NHL Hockey (Series)

NHL Hockey (USA)001

Grade(s):
NHL Hockey (1991) A-
NHLPA ‘93 (1992) A
NHL ‘94 (1993) A+
NHL ‘95 (1994) A+
NHL ‘96 (1995) B-
NHL ‘97 (1996) B+
NHL ‘98 (1997) C
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 2nd
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year(s): 1991 – 1997 (see above for specific years)
Genre: Whalers Fans Forever!

Start up a game of the original NHL Hockey, and the first thing you’ll see is this:

nhlscreen

To long time NHL fans like myself, that right there ought to bring a smile to your face. Or maybe a tear to your eye. It’s a snapshot from what was about to become a bygone era. The very next season, the North Stars would change their uniforms. The year after that, they would drop the “North” from their name and leave the Twin Cities to move to Dallas. To play ice hockey. That actually happened. The Penguins, for their part, faced bankruptcy, nearly moved, changed their logo to something that looked like an airline, changed it back (more or less), and somewhere along the line, that little pixelated guy in the white uniform up there ended up owning the team.

We do our best to keep nostalgia out of the discussion when talking about the Genesis Top 50 games. Our focus has always been on which games are still fun to play now, and how much fun we had with a game twenty years ago doesn’t make it any more enjoyable today. In this case however, it’s not the game itself we’re getting nostalgic about, but the time period it represents. It’s a throwback to a better time for hockey fans when the games were exciting to watch and teams played in cities that actually gave a shit about them. Back before expansion and the New Jersey Devils ruined everything.

NHL94 001

I mean, no disrespect to the Florida Panthers and their 40 or so fans, but NHL Hockey is better for not having any of the crap teams in it. That’s not to say that all the teams in the game are great, but every single team in the game is at least interesting – they all have a history, some good players, and established fan bases. The only exception is the expansion San Jose Sharks, but they at least have a cool logo, the novelty of being new (this appeal wears pretty thin when its being shared by 9 other new teams), the an the allure of being that city’s first professional sports franchise. Plus they were the developer’s home team, so how cool is that?


NHL 95010

Hey, when they’re about to have the opening faceoff at a Phoenix Coyotes home game, do the visiting players look around and go “Shouldn’t we wait until some fans show up?”

The fact that the NHL has had trouble gaining popularity in its newer markets makes the success of the game series all the more impressive. Madden is always going to be popular because people like football. NBA games sell well because lots of people enjoy basketball. But with hockey, we’re talking about a game that is not only less popular than either of those two, but also finishes behind lower-profile sports like figure skating, competitive gardening, or watching roommates fight over a pizza. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that more people enjoy the video game NHL Hockey than actual NHL Hockey, but certainly a higher percentage of Genesis owners enjoyed playing the game, than the general public did watching the real thing. In order to pull that feat off, you have to have a game that is not only fun to play, but also appealing to people who don’t generally watch the sport.  This series has probably turned more people into hockey fans than all the teams from the Southeast Division combined.

NHL 95003It’s perhaps a little telling that the game is actually a lot more fun with the rules and line changes turned off, or that this is the default setting on the earlier games. The key to success for any of the 16-bit EA Sports games has always been finding the right middle ground between a game and a simulation, and the NHL series did this particularly well. By relaxing the rules, you get a free-flowing game thats easy to learn, and by eliminating the need for line changes, you avoid one of the things about hockey that hurts its appeal to fans – that the best players are often on the ice for less than a quarter of the game. Mix in some solid control and good-looking graphics and the end result is a game that looks like hockey, plays like hockey, but is approachable for someone who’s appreciation of the game is limited to “try to get the little black piece of rubber past the guy in all the armor”. In other words, Carolina Hurricanes fans could play it… you know, if they were a real thing.

NHL 97 (USA, Europe)003

What’s the difference between a Hurricanes fan and the chupacabra? Both are imaginary, but a few people at least claim to have seen a chupacabra.

And things only got better over the years. It’s easy to get jaded about annual updates to sports sequels these days, but back in the 16 bit era, this was a new and welcome idea. Before then, if your favorite sports game was pretty good but had a few noticeable flaws, well too bad – maybe if you were lucky, that company would come out with a better sequel in a few years. Probably not, though. EA changed this whole dynamic by putting out a new and improved version of their sports games every year. The NHL series wasn’t the first to experience this (the 2nd Madden game came out the same year the first NHL game), but it may have benefitted from these annual upgrades the most… at first, anyway.

Over the years, the NHL series underwent the familiar peak-and-fall progression that we also saw with Madden and the NBA series. For a while, things got significantly better. NHLPA ‘93 made drastic improvements both in gameplay (a little faster, much smoother, less unintentional interference and cheap goals) and presentation. The game lost it’s official NHL license that year, but managed to disguise it pretty well with the old trick of using city names and team colors in lieu of team names and logos (other than on the title screen, where the goalie’s blank, beer-league-worthy jersey is kind of hard not to notice). Instead, the game has the license from the players association, meaning that for the first time in a hockey video game, real-life NHL players had their names in the game. As an added bonus, this meant the box could have pictures of star players like Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and, uh, Rick Tocchet. Sure, why not?

tocchet

In the game cover’s defense, Rick Tocchet was like the 4th or 5th most famous player on the Penguins that year.

While not as drastically improved from NHLPA ‘93 as that game was to the original, NHL ‘94 stands out for many as the high point of the series. With most of the major work already out of the way, the developer was freed up to improve upon the game’s core, making numerous subtle refinements to the gameplay. Once again, the game got a bit faster, the control became a bit better, the AI finally started to resemble the behavior of actual hockey players, and the goaltending was improved. The big new feature that year was the inclusion of one-timers, which for non-hockey fans, is a play where one player passes to a teammate, and instead of stopping it and skating with it, the receiving player just shoots the puck immediately. This is the play that most NHL teams spend their powerplay trying to set up, except for the Buffalo Sabres who, in keeping with a team tradition dating back to the 1980s, prefer to spend their time with the man advantage turning the puck over and listening to their own fans boo them.

There are those who claim the series took a step backward the next year in NHL ‘95, but having played the two games back to back, I don’t see it. The differences are pretty minor, but not in any way negative. Still, having refined NHL ‘94’s gameplay to a blissful, near-perfect experience, there wasn’t much left to do for NHL ‘95 but add features. So we finally got player creation, trades, and most importantly, a season mode. In fact, we got one of the best season modes ever seen in a sports video game.

NHL 95002

The thing I love about NHL ‘95’s season mode, the thing that hardly any other sports game gets right, is that, if you’re so inclined, you can play every single game, for every team. This means that if you and a friend each want to choose a team and play in the same league together, you can do so. Or you could play through as 5 or 6 teams if you wanted. Or if you’re playing as the Boston Bruins (maybe you have brain damage or something), but happen to see a particularly intriguing Chicago/Detroit matchup you’d like to play, you can. Just as importantly, the interface is clean and easy to use. Far too many games, even today, lock you into picking just one team and only being able to play their games. And even the ones that do let you play as multiple teams are set up in such a way that it becomes a nightmare. You could jump into NHL 13’s season mode (if you can find it buried near the bottom of the menus) and take control of multiple teams. But it’s such a mess that you won’t want to.

There’s just one problem with this – NHL ‘95 is notorious for losing save games. Rumor is there was a batch of bad batteries that went into the games, but I’ve had no luck even after replacing the batteries (yes, this is the kind of love the game inspires, I bought a 2nd copy, tore the cartridge open, and replaced the battery), so it might have been some other kind of glitch. Or maybe it’s just one of hockey’s great injustices. Tampa Bay won a Stanley Cup. People in Quebec supported the Nordiques like crazy and they still moved to Denver.  NHL ‘95 has an awesome season mode, but won’t save. Things don’t always work out the way they ought to. All I know is that I’m starting to wonder what would happen if I left a Sega Genesis running for eight weeks or so.

NHL 92000

Bad things. Bad things would happen.

So, we started out with the NHL Hockey, the first ever game with an NHL license, but no player names, then the next year NHLPA ‘93 gave us the player names but lost the league license. The year after that we got both team and players names (another historical first) for NHL ‘94, but still no season mode. NHL ‘95 had a season mode, but the damn game wouldn’t hold your save. Along the way, the gameplay evolved from excellent to near-perfect. So NHL ‘96 is the year everything finally came together and we finally got the perfect sports game, right? Well…

The best sports stories are always the tragedies. Those are the ones that really affect you emotionally, and stick with you until the end of time. Not the US Olympic Hockey Team winning gold in 1980, but Vancouver Canucks in 1994, coming out of 7th place to get within a game – within minutes, actually – of winning the Cup before falling to the Rangers, a big-spending team that everyone had known was going to win before the season even started. It’s those ‘91 Minnesota North Stars that we saw in the picture at the beginning of this article, fighting their way through every powerhouse team in the Campbell Conference, only to get destroyed by the Penguins. It’s the state of Connecticut doing everything that was asked of them to keep their team, and having the Whalers move to Carolina anyway; and it’s the 2006 Buffalo Sabres putting together the best team in their franchise’s history, but losing nearly all their defensemen to injury by Game 7 of the Conference Finals and finally succumbing to those same Carolina Hurricanes.

NHL 95008

Seriously, fuck the Carolina Hurricanes.

And so it is with NHL ‘96. It’s hard to fault EA, really. There was nowhere else to go, by this point the NHL series had gotten as good as it possibly was going to get and the only thing that could possibly make it better was to start over with a new engine. Bold move on their part – it would have been easier to have just done a roster update and watched the money roll in. But the resulting game was… broken. Not broken in the sense that, say, Gargoyles is broken, in that you can barely play it. But broken as in, hey you broke my NHL ‘95, and now it’s something less than what it had been.

NHL 97 (USA, Europe)002Is NHL ‘96 a terrible game? No. In a vacuum, it’s decent enough, and if you go to the used game store and it’s the only hockey game you can find… well first of all, seriously? Old sports games are like loose change – they just turn up everywhere, even in places where it makes no sense for them to be. I could probably go to an retro game store in the Deep South and still find a few copies of NHL ‘94. Nobody would know who bought them, how they got there, or even what hockey is, yet they’d be there. But anyway, if you go to this theoretical game store and all they have is NHL ‘96, yes, go ahead and get a copy. It’s fun. Just not nearly as much fun as the games that came before it. The control is loose, the game speed isn’t right, and the whole thing just feels off.

NHL 95000

A valiant effort was made with to improve things for NHL ‘97, and a lot of the problems from the year before are… well, not better, but less bad. It’s still not as good as the games from earlier in the series, but at least the gap is narrower. Of course, by the point, people were leaving their Genesis for the PSX, so this effort was largely unappreciated. Oddly enough, NHL ‘98 seems to have taken two steps backward, as though the people making it ignored the improvements in NHL ‘97, played a copy of ‘96 instead, and then said “Ok, now how can we make this worse?” It’s just as well that not many copies of this game were made, because the only enjoyment to be gotten out of it is as a collector’s item.

Hey, speaking of that…

Availability: Well, the NHL series is still going strong, so you could buy the latest entry in the series for either the PS3 or Xbox 360. But those games are drastically different than their Genesis counterparts, which you’ll need a Genesis to play. EA has teased the idea of re-releasing NHL ‘94 as bonus content on one of their new NHL games a few times, but it’s never come to pass. I keep hoping someday EA comes to their senses and just makes an XBLA or PSN game that’s basically NHL ‘95 except with today’s teams and players, but so far I seem to be the only person who likes that idea.

NHL Hockey (USA)005

Getting your hands on one of the Genesis games shouldn’t be a problem, though. I have a copy of every single game from this series, all boxed, with instructions, each one in nice shape, and it’s the pride of my Genesis collection. Combined, the whole thing probably cost less than my copies of Warsong or Castlevania: Bloodlines. Admittedly, when I bought them, I lived in Buffalo, which is basically a suburb of Canada. Finding a copy of an old hockey video game in Buffalo is like finding a person wearing pajama pants in public in Buffalo. You could go into pretty much any used game store and see stacks of them (the games I mean… well, no, actually that statement applies to both).

But even if you don’t live in hockey country, these shouldn’t be too hard to find, NHL '94 (USA, Europe)002and probably not that expensive. Like I said earlier, old sports games are everywhere. And if you can’t find them at a game store, they’ll definitely be online. Probably for less than a dollar. In fact, you’re actually better off buying them at a store rather than buying them online, because the shipping will likely cost more than the games.

The only game from this series that is rare and expensive is NHL ‘98, which is a blight on the series anyway, and you should only buy it if you’re a collector.

Note: of all the games in this series, these were the editor’s personal favorites:
Brad: NHL ‘95
Stryker: NHL ‘94
Mr. Do!: NHL Hockey (original)

Warsong

Warsong084Grade: A+
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 3rd
Publisher: Treco
Year: 1991
Genre: Strategy/Mermaid/RPG

warquotes

What is it that is so appealing about turn based strategy games? It is the uncertainty of moving your troops around the battlefield without knowing how your opponent will react? The thrill that comes when the tide of battle turns and you suddenly pour through the enemy defenses like a tidal wave of ass-kickery? Or just the excitement of watching one of your generals ride his crocodile into battle, mowing down hordes of attacking luchadores?

Warsong003

Wait, what?

I guess this is a good time to tell you that Warsong is completely nuts. And I don’t mean that in the same way Shining Force was, where they let you have a werewolf and a Terminator on your team. Warsong is totally off it’s rocker. One of the units you get early on is a Crocodile Knight, which is exactly what it sounds like, and with enough experience, he can be upgraded to a Serpent Knight. Though I suspect that’s a mistranslation, because the guy’s clearly riding a plesiosaur. And that’s just one type one of two options for having a character riding a dinosaur into battle.

Warsong010Which is just the tip of this game’s ultra madness. Sure, the usual fantasy staples – knights, dragons, slimes, werewolves – are there, but there’s also Easter Island heads, giant ants, and some really pissed off sea shells. One battle late in the game seems to have been inspired by Godzilla movies. Fortunately on your side, you have the aforementioned dinosaur knights, and a priestess who tosses around crucifixes like throwing stars (I like to imagine her yelling “the power of the cross compels you… to die!” as she does this) and isn’t afraid to shoot her enemies in the back with them. Level her up enough, and she becomes an Egyptian Pharoh who annihilates her enemies with lightning bolts.

Unless you’re paying close attention though, a lot of this madness might actually go unnoticed. A heroic effort went into translating the game in a way that downplays its more bizarre elements. Mexican wrestlers becomes “bandits”, and our lighting infused Pharoh is simply called a “Saint”. The end result doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but it’s hard to say for sure whether it was poorly translated, or if it was just impossible to weave a coherent storyline out of nothing but sheer insanity.

Warsong079

Still, it would be unfair to characterize Warsong as a game that waltzed onto our Top 3 based solely on the appeal of its craziness alone. This is one of the deepest tactical strategy games we’ve ever played on a console. Where the game differentiates itself from similar titles such as Shining Force or Disgaea is that in addition to the main characters that you take into battle, each of those characters is allowed to have up to 8 support units. On top of that, each type of unit has it’s own strengths and weaknesses against other types of infantry, and is affected by the terrain as well. Cavalry charging out of a forest to attack foot soldiers will slaughter them to the last man; but against archers sitting atop cliffs, it quickly turns into a recreation of the Charge of the Light Brigrade.

On top of that, units suffer a dramatic decrease in abilities if they are too far away from their commander. This applies to your enemies as well, because even monsters can benefit from a little bit of leadership. You kind of have to wonder just how effective a commander a slime is though, especially since they seem to choose which one is the leader based solely on color.

Warsong046

Slimes are notorious racists, and their entire military is set up under an apartheid system, with the minority pink slimes ruling over the green majority.

That might sound like a lot to keep track of, but the game makes it easier by doing a nice job of displaying most of the relevant info for you and, more importantly, by putting you up against an enemy AI that doesn’t understand this stuff at all. The computer rigidly follows a few simple rules – always heal units when they get below a certain strength, attack the units with the lowest number of troops in remaining first, never ever move troops out of the range of their commanders, etc. And while these are all good guidelines in general, they don’t always account for additional complications, such as terrain/troops matchups or “hey, we just did that and it totally didn’t work.”

Here’s a perfect example – let’s say the enemy commander, El Diablo Rojo, has a group of 8 mexican wrestlers, and your own commander is sitting atop a wall in front of a large body of water, with some archers. Attacking ranged units firing from an elevated position with non-aquatic units standing in water is a suicide matchup, and if the situation were reversed, your best bet would be to try to create a more favorable situation by luring the luchadores to some sort of ambush point. But the AI isn’t that bright, so it sends its first wave of troops to fight your archers. The wrestlers thrash around in the water ineffectively and yell various insulting things at your archers in a feeble attempt to at least hurt their feelings while being murdered by arrows. This outcome is utterly baffling to El Diablo Rojo, who then sends unit after unit to the same fate. By the time his turn is over, all the wrestlers are floating dead in the water and the only thing he has to show for it is a dramatic decrease in interest in the town’s annual swim meet.

Warsong047

Somebody go get a pool skimmer.

This simplistic AI might seem like a problem, but it actually helps emphasize the value of strategy. Your opponents will frequently have advantages in numbers and strength, but they’re also predictable, uncreative, and not knowledgeable about how to get the most out of his troops. By relying on superior tactics, you can divide their strength, lure units into traps, and create favorable matchups for yourself. It’s a triumph of your strategy over their brute force, and while outsmarting a dim AI like this might not seem like a major achievement, the scales are generally tilted so far in its favor that you will be facing a lot of tough decisions along the way.

In fact the stakes are significantly higher in Warsong for two reasons. First, if a character dies, that’s it – they’re gone for the rest of the game. Second, experience is pretty limited – there are a finite number of enemies, and you can’t go back and replay battles in order to gain extra levels. Not only that, but killing an enemy leader automatically wipes out all his troops, but you don’t get any XP for troops eliminated this way. So there’s definitely an incentive to try to maximize experience by killing your enemies down to the last man, even though this tactic does tend to put your generals at more risk of being killed and lost for the remainder of the game. This is especially tricky because quite often, your Warsong015troops will fall victim to attrition throughout the course of the battle and late in the fight it will be up to characters to fend off wave after wave of troops all by themselves. Which most of the time they are perfectly capable of. Even so, it’s really hard to simply trust in their abilities and let one of your generals be the middle layer of a “hey let’s kill this guy” sandwich, while you sit back, hope for the best, and think about how long it will take to replay this damned battle again if he gets killed.

Warsong game doesn’t mess around, either. Press the start button and you get a quick introduction screen. Then it’s right to battle, and you’re getting your ass kicked. In fact, you basically spend the first few battles desperately running for your lives – the second battle teams you up with Mina, who eventually becomes St. Here’s Some Fucking Lightning Up Your Ass, but at this point she’s much weaker, being controlled by the computer, and has a deathwish. Also, her “troops” appear to be 10 year old girls that are quickly and mercilessly wiped out. Your job is to keep her alive. It will take a ingenious combination of strategy and foul language to pull that off. Around the halfway point, the game laughs at your silly notion of keeping your commanders alive at all costs, and throws you into a battle where your army is split in two, with your weaker generals surrounded by powerful enemies. I’m still not sure how I got through that battle without casualties, but I think it involved a lot of yelling and making the actual game cartridge genuinely believe that I was going to destroy it if it didn’t let me win.

Warsong035

Pictured: Me in real life.

One nice touch is that is each skirmish is accompanied by a brief cutscene that accurately illustrates what’s happening in the fight, including troop numbers, terrain, and if one side has the first attack. For example, if a group of eight archers on flat land attack ten cavalry units in a forest, you’ll actually see a scene with 10 mounted units rushing out of the woods under fire from eight bowman, with the ones that survive that barrage cutting down a few archers before returning to the trees. Besides giving you something fun to watch, it’s a very effective way of really understanding what’s going on in the battle and why. Besides, what’s the point of having a guy on a dragon fight a group of Easter Island heads, if you don’t actually get to watch it happen?

Warsong060

If this was a real thing, it’d be bigger than the Super Bowl.

In addition to all that, there are some other small details that contribute to Warsong’s appeal. If a battle takes place in a town, it actually takes place in a town – you can hide troops in buildings, set up choke points at the city walls, or prevent attacks on your flank  by lining up alongside a wall. This adds some variety, opens up a bit more strategy, and lends a much-needed feeling of believability to a game where priests occasionally fight giant ants. And though the game doesn’t give you much in the way of spare characters (because that would undermine the additional difficulty that comes from losing them), they can be promoted to different classes, which encourages replay so that you can go back and see how they turn out if you took them down a different path.

Warsong064

Though, much like real life, any career path that doesn’t end with them riding a dinosaur is going to be a little bit of a letdown.

Availability: Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that if you live in Japan, Warsong (which is known as Langrisser) has been a part of a few re-releases, and is available on both the Wii’s Virtual Console and on PSN (most of time when you see something available on the VC and PSN, but not Xbox Live Arcade, it means “only in Japan”). Langrisser is actually the first of a popular series, so you have a bunch of sequels to play, also. I haven’t tried them but I’ve heard several of them are very good. So that’s pretty awesome.

The bad news is that if you live in Japan, probably half of the jokes in this article didn’t make any sense, so, uh, sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, most Americans don’t think I’m that funny anyway.

Warsong082

I really need to start more sentences with “Listen to me, stupid human beings”

The other bad news is that if you live in the US, your options for playing Warsong are a lot more limited. Basically, you have two options – get a Genesis copy, or don’t play it. Or move to Japan, I guess. That seems kind of extreme though, and while Genesis copies are rare and kind of pricey, it’s still cheaper than  moving to Japan. Copies online typically go in the $30-40 range, and can get even higher at times. A little footwork might save you some money though – two years ago I bought my own copy (box, no instructions) at a flea market, from a reputable vendor for $20. So maybe shop around a little.

What’s even worse is that almost all of the games I would recommend as substitutes are also expensive. Apparently not too many people like these types of games, because almost all of them are super-rare. Dragon Force for Saturn? Don’t even kid yourself. Any of the Fire Emblem games? Some are cheaper, but not much.

Warsong041

That still doesn’t justify jumping off a castle, though. Get a grip, man.

Anyway, it’s not for me to tell you how to spend your money, and for some of you, I’m sure it might be worth the expense. And if not, well, you’ll probably be able to resell it and recover your investment, anyway. Just know that this one’s hard to get, expensive compared to other Genesis games, and there aren’t any suitable alternatives.

Hmmm, now I feel a little bit bad for telling all of you how awesome this game is.