The 2017 edition of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs have been fantastic. Through two rounds of action, the hockey has been really entertaining, a lot of sudden death overtime, and even more so for me (a long suffering Edmonton Oilers fan) finally having a ‘horse in the race’ has made it even more enjoyable than in previous years.
As I jump from watching the playoffs over to my gaming consoles to enjoy the simulated experience, it reminds me that there were a lot of great hockey games produced over the years that are still a treat to play to this day.
[There’s also a few stinkers in there, as well.]
EA Sports (formerly Electronic Arts) now owns the exclusive rights to the NHL and has 26 years of releases in their famed franchise. While they are the standard by which we’ve come to enjoy hockey video games, here are some from other series that you may want to try for yourself:
ICE HOCKEY (NES)
Probably the most iconic and most played hockey video game to this day, Ice Hockey delivers an arcade hockey experience with a charm that has almost gone unmatched during the previous three decades. Rather than focus on teams with real geographical homes, this Nintendo ‘black box’ beauty focuses on international flavor with six nations to choose from. There’s no advantage to choosing one country over the other, so select your homeland and defend it with great honor! *Side note: The Famicom and PAL versions of the game offer seven nations, and some are swapped in favor of others*
There’s a small level of customization that allows for a different game experience each time you play. Upon selecting your squad, you have the option to choose three different types of players to outfit your team with:
Skinny. These lil’ guys are fast and buzz all around the ice. They’re a lot of fun and you’ll be overwhelmed with their ability to rip up and down the surface. Their biggest downfall, however, is that their light stature doesn’t allow for the hardest of shots, and they’re quite easy to knock off the puck.
Medium. The all around player. Not too big and not too small, these players provide a well-balanced option for your team. They’re not as fast as the skinny players, but they do posses a harder shot and are harder to steal the puck away from. You’d be wise to employ at least one of them in your lineup.
Fatty. These beasts are great. While they’re slow moving, they provide strength in other areas, specifically their ability to shoot the puck and body check. The fatty player has a cannon of a shot, and can run over anyone else on the ice with ease, save for another fatso. Their only downfall is that they’re quite slow in comparison to the skinny and the medium players, so having a quartet of chubby bunnies may not be the best strategy.
There’s a lot of different combinations to ice a good lineup, but it all comes down to personal preference. Regardless, the 4-on-4 gameplay is fast and fun and the added element of having to control the goalie makes for a lot of high scoring and lots of laughs.
Blades of Steel (NES)
As fun a game as Ice Hockey is, Blades of Steel offers more of an authentic hockey experience on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Gone are the international teams in favor of eight clubs from across Canada and the United States. The cities within the game offer up some of those that you’ll find in today’s NHL (or even the late 80’s) but any resemblance to a National Hockey League team ends there.
Without being licensed by the NHL or NHLPA, Blades of Steel offers up some strong color schemes for each city, and while some do represent their pro counterparts of the time (Toronto – Blue, Vancouver – Orange), some are way off. (Minnesota – Purple and..cream?)
On paper, every team looks and seemingly plays the same. That said, this post from Patrick Dixon on Graphic Nerdity provides additional insight and analysis that shows there are advantages to certain teams, and ranks them on worst to best.
So what makes Blades of Steel worth playing? Lots of things. For starters, you can adjust the difficulty if you’d like. When playing against the computer, there are three difficulty levels to choose from: Junior, College, and Pro (with Pro being the most difficult and Junior being the easiest). The game play is slower than Ice Hockey but that doesn’t affect it’s enjoyment. Every time you pass the puck, the ‘play-by-play announcer (read: random voice) shouts “IT’S A PASS!”. And, when you body check someone hard enough to knock them over you hear, “ARGH” (something like that). The best, however, is when two players check each other three consecutive times without either falling over. The two players will then begin punching each other back and forth before the announcer yells, “FIGHT!”
Trying to provide that hockey authenticity, the game then closes up on two players fighting, and this entire experience just adds to Blades of Steel’s charm. The best part is, when the fight is over, the player that LOST the fight sits in the penalty box and their team is shorthanded! Beautiful!
Two more quick details: the shootout and the mini-game. If the game is tied at the end, players go to a shootout, which is a very-good looking and fun way to end the game.
The second detail? A 10-second (or less) shoot-em-up during the first intermission. Thanks, Konami!
Wayne Gretzky Hockey (NES)
Earlier I wrote that not all hockey games were great. You can put this one in the ‘stinky’ category.
Trying to garner attention of the greatest player in the history of the game, and the sport’s desire to use their biggest star to market themselves, Wayne Gretzky’s likeness was lent to this NES disaster, and what a bomb it is. Even if Nintendo wasn’t blessed with the joys of comparing the aforementioned two gems, this game would still be an awful experience.
Wayne Gretzky Hockey offers another top-down view of the game. But what you see doesn’t resemble the game of hockey. It looks like blobs with sticks moving around the ice chasing a smaller circle. And the game plays as bad as it looks. The control is terrible.
Funny enough, the game was developed by Bethesda, and is (what I guess to be) a port of the PC release. Wayne Gretzky Hockey was released on a number of computer systems, so if you play this and think, “This looks like a computer game”, that’s why.
The only thing it has going for it is that, unlike Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel, this game is licensed by the National Hockey League and its Players Association, so there are actual NHL players in the game besides ‘The Great One’.
Wayne Gretzky Hockey is worth playing for the simple fact that you need to experience it for yourself if video game ‘puck’ is something you’re into. But if you never subjected yourself to it, you’re not missing out on anything special. At all.
NHL Stanley Cup (SNES)
As EA Sports made a splash in the 16-bit era of video games, the NHL series began and quickly became the measuring stick for all other hockey games. But in the mid-90’s, Acclaim was also granted licensing rights from the league, and released NHL Stanley Cup as a Super Nintendo exclusive.
And oh boy, it’s bad.
The funniest part about this game is that I used to borrow it from a friend or rent it from the store quite often. As much as I played NHL Hockey on the Genesis or NHLPA ‘93 on the SNES, I still wanted a different hockey experience from time to time. In hindsight, this was a complete waste of time.
To its credit, NHL Stanley Cup was trying to achieve something different from it’s competitors. Rather than the top-down/isometric view that EA Sports implemented in their game, Acclaim opted to bring players down on the ice, giving a third-person, behind-the-player perspective.
It failed, miserably.
The view follows the player with the puck, but as soon as the opposing team gains the puck, the screen shifts a complete 180 degrees to follow behind the player who now holds it. So, essentially the view continues to flip back-and-forth with each lost possession of the puck, making the experience a nauseous one at best.
Shooting the puck is a chore, often missing the net with seemingly no control, and scoring goals (at least for me) was a difficult task. The only real, redeeming quality is the animation upon scoring a goal when the goaltender slams the puck out of the net in front of the goal light which is shining with glee. It’s a great animation, but I never saw it a whole lot.
Mutant League Hockey (Genesis)
About a year ago, I wrote a review for Mutant League Hockey and why it’s the greatest hockey game you might never have played. I won’t rehash it here, but hot damn. Outside of Ice Hockey, it may be the greatest ‘hockey’ experience I’ve ever enjoyed. Technically it IS Electronic Arts, but it doesn’t fall under the ‘NHL banner’, so I’m adding it on this list.
2-on-2 Open Ice Challenge (Arcade/Playstation)
The best way to describe this game is to call it NBA Jam, on ice.
Oh yeah. It’s that good.
And it should resemble NBA Jam, because it was Midway who released this absolute goldmine of a game. Released initially in arcades, 2-on-2 Open Ice provides a very fun experience with a ton of replay value. Players get to input their initials to store records and choose a team with the ability to select two of a possible four member team. Like NBA Jam, players can utilize turbo, special shots and even score goals where the net lights on fire. (Sound familiar?)
The game looks great, and is the epitome of a literal and figurative arcade experience. I pumped a lot of quarters into this machine when I was younger, and it’s on the very small list of arcade games that I would own and have in my home, if given the opportunity.
It was also released on the PS1, so if you’re not into using MAME emulators to enjoy arcade games of yesteryear, snag a copy of this for your Playstation. It’s not a completely identical port, but it’s very well done and a great couch co-op game for you and a friend. It really is a bit over the top, but like NBA Jam, that’s what makes the game so great.
Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ‘98 (N64)
Another ‘Wayne’ branded game, but this one’s actually pretty decent. Upon playing it, you’ll notice that it looks very familiar. It, too, was also developed by Midway, so it has a very similar ‘Open Ice’/’NBA Jam’ feel to it. The biggest difference is that it builds off the 2-on-2 engine and allows you enjoy both the arcade and simulated experience.
There’s options to go full arcade and have a 3-on-3 matchup with no rules, or, go the more typical simulated experience and play 5-on-5 on a regular sized ice surface with rules, line changes, icing and more. That option adds nice replay ability and plenty of option for any type of gameplay you may be looking for.
On top of that, rather than limit you to 2-3 players to choose from like the two aforementioned games, WG3DH allows you to select up to three separate trios of players. This gives you more variety and a wider selection of players, which is nice.
And unlike 2-on-2 and Jam, there’s also the ability to practice offense (3-on-0), defense (1-on-3) or shooting (shootout, essentially). And, like other simulation style hockey games (EA Sports), it offers up a full season mode, complete with trades and other options.
While the graphics aren’t stupendous by any stretch, the game play is fun and is worth your consideration for hockey on the Nintendo 64.
There are so many other hockey games that didn’t fall under the ‘EA’ banner that are fun in their own right, and we haven’t even touched on the 2K series of hockey games. There’s a few more retro hockey gems out there, and maybe I’ll re-visit them some other time. (Looking at YOU, NHL Hitz.)
What were your favorite hockey games and for what console? Were you exclusive to EA Sports, or did that simulated experience deter you from just wanting to play a quick hockey game here and there?
Let me know. Would love to get your feedback.
Keep your head up, and your stick on the ice!