For those of us who are fans of video games, and who are fans of hockey, hockey video games hold a special place in our hearts. Personally, as a child of the 80s, I’ve had the chance to play a lot of hockey games through the decades. Some of them were inventive and groundbreaking and fun, and some where this:
I do not miss much about the 2600, but the wood paneling was pretty nice.
The first real candidate for us old farts is Ice Hockey for the NES. Manifestos have been written about what people’s line-up preference was. Personally, I enjoyed one hefty bruiser, two medium guys, and one beanpole.
The gameplay is basic but it’s fun in the same way that the old NES games tended to be - there’s a cleanness there, It’s peak “keep it simple, stupid” and it just works.
The line-up of teams is certainly a blast from the past. Czechoslovakia? Long time no see.
The other NES hockey game that everyone adores is Blades of Steel. This one’s a more accurate hockey experience - there are five players a side! - with some various levels of play such as junior, college, and pro. Throw some 90s NHL cities in there and you have the closest thing you can get to a NHL experience without a NHL license.
As a added bonus, not every player looks like Mario.
For those of you guys who are slightly younger than me, your first foray into hockey was probably either on the Super Nintendo or the Sega Genesis. Sega didn’t have the strict no-blood standards as Nintendo held (remember the Mortal Kombat port drama?), so for EA’s first foray into hockey on the Genesis, you got some mess like this:
NHLPA 93 was interesting - no NHL license held it back, but you can see the framework for success that was to come. Also, it gave us the scene from Swingers that everyone knows and gave Jeremy Roenick the best PR his career’s ever seen.
Then came NHL 94, and EA hasn’t looked back. NHL 94’s universally beloved. The gameplay’s slick, the team flair is there (Brass Bonanza!), all the players you love are there and they can wear their team’s jerseys. I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t know what a “NHL 94 goal” is.
As much credit as JR gets for being a tank, the Blues had their own secret weapon: Brendan Shanahan.
For the rest of its run on the SNES and Genesis, the NHL series refined gameplay but didn’t make any huge changes (which sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it, EA fans?). It wasn’t the only show in town, though.
The NHL’s exclusive deal with EA prevented Brett Hull from wearing the Blue Note in Brett Hull Hockey, but as the title screen reminds us, with the NHLPA license at least they had real players.
The series had a few years in it before it ended, but the gameplay and the lack of real teams held it back a bit.
The N64 was all about 3D gameplay, and while platformers made a pretty smooth transition, some sports games required you to take Dramamine before you played. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey makes me nauseated. As a vertigo simulator it’s successful. I don’t know too many people who opine for its glory days, though.
EA fended off these challengers, but the 2K series looked like it would give them a run for their money. My dad bought a Sega Dreamcast when it came out, and as a firm Nintendo and now Sony fan, I raised an eyebrow. But I really, really enjoyed the hell out of NHL2K. The perspective was a little wonky at times, but the quality was good. Unfortunately as the years went on, 2K Sports focused more on honing their NBA franchise and wrapped up the series with NHL2K 11.
For you younguns out there, I’m assuming your first foray into NHL hockey on a game console was on the PS3, and it was probably one of the updated EA games.
NHL 10 is my personal favorite from that era, and the games on the PS4 have continued to build and refine on that format starting with NHL 14. Unfortunately as the hardware has improved going forward, the games don’t feel that different from year to year and feel like less of a must buy save for updated rosters.
I’m still a fan of the series, but took a year off between NHL 18 and NHL 20 - to be honest if someone hadn’t bought me 20 for a Christmas present, I probably would’ve passed on it. Hopefully with the next generation of consoles EA can get it back to the annual event that it was.
If all else fails, there’s always NHL 94.
Which game do you have the fondest memory of? Let us know in the comments.