and goalie in greater detail. The player can aim the shot in any orthogonal direction or aim down the middle, while the goalie has react to the shot’s direction in time to make the save. If the game is still tied after 5 rounds the shootout continues one round at a time until there is a winner.
Overall, I have to say I was surprised with how much deeper Ice Hockey is with its gameplay mechanics. The roster changes give a simple strategy element that Blades of Steel simply lacks, and the freedom in offensive control skates circles (yeah, I went there) around its Konami counterpart. I will point out that Blades of Steel does contain excellent Season and Tournament modes to play through which offers decent replayability, while Ice Hockey only offers single exhibition games. However, as the pros will tell you, the only score that matters is the score on the ice, and in that regard I have to admit, Nintendo brings the stronger experience.