Last week, we celebrated the imminent arrival of NHL 17 by taking a look back at five classic but obscure hockey video games. I heard from plenty of readers who had fond memories of those five titles. But I also heard from others who had favorites titles of their own, and were upset that the games they’d grown up playing hadn’t earned a mention. So this week, I think we need to do a sequel, and break out five more classics.
But first, a quick note. Based on the feedback from last week’s post, more than a few readers appeared to miss the whole “obscure” qualifier – I heard from fans of games like Blades of Steel or Ice Hockey, and even a few who wanted to know why NHL 94 didn’t make the list. First of all, because NHLPA 93 was better. But more importantly, if those iconic games count as obscure these days then I don’t want to live on this planet any more. We’re looking to recognize a few titles that aren’t quite as well-remembered today.
With that cleared up, here are five more classic hockey games that you may or may not remember from distant days long past.
The game: Face Off! (1989)
The selling point: Take the management mode from Superstar Ice Hockey and combine it with the fighting engine from Blades of Steel, and you’ve got Face Off! And yes, the exclamation mark was part of the title.
The minor flaw: The movie adaptation with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta barely had any hockey in it at all.
Overall experience: Face Off! was an ambitious game that set out to do a little bit of everything, combining a franchise mode and in-game strategizing with arcade-style action and plenty of scraps. It didn’t end up knocking any of those features out of the park, but you have to give it credit for even trying given how one-dimensional most games of the era were.
The gameplay itself was largely hit-and-miss; the graphics were nice but the AI was spotty, and the unique way the game handled shooting – any good scoring chance would open a new screen with a different view of the shooter and goaltender – was one that you either loved or hated. And then there were the fights, in which two players would drop the gloves, hurl an insult or two, and then proceed to gingerly paw at each other like old men playing “got your nose” with a toddler until one of them suddenly dropped to the ice bloodied and unconscious, soon to be dragged off the ice while the victor skated around celebrating. It’s fair to say that approach hasn’t aged well.
Lingering question: What was going through the mind of the one old man in the third row who watched every fight with a horrified look on his face?
The game: Hit the Ice (1990)
The selling point: It’s arcade hockey, as imagined by people who have heard about the sport but never actually seen it.
The minor flaw: The game’s insistence that players spend an extra quarter to purchase a dose of “Power Drink” led directly to professional sport’s steroid era.
Overall experience: The best thing you can say about Hit the Ice is that it knew what it was. The game has no interest in realism, a fact that you probably figured out the first time a player executed a leaping backflip before blasting a shot the knocked the goaltender into the net. The whole thing was cartoonish and more than a little ridiculous.
It was also undeniably fun, which of course was the whole point. If you saw players wearing sun glasses and headbands and still dropped coins into the machine expecting realism, then that was on you. I mean, one of the players is named “Ben Dover.” That gives you a pretty good sense of the level of maturity we’re dealing with here.
(The player selection screen music was fantastic, though. Wh-wh-wh-why I oughtta… )
Lingering question: What’s the deal with the ghost in the crowd?
The game: NHL Stanley Cup (1993)
The selling point: Do you enjoy spinning? Yeah, we’re kind of going to need you to enjoy spinning.
The minor flaw: Nintendo’s long-awaited entry into the NHL-licensed hockey market featured fast-paced action in a quasi-3D environment. But it came out a few weeks after NHL 94, so barely anybody noticed.
Overall experience: Did we mention the spinning? Yeah, this was basically the NHL if every game took place in a centrifuge. If you could get used to that, you were left with a game that had some potential and was at least trying to break some new ground. But the frantic camera work combined with the lack of an NHLPA license (which meant no player names) combined to make this a tough game to get into. Under ordinary circumstances, you might have stuck it out and eventually been rewarded. But if your best friend had just got NHL 94, well, it was game over.
Lingering question: Is this faceoff in the neutral zone? I can’t quite tell, maybe you should make it all caps and blinking just to be sure.
The game: NHL All-Star Hockey ’95 (1995)
The selling point: By 1995, EA Sports had firmly established their dominance over the console hockey game market with the NHL series. Sega’s attempt to challenge the reigning king was a look-alike that wasn’t anywhere near as fun. But it did have one major feature that got fans attention. After NHL 94 had infuriated hockey fans and movie characters alike by removing the fighting (allegedly at the league’s insistence), NHL All-Star Hockey ’95 brought it back. And they weren’t fooling around.
The minor flaw: Your NHL 94 fight withdrawal was so strong that once you figured out how to start one whenever you wanted – stick check to the legs in the neutral zone, kids – you’d just do that all the time instead of playing the actual game.
Overall experience: It’s not that the game wasn’t fun. It was. It’s just that it wasn’t as much fun as NHL 95, which everyone had already played to death by the time All-Star Hockey arrived on the scene. If you’re going to come at the king, you best not miss, and All-Star Hockey just didn’t get the job done. The players all skated a little too upright, the puck bounced around a little too randomly, and the thing with the goalie slamming his stick on the goal post got old once you realized it was going to happen on literally every goal that was scored. Once we found out fighting was coming back for NHL 96, there was no longer any need to own All-Star Hockey.
Make no mistake: If this was the game that got fighting back into the NHL series, then it deserves a place in every hockey fan’s heart. Just not on their shelf.
Lingering question: How is that not one person in the development process put their hand up and said “actually guys, I’m pretty sure that in hockey they give out two assists on goals”?
The game: NHL Hitz (2001 to 2003)
The selling point: It’s hockey, but with a lot of hits. And we even spelled hits with a “z”, because we don’t play by your rules, man.
The minor flaw: As per hockey video game law, the one-timer was way overpowered. If you could execute one on a stretch pass breakaway, it would work almost every time.
Overall experience: The first two editions of Hitz weren’t exactly aiming for realism, featuring frantic 3-on-3 action that could include games being played outdoors. But while nobody would mistake the game for an authentic pro hockey experience, it featured a surprisingly well-balanced experience; games between two evenly matched players could be downright tense. And as the name would suggest, there were also plenty of big hits and more than a few scraps. The game also included alternate jerseys, which was great because if your friends were Senators fans you could offer to set the game up and then stick with them with those horrible barber pole outfits and watch them freak out when the game started. Um, or so I’ve been told.
The third edition, retitled NHL Hitz Pro, moved to 5-on-5 action and seemed to half-heartedly aim for a more realistic experience. But that wasn’t what players wanted, and Pro ended up being the last of the series.
Lingering question: As a reader pointed out, a game called Hitz went from featuring legendary hitter Scott Stevens on the cover to legendary hitter Chris Pronger to… Nicklas Lidstrom? Who was on tap for a 2004 version, Alexander Semin nuzzling a kitten?