You Probably Forgot About This (These) Game(s): Hockey Edition

I am a Quebecer, or French-Canadian, if you prefer. Even worse, I am from Montreal, home of the Canadiens, the professional sports team which has won the greatest number of championships over the years, second only to the New York Yankees. Like many of my fellow citizens, I am a huge hockey fan, and that passion means that I am of course sad to see that the Habs didn’t make it into the playoffs, and it makes me very angry that only two Canadian teams made it into the second round. Another thing that pisses me off is the fact that only six teams in the NHL are from Canadian cities, and that places like Phoenix and Miami have hockey teams while Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton and even Saskatoon and Halifax would manage to bring more spectators at their home games, yet apparently the market is “too small” for the NHL. However, this is not the subject of this article, so I’ll let the Tailgate Crashers tackle it instead.

Thankfully, when my home team sucks and I don’t feel like watching the New Jersey Devils and their “exciting” defensive system, I always have video games to fall back on. With the way the Montreal Canadiens have been playing in the last few years, I have had a lot of time to practice my skills at hockey video games, and I have tested many titles that all bring their interpretation of ice hockey to the table. Most of them are quite enjoyable, but there are still a small number of bad hockey games that have, for the most part, slipped under the radar.

This article is for disgruntled hockey fans that have nothing better to do following their favourite team’s elimination. It will not contain any title related to EA Sports’ or 2K Sports’ successful NHL series (this column is about games you probably forgot after all), but it will take a look at more obscure hockey games that you might have passed on, all the way back to the original NES. I don’t have access to my Intellivision anymore, but from what I’ve heard, it didn’t have a lot of hockey titles anyway. Not that I used it to play anything else than that Smurfs game either. More importantly, by the end of this article, you will know if any of these games is worth tracking down.

Please note that for your convenience, or just because it looks better this way, the titles will be divided into categories that represent the different styles of hockey games that have been published over the years.

The Legacy of Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky is arguably the best player in the history of the sport. Even those who know nothing about hockey have probably heard of him, and for years, he has been the NHL’s unofficial ambassador. He is respected by his peers and his image helped sell many things in Canada, from junk food to collectible cards. It is no surprise that his name ended up being used to promote many games throughout the years.

Wayne Gretzky Hockey (NES) : Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel were the NES’ flagship hockey games, and thus, everybody remembers them because of the fun arcade experience provided by the first, and the great game mechanic of the second. On the opposite end of both the fun and gameplay spectrums can be found Wayne Gretzky Hockey. This game was designed as one of the first hockey simulator, and from what I’ve read it was apparently a popular product for different computer platforms. Most likely, someone fell asleep on the job during the transition to the NES because the result was a game that could almost be labelled as “broken”.

What I have played could be described as a bunch of weird shapes with short lines sticking out of them, advancing awkwardly on a baby blue hockey rink. Shooting and passing is painful to execute, and the speed at which the players move would make you think that you are watching a novice-league game. I will admit that I could never score while playing this game when I was younger, and honestly, I still couldn’t do it yesterday in 15 minutes of play. If you never played this game or can’t remember playing it, it’s simply because it quickly fell in front of its competitors. There is no fun portion to this game because it just doesn’t feel like hockey. The fact that the ref calls penalties and off-sides at random doesn’t help make things better. I’ve played ice hockey for 20 years, so I was a bit baffled when I couldn’t even figure out the reasons why the play was stopped. I tried very hard, and could eventually come up with something positive about this game: it’s one of the first of its category to include the names of the players, even though the teams they play on have the wrong colors. Oddly enough, a Boston vs Chicago match-up pitted pink players against blue players. That’s cute.

Thankfully, the developer never tried making another hockey game again, and moved on to things they had more talent at creating. Yes, this piece of crap was developed by Bethesda Softworks, creators of the Elder Scrolls series. This should be an inspiration to us all, because it shows that even if you suck at something, you could be very good at something else. Yet, I just cannot recommend this game. If you see it, just leave it where it is. You’re probably a good person and you don’t deserve to be treated like that by video games.

Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars (SNES) : This game was better than Wayne’s previous Nintendo outing. However it doesn’t mean that it was good. It was just very forgettable. It featured lush graphics, real NHL players as well as international teams, something very uncommon at the time. It even let you edit a team’s uniform, which is indeed a nice feature that should be seen more in today’s games. However, when it comes to gameplay, this game is not the most exciting of the bunch. It plays well enough, but when you’ve played superiors hockey games, it quickly feels underwhelming to say the least. There’s not a lot to say about it, but I thought I would include it anyway since this section is about Wayne Gretzky’s involvement in video games. It’s just that it is a very bland game.

Wayne Gretzky’s 3-D Hockey (N64) : For once, someone took Wayne’s name and did something right with it. This game single-handedly proved that Gretzky could sell more than hockey cards for McDonald’s. It probably still is the greatest hockey arcade experience to date. It is the equivalent of watching the NHL Plays of the Week on TSN, and then playing the best parts yourself. It provides nothing but big hits, quick plays and more big hits. Every body check looks like Mick Foley falling off the cell in 1998. It has absolutely nothing to do with simulation hockey, and believe me, I think it’s better that way.

It’s the perfect hockey game for beginners or for people who want a quick pick-up-and-play session with a friend. This game was probably designed by a couple of guys who watched the movie “Slap Shot” and then wanted to make a game about it. They were probably on speeds too, because this game has the attention span of a chihuahua. Even if the periods last 2 minutes each, there’s a great chance that one of the two teams will end up with over ten goals, with the second team following not too far behind. There is a simulation mode included in the game, but it’s nowhere near as fun, and looks like it was probably put there in hope of attracting a couple more customers who usually won’t buy a hockey game if it’s not a faithful reproduction of what they see on TV.

One feature I really liked about the game is the fact that at the start of a match, you select one player that you will basically represent for the rest of the game. While you can still control the other guys on your team, it is your selected player’s stats that will be added to your profile at the end of the game, and thus, provides you with bragging rights in the long run should you score more goals than your friends. It’s a system similar to what the NBA arcade-style games used, and it works really well with the style of Wayne Gretzky’s 3-D Hockey. As you might have guessed, should you come across this game in a yard sale somewhere, you should buy it with my highest recommendations.

Olympic Hockey Nagano 98 (N64) : Developer Williams Entertainment followed the N64 Wayne Gretzky game with a sequel, which basically just added the year “98” to the title, and a nice graphic that showed the name of the player that scored. When I was 15, it was nearly enough to get me to buy the new game, but in the end, I passed. The next year, Williams was unable to secure Gretzky’s name for a third time, so they went with the upcoming Winter Olympics instead. Since the game is essentially the same as Wayne Gretzky’s 3-D Hockey, I won’t talk about it much. However, the major flaws of the game still make it worth mentioning, if only to prevent some poor soul from spending five dollars on a used copy.

The biggest problem with this game is that when it comes to international hockey, it is fun to play with Canada, the USA, Russia, the Scandinavian countries and the Czech Republic. Nobody wants to play as Poland, Japan, Italia, England or Latvia. Therefore, the number of teams was very limited and completely unbalanced. The other problem is that it was virtually the same game as its predecessors, only with country flags slapped on the uniforms. That doesn’t make a lot of incentives to upgrade to the newer version. When you take into account the fact that it got 0 out of 10 from IGN, a site that rarely goes lower than 5 on that scale, you know that you have a stinker on your hands. It was a throwaway game, and as long as you have played another version of Wayne Gretzky 3-D Hockey before, you don’t need to play this one.

Arcade Action

One of the most popular arcade-style hockey game is NHL Hitz, which is to hockey what NFL Blitz was to football. While there will always be a place for games like EA Sports’ or 2K Sports’ respective franchises, I think it is a shame that there isn’t more crazy hockey games with imaginative takes on the sport. While it is fun to take your favourite team to the top in a normal franchise mode, mindless hockey games like those I am about to present can be great for quick multiplayer action.

Hit the Ice (SNES) : This game is unbelievably stupid, but in a good way. You play as a team named after a color, and your line-up consists of two players and one goalie. The players look like cartoons and can be divided in two categories: overweight or on the juice. The passes just can’t miss, but it adds to the fun because you have to resort to violent tactics to steal the puck from your opponent, like cross checks, slashing and hooking. One of the goalies doesn’t even wear a facemask, but still gets pummelled with slap shots to his unprotected skull. The fights are fast but intense, and to add to the goofiness of the game, an octopus goes along the bottom of the screen and tries to pull down the pants of passing players. There’s even a blind ref to keep the players in check.

The single-player “season mode” is simple enough. You pick a team, and travel over a map to the opposing teams’ arena until you’ve beaten them all. However, the game is way more entertaining when played with a friend because of the mayhem going on. While the graphics look outdated today and weren’t really pretty even back then, they still served the game well because of the huge size of the sprites, which made everything clear enough on your screen. It should be noted that the speed of the game is a bit slow, but it still served the style of the game really well. It just adds to the comical aspect because the players look like they’re skating on the tip of their toes. The skating is punctuated by a weird sound effect that gets a tad bit irritating after a couple of minutes, but there’s nothing outstanding in the audio department, so the game is best played with the TV muted and your favourite CD on.

It was one of my favourite games as a kid, and while it didn’t age as well as I hoped it would, it was still good enough when I played it again a couple of days ago. In a genre populated by simulations, Hit the Ice was a breath of fresh air, and still manages to stand-out today. If you’re going to be playing this one by yourself, you should think twice before checking it out. But if you have a fellow hockey fan willing to try it out, then just pick it up and go at it, because it is still in a league of its own.

Mutant League Hockey (Genesis) : I never owned a Genesis, but my friend did and our favourite game was this one. Made by Electronic Arts, it played like a wacky version of their NHL series. It featured trolls, skeletons and robots playing against each others in a league where anything is legal. Mines, holes and exploding pucks were common on the ice, and you could even pay the ref to get him to penalize your opponent. Power-ups are thrown on the ice by the crowd, giving the game a cool “fans bring the weapons”, hardcore wrestling match feel. Players could die and would stay on the ice as hazards until a giant slug acting as a zamboni cleaned/ate everything between periods. As if the game wasn’t bad ass enough, fighting was done mini-game style, with the loser getting an extra penalty simply for being a wimp and losing. Finally, it featured cool team names, like the St. Mucus Ooze or the Pucksucker Pukes. You can’t go wrong with a game like that. It is a lot of fun to play, and I honestly have nothing bad to say about this game. It’s just pure entertainment and it never takes itself seriously. Unfortunately, I no longer keep contact with the friend who used to own it, so it has been a while since I played it. I don’t have any memories of a season mode – maybe there was one, but we always played multiplayer – and I couldn’t find that information online. However, you can be sure that I would be the first one spending his precious Wii points should it somehow make its way to the Virtual Console.

The Realistic Approach

When it comes to hockey games, the most popular series are both simulations: EA Sports’ and 2K Sports’. It should be no surprise that over the year, a lot of companies have tried to take their part of a cake that is pretty big in Canada, but not so much in the rest of North America. The games I’m going to present were forgotten mostly because they just couldn’t compete with their contemporaries like the awesome NHL 94. Another reason was that they lacked either the NHL or NHLPA license, meaning that gamers could play as their favourite team with numbers for players, or with their favourite players in a town that didn’t have a team name. For a lot of fans, this can be a huge turn-off. Still, one of these games deserves to be played at least once, but not for the usual reasons.

NHL Stanley Cup (SNES) : I was young when this game came out. I had to wait for Christmas to come before gathering enough money to buy a new video game. To get me to spend my savings on game, it would need to be very good”¦ or just to have a quality marketing campaign. NHL Stanley Cup was announced on TV by legendary French-Canadian commentator Claude Quenneville, a man whose moustache was almost as iconic as Mario’s. He hyped the game during publicity spots as being revolutionary because it wasn’t played with ordinary sprites. It was played entirely in Mode 7, a feature developed by Nintendo that made rotations in pseudo 3-D possible. This might have been good for racing games like Super Mario Kart, but spending an entire hockey game behind the player who has the puck is highly impractical, especially for the guy who doesn’t have the puck.

This “innovation” caused to game to constantly rotate in order to get behind the player in control. With the usual speed of a hockey game and the frequency at which the puck is passed, you can guess that it wasn’t long before a person felt dizzy from simply watching two people play. If the constant spinning wasn’t enough to make you hurl, the graphics could finish the job. You play on a board-less blue rink in an empty arena with no seats. It feels like both teams were dumped in the middle of a black hole. I know nobody has ever seen a black hole from the inside, but if hockey was being played there, I’m sure that’s what it would look like. The players in this game are literally faceless, and the uniforms have no details whatsoever, simply an approximate depiction of a team’s uniform minus the logo. Player names are nowhere to be found here, which means that when you score, you only know that #66 did it assisted by #68 and #24. Hey, I guess that means I was playing as Mario Lemieux after all. I couldn’t have guessed otherwise, because everybody plays the same. Same speed, same checks, same strength, and same shots. The game did try to show that some teams are not as good as others, but I didn’t see any real difference even when playing the Whalers against the Penguins.

The music is laughable at best, and the players make a weird groan when they try to hit someone into the board. Coupled with the strange animations, it just looks like your player is trying to hump the other one into oblivion. The season mode is well-done, but sucks by proxy because it means you have to endure 84 matches of excruciatingly painful gameplay. This just might be the worst hockey game I have ever played, but it still deserves to be played at least once. The odd situations that occur because of the multiple ways the game sucks make for a very interesting experience. You’ll laugh when you’ll try to line-up a body check but miss every time because the damn game spins too much, and you’ll simply keep pressing that button because of the endless “HUH! HUH! HUH! HUH!” your player will let go each time you try. By the way, if you can’t get to score at least one goal because of the way the game keeps spinning, try this: skate in a straight line in the middle of the ice until you reach your opponent’s blue line. Just before crossing it, lob the puck straight at the goalie. It’ll go over his head, right into the net. It works every time.

The Rest of the Bunch : Forgettable hockey games are numerous, particularly during the SNES/Genesis era. Not all of them are worth talking about, especially when it comes to games that used the realistic approach. Games like Brett Hull Hockey, Mario Lemieux Hockey, Pro Sport Hockey and Super Slap Shot were all released by companies that tried to make a profit by releasing quick-made games that didn’t really have any outstanding features or anything new to bring to the genre. In the next generation of video games, more bland titles were developed, like NHL Breakaway and Actua Hockey. For a while, even Konami tried to revive the Blades of Steel name, this time with an NHL license. However, it still flopped because the game felt unpolished. Recently, hockey games have mostly been the exclusivity of EA Sports and 2K Sports, and thankfully, the quality of both series seems to be steady year after year. For a while, EA Sports looked like they were starting to simply make quick roster updates before shipping another batch for a new year, but with 2K Sports’ competition becoming serious, it looks like they are really trying to improve their games, which is a welcomed change.

In Closing

What applies to Madden games in the United States applies to the NHL series in Canada. Each new version is met with huge sales and stocks are rare for a while after release. Just for the NHL 07 version, I had to wait for a month before EB Games had any in stock. The problem might not only come from the fact that not enough games are shipped. I think it could very well be artificially inflated because the hockey games market isn’t as big as it used to be. With 4 or 5 different series going on at the same time, it gives more choice to the customer when comes the time to pick a game. Even though a lot of hockey titles from the past were of mediocre quality, there was still enough diversity to install a sort of fear in serious developers’ heart, just enough for them to spend the required time and effort to get a respectable product.

With EA Sports and 2K Sports now being firmly established as the leading hockey games makers, I think it’s time for a new series to step forward and shake things up. I am not suggesting a new serious and realistic approach. What I want is a brand new arcade-style action hockey game. Everything from NFL to NBA to FIFA got a street version, but not the NHL. Why? Street hockey is very popular in Canada and would probably sell like hotcakes. Not just hot cakes, but chocolate-flavoured hotcakes. NHL Hitz was a success a couple of years ago. Why did they stop it? I know the Canadian market’s love of hockey games might not be enough to support an entire series when publishers are used to NFL games selling millions upon millions of copies, but we still deserve the right to play our favourite sport in video games format. Let’s just try to make the next arcade-style hockey game something fans will not forget about in a couple of years.