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